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ITU's Landmark Decisions

Bill Smith

The ITU, through its Council acting as the executive body of the Member States, made a "landmark decision” to make available to the public "the main [WCIT] conference preparatory document" and to establish a publicly accessible page "where all stakeholders can express their opinions" on the preparatory document or other WCIT-related matters. A draft of the future ITRS is now available to the public and a website where stakeholders can express their views is under development .

Some have suggested that the ITU hasn't gone far enough with these decisions. I take a different view.


At this year's WSIS Forum, the ITU hosted an information session on WCIT 2012. It was well-attended and the audience learned a great deal, including that:

  • "The ITU is as transparent as organizations are."
  • "The transparency of the ITU is not something that you can question."
  • "We don't really have too much to learn from anybody about multi-stakeholderism because we almost invented it."

WSIS 2012, WCIT – Information Session audio (54:45 - 55:45)

Given these, and other assertions by the ITU, one wonders what corner the ITU has turned with the recent Council decision. For any reasonable definitions of open, transparent, multi-stakeholder, and consultation one would expect all documents to be publicly visible and for all interested parties to fully participate in discussions and decisions. But that isn't the case. Instead, a single document, out of some 200, has been made available to the public, and a one-way comment mechanism will masquerade as a public consultation.

Consultation is an interesting term at the ITU where it can have a variety of meanings. In this "landmark decision", it means a web page for comments. In the case of the Council Internet Policy WG, it was suggested that inviting experts from around the world to Geneva for a 4-hour meeting in advance of a multi-day, official, closed, Member State only session, would be a consultation.

I believe the landmark nature of the ITU's decision lies not in the decision itself, but in the expectation that the world will accept the ITU's interpretation of terms like open, transparent, equitable, and consultation. The ITU would have us believe that making a single document available to the public is evidence of openness and transparency. Similarly, we are expected to believe that the creation of a web page or invitation to a brief "pre-meeting" constitute adequate public or expert consultation.

The decision also deserves landmark status because it was made by the Council, the governing body of the ITU. This is an official decision, reached after serious debate and deliberation, and represents the institutional position of the ITU. It is a well-considered decision, coming after a debate centered on openness and transparency. The best the Council could do was to make a single, difficult to understand document available to the public and to permit the public to submit WCIT-related comments through a web page. Truly a turning point.


We are entering an important stage in the history and evolution of the Internet, a voluntary network of networks. For decades, the Internet was viewed as an experiment and like many experiments, some expected it to be short-lived and of limited utility. Surprisingly, to those expecting a different experimental result, the Internet has proven to be incredibly successful, robust, and above all else useful to billions of people around the planet. It is truly transformational.

That it is all these things and operates in an environment of true openness, transparency, and equity, with voluntary development of and adherence to standards and policy is remarkable, and may be threatening to some. They might respond by declaring their processes open and transparent. They might invite one-way public comment on a single document. They might invite international experts to a brief meeting before retiring in private to determine the fate of those same experts (or instead decide that a web-based contribution mechanism is sufficient).

They might perceive that if left unchecked, this experiment could undermine cherished institutions. They might find the need to engage in discussions for "establishing international control over the Internet using the monitoring and supervisory capabilities of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)". (see transcript) They could declare what some see as an underwhelming action to be momentous.

The range of options appears to be limitless, except for the option where the Internet, its governance, and future development are left where they properly belong; in the hands of those that choose to voluntarily participate and abide by common sense practices that have proven radically successful. This appears to be unacceptable and to be avoided at all costs.

I think the ITU has gone as far as it can go. It has declared that it is open and transparent, using as evidence the public posting of a single document and a one-way comment mechanism. It has closed a meeting on Internet Governance Policy, restricting it to Member States, refusing to admit those best-qualified to discuss and establish such policy. It has made these decisions at the highest levels and unless they can be appealed, they will stand. The ITU can go no further.


Estragon and Vladimir exit the stage having never met Godot in Beckett's acclaimed work. In our absurdist play, the Internet is entering a stage that will decide its future. That stage has been set by the ITU and contains numerous acts including WTSA 2012, WCIT 2012, WTPF 2013, and countless future fora. The script is carefully written, including only those characters needed to move the plot forward as intended by the author. The outcome is inevitable, or so some believe.

The Internet Community has an important part to play in this absurd staging. Will we play Didi or Gogo, endlessly waiting for the absurdity to complete? Perhaps we will play Pozzo, Lucky, or the boy. Or we could choose an entirely different role, that of the audience and recognize "landmark decisions" when we encounter them.

Playing any character on stage is exhilarating. Playing a part in a real life absurd tragedy is debilitating, and we are painfully close to that reality with the Internet and its Governance. The stage has been set. The script has been written. Casting is complete. Rehearsals are underway.

Will the actors follow the script relegating the Internet to an antiquated regulatory model? In considering that question, I suggest we remember that the Internet is voluntary. Nothing mandates that any network connect to any other network nor are any standards or services prescribed. It is open, transparent, accessible, generative, robust, and resilient. It belongs to no one, least of all those who would control it. And it belongs to everyone.


An Internet landmark decision would be one that moves us forward in a meaningful way. It would recognize our place in history and the requirement for 21st century solutions rather than 19th century institutions. It would acknowledge the existence of other institutions and their dominion over their own destiny. It would be inclusive not exclusive, inviting participation instead of limiting it.

For the ITU, making a single document visible to the public and permitting one-way commentary is open and inclusive. It does enhance visibility and broaden discourse within that institution and is a landmark. So too is the decision to limit participation in an Internet Policy Forum. But that decision reduces visibility, narrows discourse, and disenfranchises the community it claims to represent.

As Estonia's President recently remarked, "We must choose between two paths — either we can change the nature of the internet by placing a Westphalian regulatory structure on internet governance, or we can change the world."

Which will it be? Either way, it will be a landmark.

Previously posted on my personal blog.

By Bill Smith, Sr. Policy Advisor, Technology Evangelist at PayPal. (Disclaimer: While I am a PayPal employee, the opinions expressed here are my own.)

Related topics: Internet Governance, Policy & Regulation, Telecom


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.. and meanwhile, we are assured that "all internet traffic passes through the 13 root servers" Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Jul 29, 2012 6:49 PM PDT


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