Despite the opening ceremony declaration of peace and harmony, the first plenary session of the World Conference on International Telecommunications gave us a hint of what is to come over the next two weeks:
1. Procedure, procedure, procedure
In an environment where nations all vie to have their ideas adopted as the international norm, getting your proposals discussed before anyone else’s can influence the discussion to your benefit. Equally, the earlier you can knock out your opposition’s ideas, the more chance you have of getting your proposal through. Alternatively, if you are patient, you could sit back, wait for all the other competitors to knock each other out of the running, and come in at the end with your proposal intact. Formal protocol and procedures help prevent a meeting descending into a Lord of the Flies scenario by introducing apparently neutral ways to proceed with discussion. How are we seeing this play out at WCIT-12?
- The agenda for the first plenary wasn’t decided until half an hour into the first plenary
- There were debates about whether it was appropriate for one section of the proposed ITRs to be discussed before a section that proceeded it
- There was debate whether it was better to first agree on general high-level principles for the ITRs or to dive into the details straight away
- Attempts by some Member States to have their individual positions discussed before the wider regionally-agreed positions had been aired were rebuffed by the Chair
Photo credit: ITU
2. We love the Internet, but…
There were repeated references to the fact that most of the world’s population still doesn’t have a connection to the Internet. To illustrate the exorbitant costs of connecting to the Internet, the jet-setting ITU Secretary-General, Hamadoun Touré, complained that he had to pay 76 USD for three days’ hotel Internet connection while in New York recently. The Twitter crowd wasn’t sympathetic, by the way, with @stickywcit suggesting Touré pick a hotel with free wifi in future.
The opening ceremony may have been full of positive words about ICANN, but the subtle inference in the first plenary was that the Internet community was somehow failing in getting the Internet out to the world’s majority who are located in developing countries. ITU has long positioned itself as the champion of developing country telecommunication needs, so you don’t need to be a mind-reader to see where this may go over the next fortnight.
Touré has made it clear that WCIT-12 is not about taking over the Internet, nor about Internet governance. However, what the WCIT-12 is about—connecting the unconnected via broadband, mobile, standards for modems, etc—does stray a little into Internet administrative territory. Newly connected Internet users need IP addresses, for example. And modems need software that can handle IPv6. Last week, Member States at WTSA-12 agreed to continue study into IPv6 in Study Group 2 or 3. At WCIT-12, it may be difficult for ITU Member States to agree on what is relevant territory for ITU to handle under the banner of “connecting the unconnected” without, perhaps, straying into areas already handled by parts of the Internet governance ecosystem, but that are seen as failing the disconnected two-thirds of the world.
3. Early mornings and late nights
The first informal discussion group was formed, and met at 8 am on Day 2 of WCIT-12 to discuss whether references to “Recognized Operating Agency” in the ITRs should be changed to the far broader term, “Operating Agency”. Soon, the 8 am informal discussion group slots will be filled and earlier slots will be needed, as well as slots after the official WCIT-12 days end at 5:30 pm. Weekend sessions will be invoked, too. Participants will become exhausted and grumpy. You may not think you should care how little sleep high-level government representatives are getting, but tired officials are less likely to pick up problems in newly proposed text for the ITRs. Tired and cranky officials are also less inclined to feel generous towards their ideological opponents during the more intense debates at the meeting.
Finally, a couple of unconnected thoughts
Touré made a number of comments on the first day of WCIT-12 about his recent travels around the world. I wondered whether these were perhaps a little ill-judged. A lot of developing Member States can’t attend ITU meetings without special funding from ITU. Even then, some of the smallest and least developing states don’t have the human resources to devote to regular ITU participation. Knowing that the ITU Secretary-General is travelling the world and able to pay 76 USD for three days’ Internet access in New York might, to such states, seem as offensive as the large bonuses bank executives received in the wake of government bailouts of banks in the US and UK. On the other hand, developing countries may appreciate knowing that the Secretary-General is travelling to them, rather than expecting them to travel to ITU’s home in Geneva.
I am amazed at the lack of gender neutral language being used in the plenary. “Chairman” and “Vice-chairman” were the norm, even when referring to female occupants of those positions. ITU has been very active in promoting the role of women in ICTs (for example, Girls in ICT Day), so the use of phallocentric terminology at WCIT-12 was a bit confusing. Just because most of the positions are filled by men doesn’t mean that gender-neutral terms are unnecessary. Language helps define norms, and if ITU continues to use “Chairman” and “Vice-chairmen”, even for women in chairing positions, it fails to challenge the outdated norm that men are the natural choice for leadership roles in ICT.