U.N.'s ITU pursues Internet control -- again -- this week

U.S. State Department and global civil society groups prep as U.N. telecommunication arm ITU tackles Internet control at WPTF-13 this week.
Written by Violet Blue, Contributor

The Fifth World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum ("WTPF-13") will be held in Geneva, Switzerland, this week for three days, May 14-16.

As with the bellicose WCIT-12 (the U.N.'s 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications) last December in Dubai and its accompanying protests and dramatic walkout by the U.S. delegation, this Forum will be run by the United Nations notoriously dubious telecommunications arm, the ITU.


WTPF-13 — with its Twitter hashtag #WTPF13 and counter-tag #OpWTF — is ITU's final preparation for The 2014 ITU Plenipotentiary Conference ("PP-14"), ITU's Fall 2014 plenipotentiary meeting.

In February, outgoing U.S. Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell testified to Congress in a joint U.S. House subcommittee hearing on international Internet governance that U.N.'s ITU Internet plans "must be stopped."

McDowell warned ominously that after the WCIT-12 debacle in Dubai, combined with this week's WTPF, the groundwork is laid for 2014 and, "Internet freedom's foes around the globe are working hard to exploit a treaty negotiation that dwarfs the importance of the WCIT by orders of magnitude."

On January 11, 2013, ITU's Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure released the fourth and final ITU/WTPF-13 report outlining groundwork for Internet governance and internet regulatory topics at the May 14-16 meetings.

The ITU/WTPF-13 document explicitly includes the creation of "Global Principles for the governance and use of the Internet." It spells out intent to resolve issues pertaining to "use of Internet resources for purposes that are inconsistent with international peace, stability and security" in the form of subjecting cybersecurity/cybercrime and data privacy to international control.

If the ITU's endless wrangling over Internet controls plays out as it has within the past year, the U.S. may be in for another showdown.

Crucially, it also redefines the multi-stakeholder definition of Internet governance as currently insufficient because it does not grant governments — now defined by ITU as underrepresented multi-stakeholders — "sufficient" Internet governance power.

PP-14 will be held in Busan, South Korea on October 20-November 7, 2014.

In the FCC Commissioner's testimony, McDowell bluntly told the joint House subcommittee that the results of plans being made by the ITU to secure Internet governance at this very moment for the 2014 plenipot, "will be devastating even if the United States does not ratify these toxic new treaties [this week at WTPF-13]."

McDowell told Congress bluntly that since 2003, his office directly observed that countries such as China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia — and their allies — have never given up their regulatory quest. "They continued to push the ITU, and the U.N. itself, to regulate both the operations, economics and content of the Net," he said.

McDowell strongly outlined that Congress and "many defenders of Internet freedom" must understand that serious damage was done when they did not take [ITU's Internet governance] intentions and machinations seriously — and that the ITU is determined and able to see its intent manifest.

The U.S. State Department's official blog said the U.S. will be attending ITU's summit as a WTPF-13 stakeholder and expressed optimism for an agreement on multistakeholder governance.

The U.S. delegation comes to engage in constructive dialogue on Internet-related public policy issues such as Internet Exchange Points (IXPs), Internet Protocol numbering resources, the expansion of broadband, and, perhaps most importantly, the multistakeholder approach to Internet governance.

If the ITU's endless wrangling over Internet controls plays out as it has within the past year, the U.S. may be in for another showdown.

The adoption of the WCIT-12 treaty by governments notorious for being bad, nee murderous, actors in the human rights space sent a message toward governments that are excited at the prospects of getting tighter control of the Internet by way of their telecoms (and the attractive lure of billions in increased revenue).

Even though the end result last December made China and Russia quite pleased, the ITU's WCIT-12 plans began to unravel before the Dubai summit even began — the unraveling itself a result of Internet citizen action, and not initially by U.S. government action.

Representing who, exactly?

The ITU's meeting and its proposals were being withheld from public view until a steady stream of leaked documents from Web site WCITleaks put the ITU in a defensive panic — and had the U.N. and ITU readying for global protests.

Created by researchers at George Mason University, WCITLeaks is now soliciting and sharing copies of leaked draft documents for WTPF-13.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted - astonishingly - unanimously to oppose the ITU to approve a resolution charging the U.S. government to fight the United Nations and the ITU in its bid to control and change the Internet at the WCIT-12 — in an eye-opening 397-0 vote.

Prior to ITU's WCIT-12 opening ceremonies, the EU's upper house, the European Parliament, joined the U.S. to fight the ITU's WCIT-12 plans as a unified bloc, and all 27 EU member states (backed by Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and other ITU-Member) voted unanimously to oppose the U.N.'s plans to regulate the Internet.

According to Reuters, EU Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes, who is in charge of Europe's Internet policy, said the ITU proposals "risk damaging the Internet's evolution as a critical piece of global commercial infrastructure and a network for the free flow of information and data."

Going into WTPF-13 this week, The U.S. State Department's Official Blog it does not fail to mention the discord at WCIT-12:

(...) This is the ITU's first major gathering since last December's World Conference on International Telecommunication (WCIT). For those of you who follow these issues, you know we were unable to reach consensus on revised regulations that could have advanced the global development of telecommunication services.

(...) Eighty-nine Member States elected to sign the final acts, while fifty-five did not. Nobody "won"; and while governments argued, citizens across the world clamored for the growth and innovation that the Internet has to offer. (...)

New citizen protests are currently forming, from coalitions of global civil society groups as well as hacktivist entities.

Best Bits, a coalition of civil society groups from around the world with participants that include the EFF, has made it clear that it disagrees both with the idea that the ITU should be creating Internet policy and governance guidelines with decisions made by national governments alone — and with the ITU’s WTPF-13 report’s framing of the debate on multistakeholderism.

Best Bits issued a civil society statement to the ITU/WTPF on inclusiveness, transparency, openness and access to knowledge, net neutrality, privacy, and security, and in particular freedom of expression.

The WTPF has not yet achieved open and participatory internet policy making. [Civil Society Statement to the ITU Secretary General in preparation for the WTPF ­- May 2013]

The statement's points reaffirming ITU's siloed goals read like a bucket of cold water to anyone who cares about the digital rights of ordinary citizens, but at least it comes with a call to action in the form of a message (petition) to the ITU.

Still, the conclusions and policies decided at WTPF-13 and PP-14 will be set by governments, and if WCIT-12 was any example, decisions will be made by governments pushed to a conclusion led by the ITU.

The U.S., despite walking out of ITU's last big summit (WCIT-12), intends to stay in the conversation.

Despite the events of last December, we believe that the similarities among governments with respect to the Internet outweigh our differences. [Building Consensus in Support of a Global, Inclusive, Free, and Open Internet; U.S. State Department Official Blog]

Similarities among governments, indeed.

Image via ITU (2010).

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