This morning, the Secretary-General of the ITU, Hamadoun Touré, gave a speech at the WCIT Council Working Group meeting in Geneva in which he said,
It has come as a surprise — and I have to say as a great disappointment — to see that some of those who have had access to proposals presented to this working group have gone on to publicly mis-state or distort them in public forums, sometimes to the point of caricature.
These distortions and mis-statements could be found plausible by credulous members of the public, and could even be used to influence national parliaments, given that the documents themselves are not officially available — in spite of recent developments, including the leaking of Document TD 64.
As many of you surely know, a group of civil society organizations has written to me to request public access to the proposals under discussion.
I would therefore be grateful if you could consider this matter carefully, as I intend to make a recommendation to the forthcoming session of Council regarding open access to these documents, and in particular future versions of TD 64.
I would also be grateful if you would consider the opportunity of conducting an open consultation regarding the ITRs. I also intend to make a recommendation to Council in this regard as well.
Jerry and I commend Dr. Touré for reversing his position on open access to these documents. We like to think that WCITLeaks.org played a role in precipitating this sudden change. Like Dr. Touré, we lament that WCIT planning documents have been subject to so much unhelpful speculation and possibly misrepresentation, but we think that this has happened precisely because they were not available to the public. We’re glad the ITU seems to be recognizing this fact and we look forward to reading the documents once they become public. That said, they remain inaccessible for now and we will continue to solicit leaks as long as that is the case.
Despite these salutary possible changes in ITU policy, I want to highlight some of Dr. Touré’s remarks, which are full of political spin. He said,
There have also been a number of accounts stating that there is some sort of barrier, conflict or even war between telecommunications and the Internet.
In the converged world of the 21st century, this is plainly ridiculous. Who can stand up today and tell me the difference, in terms of traffic passing across networks, between voice, video, and data?
Nobody denies that convergence between IP networks and traditional networks is happening. More and more voice and video is being carried over data networks. But Dr. Touré would have us infer from this that the ITU’s mandate should automatically expand to cover these new data networks. What we deny is that the ITU is needed to regulate data connections at all. The ITU is increasingly becoming obsolete. But like any other bureaucratic organization, it constantly seeks a new justification for its existence. And Internet users should oppose Internet governance as such a justification, because we have our own, “native” Internet governance institutions.
I read a striking fact yesterday in a document that we posted on WCITLeaks. As of 2009, only 6% of US-originated telephone traffic is settled according to the charging and accounting provisions of Article 6 of the ITRs; the other 94% is settled according to private contracts. The proportions are similar for other countries. Even in its traditional niche, voice telephony, the world has moved on from the ITU. And of course, 0% of global Internet traffic today is settled according to the ITRs. It’s not “ridiculous” to demand a rationale for the expanded role the ITU sees for itself.
There are some other distortions in Dr. Touré’s speech. For instance, he lists some “important” ITU activities, such as developing standards for cable modems. This claim is way overstated. DOCSIS was developed by CableLabs, a non-profit R&D consortium run by cable operators. True, it was later ratified by the ITU, but it was already in use when the ITU ratified it. It is not that case that but for the ITU, we would not have standardized cable modems. Dr. Touré also mentions “the radio frequencies used to implement WiFi.” Again, Wi-Fi was not developed by the ITU, and it seems misleading to suggest that without the ITU, we would not have standardized wireless Internet capabilities.
Perhaps the most exaggerated claim that Dr. Touré makes is that the ITU is a bottom-up organization:
I am proud of the ITU’s tradition of open discussion amongst its membership, and I am proud that the ITU works bottom-up, thanks to inputs from its 193 Member States and 552 Sector Members.
Give me a break. Compare the ITU to a truly bottom-up organization, like the IETF:
The IETF is completely open to newcomers. There is no formal membership, no membership fee, and nothing to sign. By participating, you do automatically accept the IETF’s rules, including the rules about intellectual property (patents, copyrights and trademarks). If you work for a company and the IETF will be part of your job, you must obviously clear this with your manager. However, the IETF will always view you as an individual, and never as a company representative.
When the ITU adopts policies similar to the IETF’s, I’ll be happy to call it bottom-up.
It’s clear that the ITU feels threatened by the increased attention that WCITLeaks has sent its way. Good. We believe that political institutions should be transparent and required to justify their continued existence in the face of social change.