The buzz, debates and misinformation
This is the report on Day One of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), directly from Dubai.
The conference started off in a positive way that did not reflect the sometimes bitter debate that has taken place in the press in recent months — although, of course, there was a great deal of discussion about the comments made in the press over that period. All comments were welcomed, as an indication of the importance of the internet and telecommunications; nevertheless the Secretary-General, Hamadoun Touré, was clearly critical of some of the deliberate misinformation that has been spread before the conference. He singled out Google as an organisation that has fueled some of this.
He was rather offended by any notions that the ITU had plans to take over the internet and that the rules discussed at WCIT could undermine freedom of speech. As I've also indicated over the past six months, I didn't agree with those who expressed criticism along these lines.
As in any international organisation, any country can come up with ideas, suggestions and proposals, but that doesn't necessarily mean that such proposals will be accepted. Part of the problem in relation to miscommunication has been that some of these ideas and suggestions — and even rumours — were treated by the critics as policies that had already been accepted by WCIT/ITU.
The stakes are higher
It is also clear that this will be a much more difficult conference to manage than those which have taken place in the past, especially because of the events preceding it. The last time the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) were discussed was in 1988 in Melbourne, Australia; and at that time the member states were represented by engineers and public servants. Minister Steven Conroy from Australia was present and in Dubai the bat was handed over from Australia to the United Arab Emirates.
At the time of the Melbourne conference there were 4.5 million (yes, million not billion) mobile users. The world was still largely analogue, with the internet just appearing on the horizon. With the stakes now significantly higher, many national delegations now have a much wider participation of delegates involved in policies, civil society, businesses, etc. Security is bringing banks and lawyers to the conference as well.
Any delegation coming to WCIT is free to select its own members and they can come from any part of the society — that is, not just government representatives. There are many issues that will be discussed and many of the people participating will have very specific topics that they will be involved in.
Separating the many issues
As mentioned in previous blogs, for WCIT to be successful it will need to start separating the issues, deciding what is technical and can be addressed in the 'usual' way, and what are issues that don't easily fit the ITU agenda. However, given the widespread interest that has been shown by the general public in all of the issues, the Secretary-General does not want to exclude any of them from the debate in Dubai. Once properly debated and analysed it can be decided if the ITU has a role to play; whether there are other organisations that are better-suited to address these issues; and/or if a broader multi-stakeholder approach is needed.
ITU and ICANN working together
In an historic moment, and as a sign of a new dawn of collaboration, the CEO of ICANN was invited to address the opening session. In a passionate address he embraced cooperation between the two organisations, clearly indicating that these two organisations are complementary and that neither party had any intention of encroaching on each other's territory. The Secretary-General compared this with roads and cars — distinctly different activities, but closely related and operating closely together.
When the first concerns in relation to internet governance surfaced in the public arena I suggested a greater role for ICANN in all of this and it is great to see that this has now been achieved. This should take some of the sting out of the debate, especially in relation to the misinformation about the UN/ITU wanting to take over the internet.
This was also a solution favoured by my American colleagues. This is important, as over the last year the American delegation has taken a very strong stand on issues that the ITU can and cannot look after.
Another contentious issue is that of cybersecurity. The USA is opposed to the ITU taking any role in this, but perhaps the problem can be resolved through the use of different words. The ITU has clearly stated that it has no role to play in any security issue other than that of ensuring the infrastructure is secure and robust enough to make the network as safe as possible.
The Secretary-General also took a strong position on cyberwarfare and expressed the hope — as a matter of principle — that the conference will add to cyberpeace, and that the WCIT could play a role in this.
Rules for rates
Another contentious issue is that of international charges between operators. While there are suggestions of a receivers-based charging system it was clearly stated at the start of the conference that there was no way back to the old days of such a system. The current system of bilateral arrangements is working well in the developed economies and that will not change.
It was suggested that more emphasis is needed to assist the developing world in moving to such structures. Any extra 'taxes' will increase prices and therefore decrease affordability, which is a key issue. However the developing world will need to generate better policies that will allow them to profit from the social and economic benefits that telecoms, and broadband in particular, offers them. The ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Digital Development is leading the way here and such developments would assist these countries to better attract investments.
The conference will also stress the need for greater transparency so that users know what they are paying for and are given a choice between the various offerings. Non-discriminating pricing is another topic that will be discussed.
All of these rules for rates are going to be difficult topics and the key will be to emphasise the notion of a level playing field.
Connecting the Global Village
Dr. Touré also went out of his way to highlight the importance of the ITU in ensuring that all global citizens will be connected — that it is not just a matter of the one-third of the world that is already connected. It is essential to get the rest of the world connected to the internet and he expressed the hope that the delegates would keep this in mind during their deliberations. Two-thirds of the world's population is not yet connected. It is in everybody's interest to change that, and the ITRs can play an important role in this. WCIT should therefore be flexible and open to compromises. Again, this is not just a conference about the developed world looking after its own issues in isolation.
He also clearly wants to ensure that the 650 million people with disabilities are included in the connected world, especially as ICT can play a critical role in maximising their participation in society and the economy.
The issues are many and complex, and the only way forward for WCIT and the ITU is to build consensus. This should not be a win-or-lose situation and some of the delegations will need to find ways to compromise in order to make progress. We will have to wait for another two weeks to discover whether the world is now sufficiently mature to find compromises in our increasingly diverse global society.
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