The 2015 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-15), which Public Knowledge has been closely monitoring, officially commenced this week in Geneva, Switzerland. Throughout the month of November, the decisions to govern our communications via airwaves – such as mobile broadband and public disaster radio communications – will be written into an international treaty called the Radio Regulations (RRs).
Despite its broad impacts onto everyday life and recognized legal status, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which is the United Nations (UN) agency that runs the WRC, has not provided open channels to broad-based civil society throughout the preparatory process of the WRC-15 over the past couple of years. The ITU work process has been exclusively open to its member countries, and some country delegations, like the United States, have included business representatives under the rubric of technical expertise.
Such disproportionate representation of governmental and business interests at the expense of broad public interests must stop. The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) — the UN’s flagship project that the ITU is assigned to implement and fulfill — began with the goal of achieving a common vision, desire, and commitment to build a people-centric, inclusive, and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize, and share information. In the spirit of the WSIS, the ITU should open up the WRC process and, in the future, provide open and participatory channels to civil society.
The ITU’s typical explanation is that its agenda items are so technology-driven that its work process should only be open to technocrats that regulate telecommunications or engineers with technical expertise. These individuals receive the Telecommunication Information Exchange Service (TIES) accounts, which in turn provide access to the ITU’s online document distribution system and, ultimately, shape the RRs. And, being an organization of national governments, the ITU requires non-governmental entities to pay for ITU membership, and the membership fees usually run up to tens of thousands of dollars.
This is another problem that needs to be solved. There is no reason that the technical development should be limited to people with complex technical knowledge. Instead, people’s voices should be heard in the space where technical specifications are being written. Several agenda items of the WRC-15 address the digital divide, openness, interoperability, non-discriminatory standards, sustainability, affordability, and competition – all the values that civil society has expertise in. However, most people in civil society have not been aware of such discussions in the ITU system for the past several years, since they do not have TIES accounts. Had civil society been able to step in, the WRC-15 preparation process could have benefited with civil society’s expertise and experience in those values.
Unfortunately, the current WRC preparatory process is not the only ITU process that has failed to keep up its people-centric promise of the WSIS. For instance, in the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), the ITU decided to redact the identities of the proposing parties when sharing certain government proposals with civil society, and that decision led to the WCITLeaks, where NGOs posted the original proposals to reveal who proposed which ideas.
Also, in the 2013 World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum (WTPF), the ITU extended an invitation to civil society experts to join an Informal Experts Group (IEG), on the condition that their contributions were tagged as “information documents” and that they would not participate in the floor debate. A frustrated civil society sent letters requesting a more “open, transparent, and multistakeholder debate” for the ITU process, but these letters were rejected or not answered.
Similarly, the WRC-15 process also has lacked a meaningful, participatory process for all stakeholders, particularly civil society. The ITU should have been attentive in gathering and incorporating thoughts from broad civil society into the WRC work process, and should continue to do so in the future.
Communication technologies know no boundaries between sectors or between countries. The WRC process should be open, participatory, and inclusive to all people and all stakeholders, including civil society. These values are not only in line with the WSIS, but also in line with NetMundial, and the recently launched US-led initiative Global Connect. The perspectives and ideas of civil society and other stakeholders would lead to better-informed policies and a more effective process overall.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user USAF