ITU Forecast: Stormy Weather

Ken Salaets photo

Sessions of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) have historically been non-political.  There have always been differences among Member States, but, for the most part, disagreements were resolved in a manner that enabled the parties to maintain an emphasis on consensus and collegiality.  According to some long-time ITU participants, however, December’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) was a paradigm shift, marked by tense exchanges and intractable positions that make achieving a workable solution a much greater challenge.

The change in tone has sparked a new sense of urgency among Department of State professionals and other government and industry stakeholders.  Accordingly, we are working together to identify common goals and strategies as the next series of ITU conferences and workshops begins this week in Geneva.  Ultimately, we hope to avoid the significant risks to what has long been the foundation of the global Internet structure -- multi-stakeholder Internet governance, a free and open Internet, and industry-led, voluntary ICT standardization. 

To achieve our goals, the United States needs to actively engage other countries involved in the ITU to help them better understand the adverse consequences that likely would accompany changes to Internet governance.  At the same time, we will need to build alliances with like-minded national delegations to counter the aggressive ambitions of certain Member States, which have made clear their strong desire to fundamentally alter management of the Internet. 

A looming challenge facing the United States and our allies is the 2014 ITU Plenipotentiary (Plenipot) meeting, scheduled for October of next year in Busan, South Korea.  Traditionally at such meetings, revisions are proposed on the ITU constitution and other governing documents.  The State Department anticipates that such proposals will be introduced at Busan.  There is, however, a potentially new and troubling development.

 A mere revision of the ITU constitution by the Plenipot would have no bearing on the status of the recently revised International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs).  In other words, countries such as the United States that did not accept the revised ITRs would still have no obligation to comply with them.  If, however, a new constitution is tabled and approved by the Plenipot, ITU Member States would be obligated to accede to the revised ITRs.  U.S. officials are reporting that some Member States, supported by ITU staff, are in fact arguing for a vote on a new constitution in Busan.  Further, the State Department anticipates the introduction of a new ITU constitutional provision that would in effect “kick out” Member States that do not vote in favor of a new (or perhaps even revised) constitution.  This would significantly hamper our efforts to protect the neutral, multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance, among other things. 

The U.S. government is working vigorously to resist both these developments.  It requires the support of two-thirds of eligible Member States to approve a new or revised constitution.  Accordingly, proponents would only need to secure the support of another 8-10 countries more than what signed the revised ITRs at WCIT.  An immense amount of work needs to take place between now and October 2014 to expand and solidify support for the U.S. position.  To quote Ambassador Mickey Gardner, chairman of the U.S. Telecommunication Training Institute and former head of U.S. engagement at the ITU, “We need to start today.”

ITI is exploring the possibility of inviting a few, select developing countries in Africa to join us on a project to identify and address in-country gaps in standards development, conformity assessments, and other technical skill sets.  The hope is that, if we can create an alternative to the ITU that empowers these countries to address key technical needs, the United States will be in a much better position to solicit their help on other key issues at the ITU. The ITI Standardization Policy Committee will be reviewing a proposal at its meeting on May 30-31.  Let me know if you would like more information on this initiative or would like to suggest other ideas for engaging developing countries.

We need to, and are, starting today.

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