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ITU, the Internet, and a Very Contentious Footnote

Sam Dickinson

I was part of a small APNIC delegation that attended the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference (PP-10) with a limited Sector Member role as an observer. Our aim was to be available to ITU Member States with questions on IP addressing issues and to follow Member State discussions on the ITU's role in Internet governance issues.

Four adopted resolutions at PP-10 were of particular relevance to Internet management, of which one was new: "Facilitating the transition from IPv4 to IPv6". The remaining three were revisions of previous resolutions: Resolution 101, on IP-based networks; 102, on the ITU's role in Internet "public policy issues"; and 133, on Member States' role in management of Internationalized Domain Names. The resolutions are not available to the public yet, but for a summary of their content, see ISOC's Plenipotentiary Conference Report 3.

Some discussions on these resolutions are freely available as transcripts or webcasts on the PP-10 website. However, a lot of the more intense discussions occurred in small rooms with no public record. In response, some of the Internet community representatives onsite used Twitter to help others track the discussions. Such real-time tweeting in an ITU meeting was truly groundbreaking. To view PP-10's Twitter record, look for the hashtags #PP10 and #adhocInternet.

When a footnote is not just a footnote

One of the main Internet resolution arguments was whether to recognize the existence of the organizations that have coordinated and managed the Internet's operations over the last few decades, including the RIRs, ICANN, IETF, ISOC, and W3C. This was a continuation of similar debates at the 2009 World Telecommunications Policy Forum and the World Telecommunications Development Conference earlier this year. It has to be noted, however, that at all these meetings, while there were a few Member States who were either passionately pro- or anti- Internet organization references, the vast majority were silent.

At PP-10, a number of proposals related to removing or adding references to Internet organizations coalesced to create the final "footnote or no footnote" debate:

  • A proposal to completely remove references to Internet organizations;
  • A multi-stakeholder themed proposal for the ITU to "coexist, collaborate, coordinate, and cooperate with other relevant organizations involved in the development of IP-based networks taking into account responsibilities handled elsewhere"; and,
  • A proposal to merge three existing Internet-related resolutions (101, 102, and 133) into a single resolution.

After intense negotiations, it was agreed to mention the Internet organizations in the amended Resolution 101. However, over time, this moved from the main text, to a footnote, to a suggestion that it be mentioned only in the session's minutes. At the very last minute, in exchange for withdrawing other proposed Internet resolutions, as well as some other negotiations to the text, it was agreed that the Internet organization footnote be placed in all four remaining Internet resolutions (101, 102, 133, and the new IPv6 resolution).

While the argument about the footnote may seem irrelevant, it was actually a reflection of fundamental differences between Member States. On one side: states supporting the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance. On the other side: states believing in the fundamental right of governments to make decisions on behalf of all stakeholders. Unfortunately, this latter view is at odds with today's increasing globalism, where trans-border issues are often beyond the control of sovereign States to solve alone.

How the ITU works

The intergovernmental ITU has developed a wide body of rules and procedures to help its Member States — many of which have widely varying political, economic and telecommunication needs — develop and decide on international telecommunications standards and agreements. Having watched a very tense argument at PP-10 that was a microcosm of a much larger geopolitical conflict, it is clear why such rules can be necessary; without recourse to them, the argument could have escalated.

In the ITU model, governments ("Member States") make decisions in high-level meetings like PP-10, while non-government entities ("Sector Members") generally participate in the Study Groups that examine and develop technology standards. They have no ability to speak, unless invited, at events like PP-10. To date, limiting decision-making to governments has made a lot of sense: treaties made at events like PP-10 must be implemented at the country level. In today's trans-border world, however, when many activities occur outside the realm of sovereign state decision-making, this may not translate effectively.

Can ITU realize its PP-10 resolutions related to the Internet?

ITU adapted from telegraphy to telephony, and is now attempting to adapt to a fast-changing Internet age. One of the challenges the ITU faces in attempting to implement its Internet-related resolutions is changing gears from a traditionally slow-to-change intergovernmental body into a more agile organization that can effectively work at the faster pace of an Internet world. Major decisions about the ITU's work plan are only possible every four years at Plenipotentiaries; contrast this with the faster turnaround provided by the "rough consensus, running code" mantra of the Internet technical community.

During PP-10, it was encouraging that the ITU Secretariat noted public interest in the webcasts and transcripts and quickly solved long-standing contractual limitations that had previously prevented them posting password-free links. The ITU is also now using RSS, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr. Even the ITU Secretary-General now has a Twitter account, which, while not yet engaging in dialogue with other users, is a good start.

What is less encouraging, however, is the composition of Member State representatives at meetings. Is it possible for veterans of a pre-Internet world — who take comfort in the ITU's labyrinthine regulations and processes and in many cases don't even use laptops — to have informed discussion and decisions on Internet matters? Most governments also tend to send representatives from radio and telecommunications departments, and not from newer ICT departments; however, with wider ICT issues now under discussion at the ITU, representation needs may need to change. Unless this happens, it may damage ICT outcomes for Member States.

It is also unclear exactly what the ITU can offer Member States: there are already ways for government involvement in Internet issues, including multi-stakeholder forums like the IGF and government-specific advisory bodies like ICANN's Governmental Advisory Committee. While some Member States may see advantage in having the ITU as a "one-stop shop" for telecommunications and Internet, for many, it will mean increased costs. In particular, governments that previously sent Internet-related experts to Internet-specific forums like the IGF, ICANN, IETF, etc, will now need to also send them to ITU meetings. Unless the ITU clarifies what is meant by the "resolves" sections of the four PP-10 Internet resolutions, Member States risk sending a lot of Internet representatives to a lot of ITU meetings without clear goals to meet.

The ITU is juggling a reduced budget with existing commitments to Member States in a wide range of telephone, radio, and satellite activities. It will be interesting to see how, during this period of financial constraints, the ITU manages its existing priorities alongside these new Internet-related resolutions.

Going forward

The Internet community cannot directly influence how the ITU functions. However, the community can continue its existing work: ensuring the Internet continues to run and building capacity in developing economies and less technical stakeholder groups. The Internet community has long recognized and worked with government as one of the Internet's stakeholder groups. In our capacity as Internet technical experts, we can assist this important stakeholder group to gain the knowledge needed to fully understand how its activities can either help or hinder both the Internet — within sovereign borders, as well as globally — and the economic and social systems that increasingly rely on the Internet.

Finally, it is important to note that resolutions decided after weeks of late nights are not always as clear as they could be. Language is often the victim of multiple attempts to reach consensus, with text watered down or turned into vague statements that nobody really knows what they mean any more. At this point, just over a month since PP-10, it's fair to say that the ITU and its Member States are in a post-Plenipotentiary recovery state, where the vague wording in resolutions have not yet been interpreted by the ITU as they attempt to turn them into action. When this happens, however, it is important for the Internet community to take note, as it will affect how the ITU implements the Internet resolutions, and of particular interest here, how ITU and its Member States work with other stakeholders in Internet operations and governance, including those referred to in the infamous footnote.

By Sam Dickinson, Internet governance consultant & writer
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Share your comments

Unclear is not the same as unavailable Paul Hoffman  –  Nov 30, 2010 9:29 AM PST

"Finally, it is important to note that resolutions decided after weeks of late nights are not always as clear as they could be." If they are unavailable (which it certainly appears), how can we tell if they are unclear?

You hit the nail on the head, Sam Dickinson  –  Nov 30, 2010 7:41 PM PST

You hit the nail on the head, Paul, with the issue of resolutions and discussions that aren't available to all. In the absence of those texts, the best solution was to offer this analysis of the ITU PP-10 outcomes. There is also a good range of PP-10 views on sites like CircleID, GIBC and The Register that should help generate informed opinions about the resolutions.

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