Public interest groups demand a role in telecom treaty negotiations

Thirty-one academics, freedom of expression groups, and civil society organizations – including IGP – have sent a letter to the International Telecommunication Union asking it to open up the preparatory process for the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). The WCIT is negotiating a revision of the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs); that process will culminate in a December meeting in Dubai. The full text of the letter and its expanding list of endorsers can be read here. A Spanish-language version can be read here.

The civil society groups are asking the ITU to:

  • Allow sharing of WCIT documents and all preparatory materials, including proposed revisions to the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs);
  • Open the preparatory process to meaningful participation by civil society in its own right
  • Facilitate remote participation in the meeting
  • Ask its Member States to open up processes at the national level to solicit public input on the proposed ITR amendments

The interaction between civil society groups and the ITU closely resembles the controversy over the so-called Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The ACTA treaty was negotiated in secret so that its provisions could reflect the concerns of special interest groups, namely the copyright and intellectual property lobby. The closed process, however, gave the resulting treaty a lack of legitimacy, and that lack of legitimacy led to organnized opposition, the suspension of its ratification in Europe and resistance elsewhere.

There is an important difference between the WCIT and ACTA negotiations, however. In ACTA, the US government and a major segment of the business community (the IPR interests) did not want civil society involved. Indeed, the same pattern is being repeated in negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, another closed negotiating process that sacrifices consumer and exporters’ interests in expanding trade on the altar of intellectual property monopolies.

In the case of WCIT, both the US government and most Internet industry interests want academics and civil society involved. They want their help fending off more control by intergovernmental institutions. Indeed, the U.S. is repeatedly touting “multi-stakeholderism” as the principle underlying its challenge to greater regulation of the Internet by the UN and ITU. But they seem less concerned with the MS principle when copyright, trademark and patent interests are involved. This incident thus demonstrates the inconsistency of US policy regarding global governance institutions. Nevertheless, the reform of the ITU into a more open, accessible process is a worthy goal in and of itself, so allies from industry and government are welcome, whatever their points of departure.

It is unlikely that the ITU will fully accede to the demands put forward in the letter. Speaking at the WSIS Forum in Geneva yesterday, an ITU spokesperson provided rather negative answers to the demand for more openness. According to notes of the meeting, the ITU cannot release documents for free because it conflicts with the ITU business model in which access to documents and participation rights are granted in exchange for membership fees which sustain the organization. He added that the current constitution and legal framework of the ITU doesn’t allow open participation or the release of the documents, and member states have not been willing to change these provisions in the past.

So the civil society letter throws down the gauntlet. Any revision of the ITRs that is produced without the demanded level of transparency and participation is likely to run into the same obstacles as ACTA. Only the obstacles will be much greater, because many industrial and governmental parties who supported (or felt they had to go along with) ACTA would be explicitly opposed to a WCIT-12 revision of the ITRs that had ill effects on the freedom or openness of international telecommunications.


3 comments

  1. DavidCake

    Is there are way to sign on to this group, or otherwise get involved with the campaign for increased openness in the WCIT process?

    • BrendenKuerbis

       @DavidCake CDT is managing the sign ons at https://www.cdt.org/letter-for-civil-society-involvement-in-WCIT