Home opinion-and-analysis Cornered! ITU's claims of openness around WCIT-12 don't stack up

The chorus of concerned voices being raised ahead of the International Telecommunication Union's forthcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) is growing in both the number and the status of participants. The ITU's latest attempt to address those concerns is not re-assuring.

WCIT-12 will be staged in Dubai to revise the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) that define the general principles for the provision and operation of international telecommunications. The current regulations - agreed to by 178 nations - were finalised in 1988 at the World Administrative Telegraph and Telephone Conference, in Melbourne.

There are two principle concerns: that certain states are, not surprisingly, seeking to exercise greater control over the free exchange of information that characterises the Internet; and that others are seeking to impose on the Internet a variant of the accounting rate regime that governs the exchange of telephony traffic between nations - and which has been a lucrative source of foreign exchange to some nations.

Compounding these are concerns about the secrecy surrounding the process. The revision to the regulations will take place behind closed doors against a background of contributions submitted by the ITU's member governments.

These contributions are not public and in an attempt to bring some openness to the process certain parties have created the aptly named 'WCITleaks' web site (wcitleaks.org) where some of these contributions have been posted.

The ITU, meanwhile, has been creating a show of openness around WCIT-12. In July it announced that the main preparatory document for WCIT-12 would be made public. It explained that the document "gathers together more than 450 contributions that members have submitted during the preparatory process of WCIT-12."

In August it announced that the general public would be able to make contributions to WCIT-12 and that member states had been "urged to consider and take account of submitted content in their preparations for WCIT-12."

None of this as done anything to silence the chorus of concerned voices to which most recently were added those of Greenpeace and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).  Earlier this month they sent an open letter to United Nations secretary general Ban Ki Moon (the ITU is an organ of the UN) expressing their "deep concern about a potentially very damaging change to the governance of the Internet," as a result of decisions that could be taken at WCIT-12.

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In response to that letter the ITU posted a reply on its official blog  and issued a press release in which it states:

"Dr Touré was pleased to reply in writing, as well as to meet with ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow and her team in Geneva on 15 November to clarify the WCIT process.

"During the discussions, he was able to dispel some widespread misunderstandings, most notably regarding the nature of the full compendium of proposals that constitute the output of the WCIT-12 preparatory process.

Within ITU, there is a key principle giving any Member State the sovereign right to make any proposal to the conference. The Member States at the conference itself will then discuss whether each proposal falls within the conference's purview.

"Dr Touré pointed the ITUC to the full compilation of proposals on the ITU website; some informally distributed versions prepared by external bodies currently in circulation have been found to be inaccurate."

That last statement presumably refers to information available on wcitleaks.org. But the key here is those two phrases "the full compendium of proposals..." and "the full compilation of proposals..." (Which did not have a link).

One can only assume that these statements refer to the same document. Yet a compendium and a compilation are not the same thing: a compendium is a summary in which the source documents are identified; a compilation is complete. What the ITU has provided meets neither of these criteria.

What the URL behind "Compendium" goes to is that 'main preparatory document' for WCIT-12 referred to earlier. which is simply a marked up version of the 1988 regulations incorporating the changes proposed in the contributions from the ITU member Governments. It represents the consensus so far achieved on what the final regulations should look like. It will be subject to much further debate and almost certainly further amendment during the 12 day course of WCIT-12.

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Toure's letter to Greenpeace and the ITUC said: "The assertions in the open letter cannot go unchallenged, as many of the issues raised are misleading, inaccurate and grounded in conjecture."

The Greenpeace/ITUC letter said: "We are becoming increasingly concerned at the lack of transparency inherent in the approach of the ITU in its preparations for this conference. The ITU Governing Council recently declined to accept the entirely appropriate proposal of the ITU Secretary-General, Dr Hamadoun Touré, that all stakeholders should be given free access to all the preparatory documentation for the conference."

The ITU's reply denied that this was true saying: "In fact, membership unanimously accepted the proposal of Dr. Touré, ITU Secretary-General, to make public the main proposals document – a fact that could have easily been verified with ITU. This document is available on ITU's WCIT-12 website."

The statement "this document..." was linked to a WCIT-12 documents home page on which the lead item is "Contributions and proposals." But, guess what? These are available only to members of the ITU's Telecommunication Information Exchange Service (TIES) "a set of networked information resources and services offered by ITU to its Members (ITU Member States, Sector Members and Associates) to support their participation in the activities of the Union."

Any organisation can become an associate member of the ITU for a fee of about $4000, but individuals cannot join. (There is only one associate member in Australia - NewSat. NBN Co, Telstra and Optus are sector members along with Free TV Australia and The Cyber Guardian.)

Does that make Toure's claim that the ITU has made "all documents available to all stakeholders" true? Not in my book. And if the main barrier to accessing the contributions to WCIT-12 is financial, why not simply remove it?

At the present time it is not possible for the general public to determine the positions taken by any ITU member in its submission and WCIT-12 will take place behind closed doors. Its end result is likely to be a new set of International Telecommunications Regulations that will be beyond further amendment.

However it has to be said that if the real decision-making to reshape the ITRs is taking place is taking place behind closed doors, the ITU has done much to inform on the rather arcane subject of WCIT-12 and the ITRs in general.

On its web site you will find a 38 slide "WCIT-12 myth busting presentation: WCIT-12 FAQs, " What are the International Telecommunication Regulations — and why do they matter?" and much more.

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Stuart Corner

 

Tracking the telecoms industry since 1989, Stuart has been awarded Journalist Of The Year by the Australian Telecommunications Users Group (twice) and by the Service Providers Action Network. In 2010 he received the 'Kester' lifetime achievement award in the Consensus IT Writers Awards and was made a Lifetime Member of the Telecommunications Society of Australia. He was born in the UK, came to Australia in 1980 and has been here ever since.

 

 

 

 

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