World Conference on International Telecommunications begins

After months of acrimonious mud-slinging between the more extreme ends of the pro-ITU and pro-Internet camps, the opening ceremony of WCIT-12 in Dubai was full of peace, harmony and goodwill. ICANN’s new CEO, Fadi Chehadé, spoke warmly of the new era of cooperation between ICANN and the ITU. ITU Secretary-General, Dr Hamadoun Touré spoke at length of the virtues of consensus, of the great opportunity WCIT-12 presented for the ICANN and ITU communities to reach out to one another.

WCIT-12 logoThis was a far cry from the 2010 Plenipotentiary in Guadalajara, Mexico, where ICANN had wanted to attend, but had been told that as ICANN was not a sector member of ITU, it was not possible for ICANN to attend. The story also floats around that ITU didn’t invite ICANN to attend one of its meetings because ITU had never been invited to an ICANN meeting. The Internet community’s response to this may be, “Well that’s silly, because nobody’s invited to an ICANN meeting. It’s open to anyone who wants to attend”. However, if you come from the far more formal world of intergovernmental forums, the invitation process forms an integral part of conference protocol.

Two years on, in 2012, the invitation problem has been overcome. In a first, ITU invited ICANN to speak at the opening ceremony of WCIT-12. At the opening ceremony, Chehadé, who had evolved his “summer of listening” pitch since ICANN 45 in Toronto, told the room of 160 ITU Member States that “Engagement starts with listening”. Even better from the point of view of the Internet crowd, this engagement had begun at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Baku last month, where Chehadé and Touré had their first face-to-face discussion. Given the shaky legs that the IGF is standing on—it still has no Executive Director or Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General, and its mandate comes up for renewal in 2015, pending WSIS+10 outcomes—having the leaders of the two most prominent organizations in the Internet governance debate come together at the IGF is a huge boost to argue for IGF’s effectiveness.

Will peace and harmony reign throughout WCIT-12?

Of course it won’t. Having the leaders of the ITU and ICANN secretariats swap a handshake or two during the opening ceremony won’t solve significant idealogical differences between governments on the telecommunications and Internet-related matters that up for discussion over the next couple of weeks. But even though there will be some seriously fraught debates and disagreements during WCIT-12, there must be a final ITR document by the end of the meeting. Some things to remember:

  1. Touré is the head of the ITU Secretariat. The Secretariat ultimately has to do what its membership wants it to do. While Touré can say from the heart that ICANN and ITU will work collaboratively and respect each others separate competencies, if the membership chooses to have ITU encroach on areas traditionally within the sphere of Internet organizations (ICANN, IETF, RIRs, domain name registries, etc), the ITU secretariat has to carry out the membership’s wishes.
  2. ITU membership is very divided on a number of Internet-related issues under discussion at WCIT. The greater the division, the harder it will be for the membership to reach agreement on those topics. This means that some Internet-related issues will be removed completely from the final ITR revisions due to complete lack of agreement on how to go forward, or will be watered down to the point that neither side of the disagreement can disagree any more.
  3. While the vast majority of more extreme Internet-related proposals will be knocked out of the ring during WCIT, there is always the danger that last-minute compromise text is written in ways that down the track can then be read differently to its originally intended meaning. So what can look like harmless text now can have serious ramifications down the track. All we have to do is look at the 2005 WSIS Tunis Agenda text on “enhanced cooperation” to see how something written many years ago can still be cause for disagreement years later.
  4. ITU Member States can submit reservations to the final ITRs, meaning that even if the ITRs state “All ITU members must do X”, a country can say that it will not be bound by that regulation, but will abide by everything else in the ITRs. If the ITRs ended up encroaching on Internet territory in ways that some Member States thought was going too far, they could submit reservations on those parts of the ITRs.
  5. Although many of the articles and statements leading up to WCIT-12 have been melodramatic in their predictions of the End of the Internet as We Know It, they have succeeded in drawing the interest of a much wider range of stakeholders’ interest in what is happening at WCIT. The WCIT-12 webcast is open to the world. Back at the 2010 ITU Plenipotentiary, there was no public webcast, and information was only available to the public from a few news articles and the few attendees who were blogging and tweeting the meeting. But even that attention was useful in creating positive outcomes: when Internet-related arguments became toxic in Guadalajara, in an effort to get Member States to work together, Touré reminded delegates that the world was following what was happening. In 2012, in Dubai, all stakeholders, be they from government, business, civil society, academia or the Internet technical community, can watch WCIT-12 webcasts and decide for themselves whether their governments are representing their interests.

ICANN isn’t the only Internet body that could be affected by the final ITRs

Yes, a lot of the early WSIS disagreements were about ICANN’s role, but Internet governance involves far more bodies than just ICANN. It is a very positive step forward to see ITU and ICANN speaking in such positive terms about each other at the WCIT-12 opening ceremony, but it would be a mistake to think that a good relationship between Touré and Chehadé solves the all of the relationships and coordination processes within the Internet governance ecosystem once and for all. The improved ITU/ICANN relationship is a very big step, but let us not forget all the other very important players in the Internet ecosystem. The Internet is a network, not a hierarchical pyramid. ITU and ICANN are both important, but neither organization, by themselves or as a pair, comes anywhere near fulfilling the vast and diverse range of processes needed to maintain and develop the Internet.

Badly written ITRs could damage the Internet. But badly written ITRs could also damage telecommunications. Focusing world attention on WCIT-12 as the pivotal point in the Internet’s future is overly simplistic. WCIT-12 is going to be an important two weeks for the Internet’s future, but there have been other important weeks for the Internet this year, including IGF, ICANN, IETF and other meetings. Let’s have less hysteria over WCIT-12 and more long-term, level-headed deliberation on Internet development.