What’s going at the ITU, how it affects internet governance, and why you should probably care

20 Dec 2017 09:00h - 10:00h

Event report

[Read more session reports and live updates from the 12th Internet Governance Forum]

This session brought together different stakeholders from government, civil society, business, academia, the private sector in a bid to review different policy developments at the ITU, and to encourage dialogue among different stakeholders.

The moderator, Mr Gus Rossi, Director of Global Policy, Public Knowledge, called for dynamic discussions on the role of the ITU in Internet governance and the way forward for multistakeholder processes.

Ms Mehwish Ansari, Digital Programme Officer at Article 19, said the ITU’s relevance is not derived from its structure, it is derived from its mandate and this is key to understanding the role of the organisation in relation to multistakeholderism. When talking about the role of the ITU in Internet governance, it is important to remember that the Internet is not an issue itself. It consists of several issues and the ITU has a focused role. The ITU should recognise the need to work with other actors in the Internet ecosystem. Its mandate would be better supported by multistakeholderism and not just multilateralism. Civil society needs to sustainably engage in the ITU. Ansarisupported the right to privacy and the possibility that the focus on technology at the ITU could obliterate other concerns relating to privacy. If the Internet is a civic space, protecting the freedom of the infrastructure is key to protecting that civic space. She further noted that telecoms and the Internet are increasingly moving into issues that directly impact human rights of privacy so it is necessary to talk about these issues now.

Mr Robert Pepper, Head, Global Connectivity Policy and Planning, Facebook, stated that the next big thing in spectrum is spectrum sharing requiring new techniques for sharing and new models for unlicensed spectrum. He stated that the ITU as an organisation has to evolve into a 21st century organisation and it is not yet there. Pepper noted that there is need to integrate technology across the UN in every organisation so the ITU is not the only body, although it should serve as a coordinating body. Member states need to make more concrete proposals for reforms and to provide concrete mechanisms for the participation of non-state actors.

Amb. Thomas Schneider Director of International Affairs, Federal Office of Communication (OFCOM), Switzerland, noted that the ITU is an important organization, one of the oldest communications organisations, older than the UN itself. As a part of the UN System it is mandated to work through consensus, and this confers a certain degree of legitimacy and responsibility to the organisation. It is also an inclusive organisation with various stakeholder groups so it has experience in multistakeholder cooperation. The ITU’s role in infrastructure allocation and management make it irreplaceable. The organisation also plays a key role in standardisation, capacity building, and community projects in a unique capacity. The ITU is playing an essential role for Internet governance, he stressed. It is important for other actors to know what the ITU is doing and to recognise where there has been progress.  The ITU has an important role, as an organization that works in a coherent way on overarching Internet issues, including  connectivity, community based access, transparency, and the SDGs.

Amb, Benedicto Fonseca, Director of the Department of Scientific and Technological Affairs of the Ministry of External Relations, Itamaraty, Brazil  said the ITU was the key driver behind the World Summit for the  Information Society, which was then opened to UNESCO, UNCTAD and other institutions.   Fonseca noted that the same debates are going on in Brazil and the government is very clear that the Internet is not telecommunications, and these issues are governed separately. He stated that the government of Brazil fully supports the multistakeholder approach,  wear governments are not asking for greater power. Fonseca reminded the audience that it is necessary to work towards more sustainable and legitimate solutions which fully support the participation and contribution of all stakeholders in their respective roles and responsibilities.

Ms Deborah Brown, Global Policy Advocacy Lead for the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), called for more transparency and removal of barriers to participation by CSOs in ITU meetings, council working groups, and access to policies. Civil society needs to engage with the ITU over connectivity, gender, and privacy, and member states should be able to make information available to the public. Brown highlighted the need to do more to curb the negative impact of network shutdowns, and to make it harder for states to implement network disruptions. She acknowledged the progress which has been made but stated that there is still more to do, especially to make ITU processes more open to non-governmental, non-paying member stakeholders..

From the audience, Mr Richard Hill, President, Association for Proper Internet Governance, made a strong case for publication of ITU documents, and reiterated the need for modernisation of ITU processes.

Also from the audience, Mr Paul Blake, self-identified as representing the UK government at the ITU, and a Vice-Chair of the ITU’s Council Working Group for the Internet, stated that even though the ITU is a political forum, it is necessary to avoid politicising debates to the point of breaking down the consensus-building process. Reforms are necessary in the ITU, to encourage greater recognition of the role of non-state actors, recognising their mandates, and forming partnerships with them. The intergovernmental structure was necessary at a time when telecommunications companies were state owned. This is no longer the case and things need to change to reflect this reality. Most especially the ITU has to play a strategic role for developing countries by leading initiatives to raise and build awareness around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are a good opportunity for collaboration, transparency, and the creation of a genuine consensus building multistakeholder process with all actors having a seat on the table. A structural reform albeit difficult, is necessary, he said.

Other audience input noted that while it is crucial to talk about multistakeholder cooperation, it is also necessary to enable concrete participation. The representatives also indicated that it is difficult for civil society and the private sector in developing countries to have access to discussion and decision making platforms for Internet governance. It is also necessary to go beyond, participation and debates to ensure consensus so that meetings provide concrete solutions to move forward. Points from Brazil and Botswana were mentioned as examples.

The moderator concluded that everyone is in accord that the ITU needs structural reforms although there are different opinions on how this should be done. The ITU, like every other institution, needs to embrace change and make its way into the 21st century and it has to lead awareness initiatives on the role of ICTs in the achievement of the SDGs. Country delegates and representatives have a key role to play because the ITU will only go where member states agree it should so representatives and delegates need to encourage their governments to look into ways of bringing about positive reforms within the ITU. Rossi ended the session with an invitation to civil society to reach out to the panellist for support in engaging in ITU processes.

By Many Orok-Tambe Arrey