As the ITU’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (“WCIT”) gets underway, it’s clear that the efforts by global civil society groups on behalf of transparency and free expression have had at least something of an impact.
Most importantly for those wanting to follow the discussions at home, the ITU agreed to webcast is plenary sessions and the meetings of the “Review Committee,” which is the committee that will be discussing proposed changes to the International Telecommunications Regulations (“ITRs”).
And it’s nice to note that Hamadoun Touré, the Secretary General of the ITU, emphasized the involvement of civil society in his opening remarks (including a mention of Public Knowledge by name).
On more substantive matters, the plenary session debated for an hour on how best to express the importance of free expression within the language of the ITRs, and to reassure the world that nothing done at the WCIT will compromise that fundamental right. Although the Plenary couldn’t agree on how to include an explicit reference to Article 19 of the Fundamental Declaration of Human Rights (which declares the freedom of expression), Secretary General Touré and member states (such as Tunisia, which made the initial proposal) made it very clear they wanted to show the world that the ITU and WCIT respect the fundamental principle of free expression.
Many of the countries represented at the ITU have also expanded their civil society outreach. The United States has included several civil society representatives on its delegation (including PKers Harold Feld and Rashmi Rangnath). Other countries have likewise increased their outreach to civil society in ways never before seen in the context of an ITU meeting. The European Parliament passed a resolution echoing many of the concerns raised by global civil society with regard to transparency and freedom of expression.
Just a few months ago, it was hard to imagine that global civil society could have such enormous impact on the WCIT in such a short time. While concerns about transparency and free expression are a long way from being resolved, it’s still important to note that there has been some forward progress. The WCIT has become more open than previous ITU meeting, and is certainly a lot more open than many other global treaty negotiations (for instance, look at the lockout of civil society from negotiations on the Trans Pacific Partnership). It could be argued that the ITU and member countries are only including civil society as a matter of political necessity, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are, in fact, doing the right thing with this inclusion. Actually, it shows that the ITU recognizes the fact that acknowledging the important role of civil society increases its legitimacy, and the inclusion and transparency shown so far at this meeting marks an important milestone for the relationship between civil society and the ITU.
Of course, that milestone is far form being a destination. Civil society must continue to shine a spotlight on WCIT and raise concerns whenever proposals implicate freedom of expression or threaten to place critical Internet functions behind closed doors. The proposal of the Russian Consortium to transfer key Internet governance functions from more transparent multistakeholder institutions like ICANN and regional Internet registries becomes no less threatening just because it’s being webcast. Furthermore, proposals made to address real problems, such as fraud and consumer protection, can have devastating unintended consequences for free speech. It is the ongoing responsibility of global civil society to continue to make these concerns very loudly and publicly.
So it’s great that Secretary General Touré and others at the WCIT have tried to address the concerns of global civil society. Some of the benefits of this engagement are already being felt. But it’s still up to civil society to use this engagement to press for a free and open Internet, and up to the ITU and its member states to represent their countries and people by taking those voices into account.