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Lifting the lid on the ITU’s mysterious treaty conference

Web Foundation · October 21, 2014

Over the next three weeks in Busan, South Korea, communications ministries from around the world will take part in the highest policy-making event of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), its four-yearly “Plenipotentiary” treaty conference. Like previous ITU meetings, the 2014 “Plenipot” has been shrouded in secrecy.

Conference proposals and resolutions, including proposals to change the ITU’s constitution and policies, are only officially accessible by governments and paying ITU members (mainly large companies). Although livestreaming of sessions is a big step forward, getting invited onto a government delegation – a privilege available to only a select few – remains the only real way for civil society groups to participate in the proceedings.

We believe that public interest organisations have a right to know what their governments are debating in Korea, and to contribute their views and expertise to the proceedings. Last week, together with others, we called on the ITU to open up the Busan conference. This week, we follow up by shining a light on some of the key issues that ITU member states could decide in Busan:

  • Cybersecurity: Governments have legitimate and important worries about strengthening cybersecurity. However, proposals from some governments to ask the ITU to kick off formal discussions on a global cyber-security treaty are premature, given the lack of consensus on tricky issues (including what constitutes the use of force in cyberspace and how to govern activity which falls short of that threshold), as well as the ITU’s current lack of transparency and openness.
  • The digital divide: Access and infrastructure issues in developing countries must be tackled urgently. But a global regime to regulate international peering and interconnection charges, as some member states have suggested, would be a clumsy and probably ineffective tool to do so. Instead the ITU should encourage IXPs, infrastructure build-out, and local content development, and work with the Alliance for Affordable Internet and other players to promote enabling environments that incentivise investment and competition.
  • Counterfeit devices: Some governments want to introduce new rules to prevent counterfeit devices from accessing telecommunications networks. Mobile phones have become critical to people’s livelihoods, safety, health and education, as well as their civil and political liberties. Denial of service would be an extremely disproportionate response to the relatively minor network issues that counterfeit devices may cause. Furthermore, it would disproportionately affect poor people, who are most likely to buy cheap, possibly counterfeit phones. There are better ways to combat counterfeit devices without sacrificing the right to free expression, such as import and export controls and increased awareness and cooperation among operators, manufacturers and consumers’ associations.
  • Spectrum: License-exempt spectrum provides an enormous opportunity for growth in global connectivity and technological development and innovation. Combined with dynamic spectrum access, which is now already an everyday practice, license-exempt spectrum use can achieve ubiquitous internet connectivity through Wi-Fi in the workplace, homes and schools. The ITU is already doing important work to enable this, but the Plenipot should put the development and implementation of global standards for dynamic spectrum access at the top of the ITU’s to-do list, making it a central outcome of the World Radio Conference in 2015.
  • #OpenITU: Beyond simply making it easier for civil society to follow one-off conferences such as the Plenipot, the ITU should practice transparency and inclusion everywhere, all the time. All documents should be made publicly available on the ITU website, with the exception of cases in which disclosure would cause potential harm to a legitimate private or public interest.

We’ll be sharing these and other recommendations with the ITU and its member states today. You can read more – and endorse these recommendations – on the Best Bits website.




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