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ITU Continues Grab for Internet Governance

Proponents of a more activist, broader-reaching International Telecommunication Union (ITU) are continuing their campaign to take that international body into inappropriate territory.  As you recall, there were multiple proposals tabled at last December’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) that addressed an array of topics, including Internet governance, spam, and standardization of information and communications technology (ICT).  The United States and its allies argued that such topics were inappropriate for inclusion in the International Telecommunication Regulations, which historically only address traditional telecom issues such as global interconnection rules and tariffs.  Although most of the problematic proposals were set aside, trouble is brewing again.

 Two of the most recent examples are contained in a pair of “Draft Opinions” that will be taken up, along with other “Opinions,” at the forthcoming ITU World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum, set to convene May 14-16 in Geneva.  Note that this is probably the first time “ICT” has been incorporated into this conference’s title, underscoring potential policy creep.  More commonly known as the WTPF (sans ICT), the ITU explains the “Forum is designed to foster debate, build multi-stakeholder consensus expressed in the form of ‘Opinions’ illustrating a shared vision to guide ongoing global ICT policies, regulatory and standardization efforts worldwide.”  The Opinions are non-binding on ITU Member States.  Nevertheless, they have the potential to lend credibility and momentum to proposals and initiatives that pose risks to an open Internet, free from government control, similar to those we faced at WCIT.

 The initial set of WTPF draft opinions are developed by an ITU construct called the “Informal Experts Group” (IEG).  The IEG is open to “all relevant stakeholders,” with the caveat that representation must be “balanced,” containing roughly an equal number of participants from all regions of the world, including developing countries.  Although the IEG endeavors to operate on consensus, it is not constrained by this tradition.  In fact, U.S. government officials have indicated that the two problematic opinions, Draft Opinions 5 and 6, did not achieve consensus.

 The central topic of this WTPF is supposed to be broadband expansion, but it is very clear that some Member States have a different focus in mind.  Draft Opinion 5, entitled “Supporting Multi-Stakeholderism in Internet Governance,” asserts that governments are included within the definition of “multi-stakeholder” and, accordingly, have a rightful role in Internet governance.  More to the point, it asserts that “Internet-related public policy” is the “sovereign right of States,” and further implies that policymaking authority should be shared on an equal basis among governments.  Alarmingly, the Opinion relegates the private sector, which plays such a key role in shaping the global, consensus-driven Internet governance standards, to “technical and economic fields.”

 Draft Opinion 6, “On Supporting Operationalizing the Enhanced Cooperation Process,” is equally troubling.  While the notion of global cooperation may seem somewhat innocuous at first blush, a deeper parsing of the text reveals its true intent -- to provide the policy impetus and authority for an explicit government role in Internet governance.  In effect, this Draft Opinion is another example of the subtle scope creep that we often find woven into ITU reports and resolutions.  Taken alone, such non-binding documents may appear relatively inconsequential, but when stacked together with other similar reports and declarations published over time, they suddenly morph into the basis and justification for ITU claims of authority and influence in areas clearly outside of the organization’s Constitution and Charter.  This tact is being used to assert, for example, authority in ICT standardization.

 The U.S. State Department has launched a consultation process to obtain input on WTPF Draft Opinions and other documents pertinent to the upcoming WTPF.  Next Thursday, April 18, ITI will host a meeting of the agency’s International Telecommunication Advisory Committee starting at 10 a.m. ET to discuss Draft Opinions 5 and 6.  We will be loaded for bear.  Please feel free to contact me for further details.

Public Policy Tags: Internet Governance
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