Navigating the ITU: Charting the paths forward for civil society

Digital 6 min read
ARTICLE 19
Navigating the ITU: Charting the paths forward for civil society - Digital

ITU Headquarters, Geneva © ITU / V. Martin

Last month, ARTICLE 19 participated at the 2017 Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Geneva, Switzerland. There, stakeholders from across civil society, the public sector, industry, and academia joined together to reflect on the latest theme: “Shape Your Digital Future!” In response, the focus of the workshops ranged from artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT) to cybersecurity and media freedom. But the IGF also presented the opportunity to reflect on a slightly less familiar, yet pressing subject: The International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Many of the technologies and trends that gripped the attention of the IGF have become major flashpoints within the ITU during its current study period. And as the ITU looks forward to its quadrennial Plenipotentiary Conference taking place later this year, it’s clear that the future of the ITU will undoubtedly shape the future of the Internet—and, in turn, human rights online.

Over the past year, we’ve written extensively about the ITU while following and participating in its decision-making processes. We’ve raised our concerns regarding the ongoing discussions in the ITU-T, and specifically in response to its work on device identification and IoT. We’ve also cautioned against the ITU’s growing interest in so-called over-the-top (OTT) services and explained how the persistent drive to discuss privacy in the ITU-D and other sectors actually threatens the rights of Internet users. In every case, we’ve reiterated the same fundamental point: increasingly, the ITU is bloating its mandate to expand further into Internet policy and standards development.

This is a dangerous dynamic, because it’s clear from the examples above that the ITU’s efforts to expand its mandate have led it to work on Internet-related issues that have major implications for human rights online. However, the multilateral structure of the ITU renders it a space that bends to the interests of few but powerful governments, or Member States, without sufficient mechanisms for openness or transparency. And so emerges the catch-22: civil society should participate in ITU processes, leveraging its expertise in human rights to scrutinize and participate in ITU decision-making; however, the very structure of the ITU alienates non-state stakeholders—especially civil society—from this decision-making altogether.

As a result, interested civil society stakeholders face two interrelated problems. Newcomers to the ITU are unsure of how, exactly, to overcome the existing barriers to meaningfully engage in this space. At the same time, there is little information available that civil society can draw from to learn how to do so.

And yet, civil society engagement at the ITU has never been more important. The upcoming Plenipotentiary Conference (PP-18) is the highest convening body of the ITU, and its outcomes will set the agenda for the entire organization, including its three sectors, for the following four-year study period. In particular, we expect that the issues of concern we’ve noted so far in the ITU-T and ITU-D will become major flashpoints during the Plenipotentiary negotiations. The conclusions of these negotiations will determine the trajectory of policy and standards development on issues that will in turn impact the future of the Internet as a global civic space.

In response to these mounting challenges, ARTICLE 19 is launching Navigating the ITU, a series of briefs designed to be a resource for civil society stakeholders that are interested in engaging in ITU processes. The series seeks to demystify the structure and decision-making of the ITU, and to answer many of the same questions that we confronted when we first began engaging in this space ourselves. The series will include in-depth introductions to ITU sectors and important study groups, as well as targeted overviews of key underlying trends.

To kick off the series, we’re introducing Navigating the ITU: Four Routes for Civil Society Engagement. Here, we identify and explore some of the major opportunities that civil society can leverage to enter the ITU and follow internal developments despite its opacity and multilateralism.

We’ll continue to update the series with more installments as we head towards PP-18 in November. It’s crucial that civil society is actively engaged in Plenipotentiary processes. However, this alone is not sufficient for meaningful engagement. Civil society must continue to participate, coordinate, and share information beyond the Conference itself—not only focusing on the agenda of the next study period, but also the future work that is carried out as a result. We hope that the Navigating the ITU series will serve as a useful resource for all civil society stakeholders interested in further engagement, so that our digital future is indeed one in which human rights are protected and enabled.

For more information on how to get involved in the ITU, contact ARTICLE 19 Digital Programme Officer Mehwish Ansari at [email protected].

Read the brief