international

Last week marked the conclusion of the ITU’s Plenipotentiary Conference, the quadrennial gathering during which ITU member states get together to revise the treaty that establishes the Union and conduct other high-level business. I had the privilege of serving as a member of the US delegation, as I did for the WCIT, and to see the negotiations first hand. This year’s Plenipot was far less contentious than the WCIT was two years ago. For other summaries of the conference, let me recommend to you Samantha Dickinson, Danielle Kehl, and Amb. Danny Sepulveda. Rather than recap their posts or the entire conference, I just wanted to add a couple of additional observations.

We mostly won on transparent access to documents

Through my involvement with WCITLeaks, I have closely followed the issue of access to ITU documents, both before and during the Plenipot. My assessment is that we mostly won.

Going forward, most inputs and outputs to ITU conferences and assemblies will be available to the public from the ITU website. This excludes a) working documents, b) documents related to other meetings such as Council Working Groups and Study Groups, and c) non-meeting documents that should be available to the public.

However, in February, an ITU Council Working Group will be meeting to develop what is likely to be a more extensive document access policy. In May, the whole Council will meet to provisionally approve an access policy. And in 2018, the next Plenipot will permanently decide what to do about this provisional access policy.

There are no guarantees, and we will need to closely monitor the outcomes in February and May to see what policy is adopted—but if it is a good one, I would be prepared to shut down WCITLeaks as it would become redundant. If the policy is inadequate, however, WCITLeaks will continue to operate until the policy improves.

I was gratified that WCITLeaks continued to play a constructive role in the discussion. For example, in the Arab States’ proposal on ITU document access, they cited us, considering “that there are some websites on the Internet which are publishing illegally to the public ITU documents that are restricted only to Member States.” In addition, I am told that at the CEPT coordination meeting, WCITLeaks was thanked for giving the issue of transparency at the ITU a shot in the arm.

A number of governments were strong proponents of transparency at the ITU, but I think special thanks are due to Sweden, who championed the issue on behalf of Europe. I was very grateful for their leadership.

The collapse of the WCIT was an input into a harmonious Plenipot

We got through the Plenipot without a single vote (other than officer elections)! That’s great news—it’s always better when the ITU can come to agreement without forcing some member states to go along.

I think it’s important to recognize the considerable extent to which this consensus agreement was driven by events at the WCIT in 2012. At the WCIT, when the US (and others) objected and said that we could not agree to certain provisions, other countries thought we were bluffing. They decided to call our bluff by engineering a vote, and we wisely decided not to sign the treaty, along with 54 other countries.

In Busan this month, when we said that we could not agree to certain outcomes, nobody thought we were bluffing. Our willingness to walk away at the WCIT gave us added credibility in negotiations at the Plenipot. While I also believe that good diplomacy helped secure a good outcome at the Plenipot, the occasional willingness to walk the ITU off a cliff comes in handy. We should keep this in mind for future negotiations—making credible promises and sticking to them pays dividends down the road.

The big question of the conference is in what form will the India proposal re-emerge

At the Plenipot, India offered a sweeping proposal to fundamentally change the routing architecture of the Internet so that a) IP addresses would be allocated by country, like telephone numbers, with a country prefix and b) domestic Internet traffic would never be routed out of the country.

This proposal was obviously very impractical. It is unlikely, in any case, that the ITU has the expertise or the budget to undertake such a vast reengineering of the Internet. But the idea would also be very damaging from the perspective of individual liberty—it would make nation-states, even more than the are now, mediators of human communication.

I was very proud that the United States not only made the practical case against the Indian proposal, it made a principled one. Amb. Sepulveda made a very strong statement indicating that the United States does not share India’s goals as expressed in this proposal, and that we would not be a part of it. This statement, along with those of other countries and subsequent negotiations, effectively killed the Indian proposal at the Plenipot.

The big question is in what form this proposal will re-emerge. The idea of remaking the Internet along national lines is unlikely to go away, and we will need to continue monitoring ITU study groups to ensure that this extremely damaging proposal does not raise its head.

Good news! As the ITU’s Plenipotentiary Conference gets underway in Busan, Korea, the heads of delegation have met and decided to open up access to some of the documents associated with the meeting. At this time, it is only the documents that are classified as “contributions“—other documents such as meeting agendas, background information, and terms of reference remain password protected. It’s not clear yet whether that is an oversight or an intentional distinction. While I would prefer all documents to be publicly available, this is a very welcome development. It is gratifying to see the ITU membership taking transparency seriously.

Special thanks are due to ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré. When Jerry Brito and I launched WCITLeaks in 2012, at first, the ITU took a very defensive posture. But after the WCIT, the Secretary-General demonstrated tremendous leadership by becoming a real advocate for transparency and reform. I am told that he was instrumental in convincing the heads of delegation to open up access to Plenipot documents. For that, Dr. Touré has my sincere thanks—I would be happy to buy him a congratulatory drink when I arrive in Busan, although I doubt his schedule would permit it.

It’s worth noting that this decision only applies to the Plenipotentiary conference. The US has a proposal that will be considered at the conference to make something like this arrangement permanent, to instruct the incoming SG to develop a policy of open access to all ITU meeting documents. That is a development that I will continue to watch closely.

Last week, I participated in a program co-sponsored by the Progressive Policy Institute, the Lisbon Council, and the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy on “Growing the Transatlantic Digital Economy.”

The complete program, including keynote remarks from EU VP Neelie Kroes and U.S. Under Secretary of State Catherine A. Novelli, is available below.

My remarks reviewed worrying signs of old-style interventionist trade practices creeping into the digital economy in new guises, and urged traditional governments to stay the course (or correct it) on leaving the Internet ecosystem largely to its own organic forms of regulation and market correctives: Continue reading →

The ITU is holding its quadrennial Plenipotentiary Conference in Busan, South Korea from October 20 to November 7, 2014. The Plenipot, as it is called, is the ITU’s “supreme organ” (a funny term that I did not make up). It represents the highest level of decision making at the ITU. As it has for the last several ITU conferences, WCITLeaks will host leaked documents related to the Plenipot.

For those interested in transparency at the ITU, two interesting developments are worth reporting. On the first day of the conference, the heads of delegation will meet to decide whether documents related to the conference should be available to the public directly through the TIES system without a password. All of the documents associated with the Plenipot are already available in English on WCITLeaks, but direct public access would have the virtue of including those in the world who do not speak English but do speak one of the other official UN languages. Considering this additional benefit of inclusion, I hope that the heads of delegation will seriously consider the advantages of adopting a more open model for document access during this Plenipot. If you would like to contact the head of delegation for your country, you can find their names in this document. A polite email asking them to support open access to ITU documents might not hurt.

In addition, at the meeting, the ITU membership will consider a proposal from the United States to, as a rule, provide open access to all meeting documents.

open-access-ITU

This is what WCITLeaks has always supported—putting ourselves out of business. As the US proposal notes, the ITU Secretariat has conducted a study finding that other UN agencies are much more forthcoming in terms of public access to their documents. A more transparent ITU is in everyone’s interest—including the ITU’s. This Plenipot has the potential to remedy a serious deficiency with the institution; I’m cheering for them and hoping they get it right.

Jack Schinasi discusses his recent working paper, Practicing Privacy Online: Examining Data Protection Regulations Through Google’s Global Expansion published in the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law. Schinasi takes an in-depth look at how online privacy laws differ across the world’s biggest Internet markets — specifically the United States, the European Union and China. Schinasi discusses how we exchange data for services and whether users are aware they’re making this exchange. And, if not, should intermediaries like Google be mandated to make its data tracking more apparent? Or should we better educate Internet users about data sharing and privacy? Schinasi also covers whether privacy laws currently in place in the US and EU are effective, what types of privacy concerns necessitate regulation in these markets, and whether we’ll see China take online privacy more seriously in the future.

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Last month, I wrote at The Guardian that NSA surveillance is harming our Internet freedom efforts. Now we have tangible evidence of that. Speaking at the UN Human Rights Council on behalf of Cuba, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Ecuador, Russia, Indonesia, Bolivia, Iran, and China, Pakistan delivered the following statement (video, starts around 52:25). Pay special attention to the last two paragraphs: Continue reading →

I am American earning an industrial PhD in internet economics in Denmark, one of the countries that law professor Susan Crawford praises in her book Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age. The crise du jour in America today is broadband, and Susan Crawford is echoed by journalists David Carr, John Judis and Eduardo Porter and publications such as the New York Times, New Republic, Wired, Bloomberg News, and Huffington Post. One can also read David Cay Johnston’s The Fine Print:  How Big Companies Use ‘Plain English’ to Rob You Blind.

It has become fashionable to write that American broadband internet is slow and expensive and that cable and telecom companies are holding back the future—even though the data shows otherwise.  We can count on the ”America is falling behind” genre of business literature to keep us in a state of alert while it ensures a steady stream of book sales and traffic to news websites.

After six months of pro-Crawford coverage, the New York Times finally published two op-eds[1] which offered a counter view to the “America is falling behind in broadband” mantra. Crawford complained about this in Salon.com and posted a 23 page blog on the Roosevelt Institute website to present “the facts”, but she didn’t mention that the New York Times printed two of her op-eds and featured her in two interviews for promotion of her book.   I read Crawford’s book closely as well as her long blog post, including the the references she provides.  I address Crawford’s charges as questions in four blogs.

  1. Do Europeans and East Asians have better and cheaper broadband than Americans?
  2. Is fiber to the home the network of the future (FTTH), or are there competing technologies?
  3. Is there really a cable/mobile duopoly in broadband?
  4.  What is the #1 reason why older Americans use the internet?

For additional critique of the America is falling behind broadband myth, see my 10 Myths and Realities of Broadband.   See also the response of one of the op-ed authors whom Crawford criticizes.

 

How the broadband myth got started

Crawford’s book quotes a statistic from Akamai in 2009. That year was the nadir of the average measured connection speed for the US, placing it at #22 and falling. Certainly presenting the number at its worse point strengthens Crawford’s case for slow speeds. However, Akamai’s State of the Internet Report is released quarterly, so there should have been no problem for Crawford to include a more recent figure in time for her book’s publication in December 2012. Presently the US ranks #9 for the same measure. Clearly the US is not falling behind if its ranking on average measured speed steadily increased from 22nd to 9th.

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Are we as globalized and interconnected as we think we are? Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and author of the new book, Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, argues that America was likely more globalized before World War I than it is today. Zuckerman discusses how we’re more focused on what’s going on in our own backyards; how this affects creativity; the role the Internet plays in making us less connected with the rest of the world; and, how we can broaden our information universe to consume a more healthy “media diet.”

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Next week, I’ll be in Geneva for the 2013 World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum, better known by the acronym WTPF-13. This is the first major ITU conference since the WCIT in December, and the first real test of whether what some are calling the “post-WCIT era” really exists, and if so, what it means. For those just now tuning in, the WCIT was a treaty conference in Dubai in which some ITU member states pushed hard to make elements of the Internet subject to intergovernmental agreement, resulting in the refusal of 55 countries to sign the treaty. I published a retrospective account of my experience at the WCIT at Ars Technica.

The WTPF will be different than the WCIT in several important ways: Continue reading →

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.

— Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

As we approach the World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum, the debate over whether intergovernmental organizations like the International Telecommunication Union should have a role to play in Internet governance continues. One argument in favor of intergovernmentalism, advanced, for instance, by former ITU Counsellor Richard Hill (now operating his own ITU lobbying organization, delightfully named APIG), goes as follows:

Continue reading →