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Navigating the ITU: Breaking down the roadblocks to accessing information.

Although International Right to Know Day is behind us, there remains a need to discuss issues of access to information held in particular by public bodies, including international organisations. For this reason, the next installment of ARTICLE 19’s Navigating the ITU series presents an analysis of the International Telecommunication Union’s recently passed Information/Document Access Policy.

The first briefing in the Navigating the ITU series explained ways for civil society stakeholders to become more involved in ITU processes despite its high structural barriers to participation. Yet one of the major obstacles to scrutinising ITU’s decision-making remains a systemic lack of transparency, as the ITU places heavy restrictions on access to a staggering range of documents. Not only is civil society directly and indirectly barred from participating in the ITU’s decision-making, it is nearly impossible to discern how these decisions are being made from the outside.

Organisations in the UN system, including the ITU, are increasingly playing a role in the design, development, and deployment of Internet technologies around the world. Considering their perceived value as diplomatic and political spaces and influence on government approaches to these issues, the public’s right to information on decision-making is critical to ensuring that the global Internet infrastructure protects human rights and reflects the public interest.

For example, the World Bank has participated in numerous ICT infrastructural development projects focused on increasing connectivity in countries in the Global South. Its role as a coordinator, investor, and advisor in these projects makes it an unparalleled source of information on the state of the global Internet infrastructure. Thanks to its current access policy, launched in 2010, the public can gain access to this information. So far, public requests to the World Bank regarding these projects have yielded raw datasets, project and operational files including internal and interim reports, and archival files. This information sheds light on what technologies are being procured by governments for public infrastructure, where foreign direct investment (FDI) from China and other states are focused, and how technologies are implemented in public spaces. Access to internal, interim, and raw information like this can have a critical impact on the public’s ability to hold decision-makers accountable. This is especially pertinent in the era of data-driven smart cities, the export of surveillance technologies, and the indelible impact that civic space infrastructure has on people’s rights to privacy, freedoms of expression and association, education, health, and other human rights.

Similarly, the ITU develops technical standards for many technologies that are ultimately exported and deployed around the world as part of this public infrastructure, from intelligent transportation systems to smart street lights. Yet, unlike the World Bank policy, the ITU’s Information/Document Access Policy does not permit access to similar internal working documents. Furthermore, the policy places overbroad exemptions on access and gives its Members unilateral powers of discretion. As a result, the policy may allow for even greater restrictions to accessing information than before.

Navigating the ITU: Roadblocks to Accessing Information delves deeper into these issues and offers recommendations that the ITU and its membership should consider to reform the policy. Although the ITU’s Information/Document Access Policy is flawed, it remains one of the only ways for civil society to engage with the ITU as non-members. Civil society should actively submit requests for information about its decision-making processes, even as we include access policy reform as one of the key parts of our agenda around the ITU.

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 here.