Concerns that the International Telecommunication Union [ITU] could reshape the Internet as we know it during its conference in December struck a chord with the group’s Secretary General Hamadoun Touré, who on Wednesday proposed opening the drafting process of an upcoming telecommunications treaty to public consultation.
From June 20-22 an ITU working group in Geneva, Switzerland, will plan the agenda for the December World Conference on Telecommunications [WCIT], when 193 member states of the United Nation’s ITU will gather in Dubai to discuss whether, and how, to regulate the Internet. The ITU currently regulates telephones and satellite orbits.
The nine page International Telecommunications Regulations [ITRs] have not been revised since 1988, and do not include Internet governance provisions. This concerns members in business, politics and civil society, particularly in the West, that increased regulation could not only put Internet freedoms at risk but disturb the hands-off approach that made it an economic success through permissionless innovation
The ITU faces criticism for keeping its documents and processes eyes-only for member nations, and U.S. Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell said even after non-Member States organizations pay $35,000 it is still difficult to arrange access to documents.
“You kind of have to know somebody. And I’m a member of the U.S. government the last time I checked,” FCC Commissioner McDowell said during a May 31 hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.
On Wednesday that House subcommittee unanimously passed a resolution introduced by Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) opposing proposals to expand the United Nations’ Internet governance authority. The resolution now moves for a vote before the full House.
Seeking more transparency a site called WCIT Leaks published internal ITU documents, such as a document entitled TD-62 which includes all the WCIT proposals emerging from the ITU Council Working Group. Proposals by states such as Russia and China would give governments oversight for information and communications technology [ICT] infrastructure in their territories or greater influence on tech companies working in their country.
In response to this criticism Touré opened Wednesday’s conference endorsing a letter sent by civil society groups, which called for public discussion of the WCIT process and public access to drafts of the ITRs before Member States vote on a new treaty. An excerpt of his announcement follows below and his full speech can be found online.
It has come as a surprise – and I have to say as a great disappointment – to see that some of those who have had access to proposals presented to this working group have gone on to publicly mis-state or distort them in public forums, sometimes to the point of caricature.
These distortions and mis-statements could be found plausible by credulous members of the public, and could even be used to influence national parliaments, given that the documents themselves are not officially available – in spite of recent developments, including the leaking of Document TD 64.
As many of you surely know, a group of civil society organizations has written to me to request public access to the proposals under discussion.
I would therefore be grateful if you could consider this matter carefully, as I intend to make a recommendation to the forthcoming session of Council regarding open access to these documents, and in particular future versions of TD 64.
I would also be grateful if you would consider the opportunity of conducting an open consultation regarding the ITRs. I also intend to make a recommendation to Council in this regard as well.
Comparing the upcoming WCIT to the last revision of the ITRs in 1988, Touré observed there were similar concerns then about controlling telephones and satellites, stating “1988 set the stage for the information society. And 2012 will set the stage for the knowledge society!”
Members of the ITU previously said the upcoming WCIT was not focused on expanding governance over the Internet from the existing multi-stakeholder model, but intended to address the rapid growth of data use and how communications infrastructure might adapt to meet the demand.
The current process delegates Internet oversight to non-governmental organizations such as the nonprofit International Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is based in California. Infrastructure changes set by the ITU in 1988 enabled the Internet to grow with standards for end-user access equipment such as modems, standards for security to combat unwanted spam messages, standards to develop fiber optics and radio frequencies used to implement WiFi signals.
In his speech Touré stated the need to support investment and expansion of broadband, while recognizing the importance of liberalization and privatization. He went on to explain what potential changes could be made to the ITRs.
Firstly, there has been fairly widespread comment stating that WCIT may set barriers to the free flow of information.
In article 33 of the ITU’s Constitution, however, Member States recognize the right of the public to correspond by means of the international service of public correspondence.
And the ITRs cannot contradict that provision.
It is true nonetheless that all countries impose some restrictions on various forms of speech, including telecommunications – for example to protect copyright owners and to prevent defamation.
Some countries go further and restrict the use of telecommunications for areas such as pornography, gambling, hate speech, negation of genocide, and even certain types of political speech.
Such restrictions are permitted by article 34 of the ITU’s Constitution, which provides that Member States reserve the right to cut off, in accordance with their national law, any private telecommunications which may appear dangerous to the security of the State, or contrary to its laws, to public order or to decency.
And the ITRs cannot contradict that provision, either.
Also on Wednesday in Geneva, the Internet Freedom Fellows met to discuss the need for a free and open Internet at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva. The program’s events run from June 19-29, as part of the 20th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which runs until July 6.
A video of the panel discussion will be posted soon here.
Launched in 2011 by the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, the Internet Freedom Fellows program’s human rights activists from across the globe will meet with other activists, international government leaders, and members of civil society and the private sector engaged in technology and human rights. A key focus of the program is the role of a free Internet in promoting freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.
Along with following ITU news via Twitter on #WCIT,#netgovernance, or #ITU, you can follow Internet Freedom Fellows at #iffjam2012 and #freedomfellows. And of course, please subscribe to @Netizenproject