With the 19th International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) Plenipotentiary conference in Busan squarely in the rearview mirror, it is worthwhile to reflect on what I believe was an unqualified success at the ITU meeting -- the product of dynamic leadership, great preparation, and a highly motivated U.S. delegation.
Much was at stake going into “PP-14,” as the ITU called the conference. As you may recall, the Union’s 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai ’ended badly’ in the view of some of my fellow delegates. During that conference, there was a significant push to force-fit telecom-legacy regulations upon the Internet, and to declare an expansive role for the ITU in Internet governance. The United States, joined by a number of other countries, actively opposed the effort. Ultimately, a plurality of Member States voted in favor of such a proposal, with the rest refusing to endorse it. The conference ended in disarray and acrimony.
While many perceived the WCIT as a failure or at least a major setback for the United States, not everyone agrees. An industry colleague argues that the U.S. position was absolutely essential, hard feelings notwithstanding, given the high stakes. She also believes that, in many respects, the tensions of WCIT helped set the table for a successful PP-14 outcome. How so?
Not wanting a repetition of the “Debacle in Dubai,” she believes that many ITU Member States that had been less than friendly to U.S. perspectives in 2012 made a greater effort to find common ground in Busan. This, in turn, created more room for compromise and consensus-building, laying the foundation for achieving a very different outcome. Even so, there was still no guaranty that Busan would deliver a global ‘kumbaya’ moment, even in the masterful hands of conference chair Wonki Min of Korea. From a U.S. perspective, there was one more essential ingredient.
In my view, the combined adroit leadership of the State Department’s Ambassador Danny Sepulveda, and his deputy Julie Zoller, played a decisive role in steering PP-14 toward a “soft landing.” The career paths of these two public servants are as different as their personal styles and yet, their varied approaches to the task were completely complementary. If Danny was the direct, bare-knuckle, no-nonsense negotiator, Julie was the soft-spoken velvet glove, equally skilled in the art of negotiation.
Between the two of them, they logged thousands of miles, and maybe as many hours, meeting with ITU’s management, telecom, information and communications technologies (ICT) officials of other governments, and many other stakeholders, building valuable relationships to bridge the WCIT divide.
With a deliberate focus on strengthening ties within CITEL, aka the Inter-American Telecommunication Commission, Danny put to extraordinary use his Spanish language skills, meeting leaders literally on their own turf in their own terms. They didn’t neglect our traditional allies, either, traversing the Pacific and Atlantic numerous times to strategize with Japan, Korea, Australia and the Europeans. These investments paid huge dividends in Busan, and should continue to serve us well as we pursue our campaign to maintain the highly successful multistakeholder approach to Internet governance.
So where does that leave us? The ITU isn’t the only risk facing the global Internet community. The recently concluded “first annual” World Internet Conference, conceived, hosted and largely attended by the Chinese, presented distinct challenges, as does the “NETmundial Initiative,” launched by the World Economic Forum and ICANN. For example, many are worried that, by commandeering the name of Brazil’s successful spring event, the “Initiative” will create confusion and draw rightful attention away from the UN’s Internet Governance Forum as the principle forum for global Internet policy deliberations.
There will be many more discussions about the outcome of PP-14, ITU’s efforts to expand its reach and the appropriate role of governments in global Internet policy. In the meantime, ITI and its members will be taking a careful look at the risks and opportunities presented by all of these activities, with an eye toward developing an action plan that extends the tangible benefits a free and open Internet offers to more and more people throughout the world.