WCIT-12, ITU and multistakeholderism

Just over a thousand delegates from Member States are entering the final negotiation phase of WCIT-12, and with the reappearance of the controversial proposal document by Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, China, United Arab Emirates, Russian Federation, Iraq, Sudan, things could get quite ugly.

So let’s breathe, step back a minute, and look at something good that has come out of WCIT: ITU’s positive response to calls from civil society and others to open up its deliberations. Let’s see how well this new era of multi-stakeholder ITU is progressing.

WCIT-12 attendee

One of the 25% of WCIT-12 attendees who is female. Credit: ITU

WCIT preparatory process: part I

WCIT preparations were undertaken by a special Council Working Group to Prepare for the 2012 WCIT (CWG-WCIT12), which held meetings beginning in early 2010 and ending in June this year. Like all ITU CWGs, its documents are restricted to Member States only. Not even Sector Members can view CWG documents.

At the 2011 and 2012 ITU Council meetings, Member States supporting the open Internet model had tried to encourage the Council to open access to the documents of another CWG of interest, the Council Working Group on international Internet-related public policy issues (CWG-Internet), and its Dedicated Group predecessor. Those attempts failed. Which is a little odd, you might think, given the last Council meeting had agreed to solicit public comments on issues the CWG-Internet deemed could benefit from expert input from non-government sectors.

It seems that CWG documents are, as a rule, Not for Public Consumption.

WCIT preparatory process: part II

While CWG-WCIT12 was meeting behind closed doors, non-government stakeholders—in particular civil society—having heard that some of the WCIT proposals mentioned Internet-related issues, began a campaign to have the WCIT proposals made public. On 17 May 2012, over 40 civil society organizations and individuals sent ITU Secretary-General Touré a letter requesting that the CWG-WCIT12 documents be made open, as well as requesting that WCIT and its preparatory process be opened to “meaning participation from civil society”. During the 15th Session of the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) the following week, a civil society representative, Marília Maciel, repeated the request while speaking as a panelist. In response, Touré lost his temper a little, and, reinterpreting Maciel’s words, retorted that since civil society kept asking for Internet governance to be discussed as part of the ITRs at WCIT-12, he’d pass the request on to ITU members. Such a response didn’t endear him to the non-government representatives in the room. However, since then, things have improved markedly:

These were all very positive steps from ITU to make its WCIT activities more transparent to non-government stakeholders. This is an organization that is not, by its nature, very open. As an intergovernmental organization, it is used to closed-door negotiations. The fact that it has begun to changed course and let non-government folk see some of its inner workings is very impressive and should be applauded.

The change is also a testament to the power of campaigns conducted by non-government stakeholders to raise awareness of the importance of ITR negotiations and the possible ramifications for Internet and telecommunications users.

What is less impressive is the poor response by non-government stakeholders to the open consultation period. The ITU only received 29 responses during the open consultation phase. Partially, this could be due to ITU not publicizing the open consultation as widely as they could have. However, given the public version of the ITR proposals was downloaded 4831 times, it also looks like a lot of those interested in reading the ITRs weren’t interested in actively participating in commenting on those ITRs.

If this were a report card, I’d also have to mark some players down for inciting hysterical news articles, opinions and blogs on the evilness of the ITU. Some stakeholders were using trial by media to gain public support for their positions. This was not a great way to encourage open and productive interactions between newly engaged non-government stakeholders and existing government participants in the WCIT world.

The ITU Secretariat’s efforts to combat bad press

Spearheaded by Touré, the ITU Secretariat responded to the various negative press reports with a PR campaign denying that ITU wanted to “control the Internet” and pointing out how open and multi-stakeholder WCIT would be.

WCIT-12 attendees

Another two of the 25% of WCIT-12 attendees who are female. Credit: ITU

According to statements Touré has made, the ITU and its current WCIT-12 discussions are multi-stakeholder because it’s possible for non-government stakeholders to participate by attending under the umbrella of their government’s delegation.

Looking at the WCIT attendee list, a number of governments have committed to multi-stakeholder delegations. One of the biggest delegations, from the USA, consists of roughly 50% government representatives and 50% non-government representatives. Yes, this is impressive. However, how many of those non-government representatives are truly “participating”? How many of non-government representatives on government delegations are we hearing speak from the floor in Dubai? There is Veni Markovski under the Bulgarian flag and Philip Rushton under the UK flag. I’m not aware of many others allowed to speak, though.

An additional issue is saying that WCIT is multi-stakeholder because Member States can add non-government representatives to their delegations ignores the obvious problem that many countries do not have any interest in including the divergent views of non-government stakeholders.

As seen at the recent 2012 IGF in Baku, the Azerbaijan government worked hard to keep the oppositional views of the country’s civil society out of sight. Many IGF participants watched in stunned silence during the closing plenary as a “civil society” representative from Azerbaijan spoke nothing but positive words about life in the country, despite the fact that most people in the room were aware of Azerbaijan’s less-than-stellar human rights record. We can see, therefore, that some countries are never going to have multi-stakeholder delegations at events like WCIT-12.

So what is the solution? The ITU Secretariat is obviously working hard to improve public opinions about ITU and its work. However, the Secretariat’s hands are tied in many ways. While it can tinker at the edges and provide civil society briefings and public webcasts of main sessions, for substantive changes, it relies on decisions by Member States. As we have seen from WCIT-12 webcasts, not all ITU Member States are open to being open. All is not lost, however.

The future for multi-stakeholderism at ITU looks good, if not positively glowing

This past week or so of WCIT-12 has not only been webcast and transcribed. It has also been tweeted and blogged and talked about by people and organizations who in the past would never have considered an ITU event worth following. As we’ve learned from the Arab Spring, once the door is opened a crack, it’s very hard to close the door again. People are watching WCIT-12 and they are watching how their governments are behaving at WCIT-12. As a result, we may find that future ITU meetings, particularly those that concern Internet-related matters, are conducted more openly.

I doubt, though, that such meetings will lose the drama of States strongly divided on issues related to the Internet. If they did, I don’t they’d be half as much fun to follow!


Some WCIT-12 statistics

I’ve been working on some substantial posts about WCIT-12, but have been sidetracked by statistics. They’re shorter, display nicely in graphs, and don’t require as many words to be written about them. So until I finish my other articles, enjoy these numbers:

WCIT-12 document statistics

As of 2 pm Dubai time:

Document type Number of documents
Administrative (ADM) 25 + 12 Revisions
Contribution (C) 51 + 14 Revisions + 9 Addendum + 2 Corrigendum
Limited Distribution (DL) 22 + 4 Revisions
Temporary Documents (TD/DT) 48 + 18 Revisions + 1 Corrigendum
Informational (INF) 3
Total 149 + 48 Revisions + 9 Addedum + 3 Corrigendum

Notes on the above:

  • There are 3 Informational documents, but they are numbered 2 through to 4. A week into WCIT-12, INF1 is still a placeholder for a document “be posted in due time”.
  • Contribution C3 is a  tangle of Revisions, Addendum and Corrigendum, so I may not have the total number of Contribution documents and variations correct. To explain my confusion, here are the C3 documents currently listed:
    • Addendum 3
    • Addendum 2
    • Revision 2
    • Revision 2 Corrigendum 1
    • Revision 2 Corrigendum 2
    • Addendum 1 Revision 1

What can we learn from the large numbers of documents in each category above? When combined with the punishing schedule of Ad Hoc Group, Working Group, Delegation, Committee and Plenary sessions, it’s easy to see why delegates are getting confused about what document is under discussion at any given point in time.

Gender breakdown of WCIT-12 attendees

Using the ITU document ADM4, which in its current incarnation lists all WCIT-12 delegates who had arrived onsite as of 6 December, we have:

Title Number of Member State delegates
Mr 827
Mrs 49
Ms 182
Dr (gender unspecified) 39
Total 1097

Let’s look at that in pie chart form, shall we?

Gender breakdown: WCIT-12 Member State delegates

Member State delegates at WCIT-12 are disproportionately male.

Given three-quarters of the government delegations are male, I now understand why “Chairman” and “Vice-chairman” are the standard currency at the meeting. I do wonder why 49 of the women felt it necessary to inform the world that they are married given there is no way to differentiate between the married and unmarried men at WCIT-12. I prefer how the Internet Governance Forum registration list works: you’re either a “Mr” or a “Ms”.

WCIT-12 plenary 1

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

ITU WCIT-12 plenary room
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.

ITU archive of WCIT-12 Plenary 1 discussions

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.