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International Telecommunication Union Chief Promises Transparency in Treaty Conference

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

By Daniel Pruzin  

GENEVA--Under pressure from industry and civil society groups, the head of the International Telecommunication Union is promising to push for public access to proposals for revising a global treaty governing cross-border telecommunications.

Speaking to reporters June 22, ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure said he would forward a proposal from civil society groups to a July meeting of the ITU Council, the organization’s governing body, calling for open access to the proposals, including future versions of the “Anticipated Final Draft of The Future International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs),” which is expected to be the main negotiating document at the Dec. 3-14 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai.

“I will also be recommending to Council that it agree to hold an open consultation regarding the ITRs, accessible to all stakeholders worldwide,” the head of the United Nations communications agency declared.

Many of the key documents, including the first revised version of the “Anticipated Final Draft,” have been leaked and posted on a website, wcitleaks.org, dedicated to bringing transparency to the WCIT process.

An ITU Council Working Group met in Geneva June 20-22 for the last round of preparatory talks on the WCIT. The main goal of the Dubai conference is to amend and update the ITRs, a 1988 ITU treaty that sets out the basic terms for interconnection of international telephone networks.

The ITU has been criticized for failing to make public the negotiating documents and proposals from ITU members for changes to the 1988 treaty. ITU officials have noted that the decision to restrict circulation of documents was made by the organization’s member countries.

Fear of Authoritarian Influence Over Internet.

The push for greater transparency comes amid growing ITU irritation over accusations from U.S. officials and U.S.-based industry groups that authoritarian governments are attempting to use the WCIT to transfer more control over the internet to the ITU and legitimize greater government restrictions on content.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee June 20 unanimously approved a resolution warning that proposals have been put forward for WCIT that would “diminish the freedom of expression on the Internet in favor of government control over content.” It urged the Obama administration to “promote a global Internet free from government control and preserve and advance the successful multistakeholder model that governs the Internet today”.

“Despite denials, the Russians and Chinese are working quietly behind the scenes--and have been for years--to exert control over web content and infrastructure,” said Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), the sponsor of the resolution. “This could lead to human rights abuses in the future and effectively putting a spigot on the free flow of information.”

Toure hit back June 22: “It has come as a surprise--and I have to say a great disappointment--to see that some of those who have had access to WCIT proposals have chosen to publicly misstate or distort them in public forums and to journalists, sometimes to the point of caricature.”

Restrictions on Speech.

Toure also told a June 20 meeting of the ITU Council Working Group on preparations for WCIT that the ITU Constitution, which overrides the 1988 treaty, both guarantees the right to correspond by means of telecommunications as well as the right of governments to restrict the use of telecommunications in certain cases.

All countries “impose some restrictions on various forms of speech, including telecommunications--for example, to protect copyright owners and to prevent defamation,” the ITU chief said. “Some countries go further and restrict the use of telecommunications for areas such as pornography, gambling, hate speech, negation of genocide, and even certain types of political speech.”

“Such restrictions are permitted by Article 34 of the ITU’s Constitution, which provides that member states reserve the right to cut off, in accordance with their national law, any private telecommunications which may appear dangerous to the security of the state, or contrary to its laws, to public order or to decency,” Toure added. The ITRs “cannot contradict that provision, either. So I do not see how WCIT could set barriers to the free flow of information.”

Some commentators say the threat of an ITU takeover of the internet appears exaggerated.

“The real threat is not that the U.N. will take over the internet per se, but that autocratic states like Russia, China and Iran will use the process to further legitimize their existing programs of censorship, as well as the idea of interconnection charges,” Jerry Brito, director of the Technology Policy Program at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center and co-founder of the WCITLeaks website, said in a June 21 blog posting.

“I think the claims are overblown,” added Dwayne Winseck, a professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University in Ottawa, in a June 11 blog posting. Most of the changes being discussed for the 1988 treaty “are mainly about economics and interconnection rather than internet censorship and control.”

Direct References.

The “Anticipated Final Draft” makes only a handful of direct references to the internet, many of them proposals aimed at ensuring the internet is included as an international telecommunications service covered by the ITRs.

One proposal the Council Working Group deemed has enough support to warrant further discussion calls on ITU member states to “take measures to ensure Internet stability and security, to fight cybercrime and to counter spam, while protecting and respecting the provisions for privacy and freedom of expression as contained in the relevant parts of the (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

“At their worst, the ITR proposals try to prevent international communications that 'interfere in their internal affairs,’ or undermine their 'sovereignty, national security, or territorial integrity,' ” argued Milton Mueller, professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies and a founder of the Internet Governance Project, in a June 21 posting. “It is hard to see how they authorize anything that national governments cannot already do.”

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