What to expect at the WTPF

by on May 6, 2013 · 0 comments

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:

  • It’s not a treaty conference. The output of the meeting is instead a report and several opinions. Draft text of these have been negotiated over three preparatory meetings of an “Informal Experts Group” (IEG). The WTPF will finalize the text, which is non-binding, but is likely to be selectively quoted at future treaty conferences in order to pursue the agenda of each member state.
  • Sector members can participate. The ITU is an intergovernmental organization, and member states are its primary constituency. However, the ITU also allows for “sector members,” which are mostly corporations that are involved in international telecommunications. Sector members will have microphones and be able to address the chair during the WTPF, something they could not do during the WCIT. It has not yet been made conclusively clear to me whether sector members will be able to formally vote, if a formal vote is held. (Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré said there would be no voting at the WCIT, but both informal and formal votes were held.)
  • The Internet is explicitly on the table. The Secretariat promised that Internet governance would not be considered at the WCIT, but it ultimately was, which is one reason that the conference failed to produce a treaty that all countries could feel comfortable signing. But the official theme of the WTPF is “international Internet-related public policy matters,” so there is widespread agreement that the Internet is a suitable topic of discussion at the WTPF, even if there is little agreement on conclusions.
  • Anybody can download and read the official WTPF documents. Before and during the WCIT, working drafts and member state contributions were kept secret. Jerry Brito and I started WCITLeaks in order to give the general public access to these documents. For whatever reason—whether exposure of the lack of transparency in the WCIT process embarrassed the ITU Secretariat, or they were planning to make the WTPF more open anyway—all WTPF documents are available for your perusal, several in all six official ITU languages. Either way, I’m happy to applaud the decision to make the documents available.
  • The WTPF is only three days long. The WCIT was almost two weeks. This imposes significant limitations on the amount of deliberation that can occur. There is also a WTPF every 4 years, whereas a WCIT happens only on an as-demanded basis.

Since the conference is going to be short, I expect that most of the debate will focus on the six draft opinions that have been attached to the Secretary-General’s report. The report itself is probably too long to receive substantial revision in only three days. Consequently, the opinions are likely to be where the action is. The draft opinions are:

  1. Promoting Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) as a long term solution to advance connectivity
  2. Fostering an enabling environment for the greater growth and development of broadband connectivity
  3. Supporting Capacity Building for the deployment of IPv6
  4. In Support of IPv6 Adoption and transition from IPv4
  5. Supporting Multi-stakeholderism in Internet Governance
  6. On supporting operationalizing the Enhanced Cooperation Process

Opinions 1 and 2 will be consider in Working Group 1, 3 and 4 will be considered in Working Group 2, and 5 and 6 will be considered in Working Group 3.

The United States has expressed qualified support for the current draft text of all six opinions in its contribution to the WTPF:

The United States is prepared to endorse the consensus achieved by the IEG and adopt the six non-binding opinions as presented in the annex to the Secretary General’s report. We take this approach based on our desire for a successful forum, despite some concerns with respect to the opinions on multi-stakeholderism and enhanced cooperation. But we recognize, as we hope all participants do, that to attempt to renegotiate the text or introduce new topics or opinions during this meeting would cause significant difficulties and upset the consensus already achieved.

Nevertheless, other countries have proposed substantial changes to the draft IEG text. Perhaps the most controversial opinion is number 5 on multi-stakeholderism. Multi-stakeholderism is a tricky element of international Internet politics. Most participants have agreed at one point or another that the “multi-stakeholder” institutions that currently govern the Internet are an important part of the Internet’s success. However, this has led the more authoritarian countries to insist that governments are stakeholders too, and it has led those who support greater ITU involvement in international Internet policy to insist that the ITU is a multi-stakeholder organization.

For example, in a speech two weeks ago in Brussels, Secretary-General Touré said:

This opinion reiterates what I have been saying for some time—that the ITU has been multi-stakeholder from its inception, and that it was the success of the multi-stakeholder approach within ITU that inspired the multi-stakeholder principles agreed at the ITU-led World Summit on the Information Society, WSIS.

Now, Opinion 5 does not say that the ITU is a multi-stakeholder organization (read it yourself), and the ITU is certainly not and has never been a multi-stakeholder institution, unless “multi-stakeholder” is defined as simply having multiple stakeholders. Among those who originally advocated multi-stakeholderism, the term connotes a certain bottom-up, voluntary, inclusive, and even informal process, which is incompatible with intergovernmentalism. This…loose talk…by the Secretary-General appears to be intended to position the ITU to take a more active role in Internet governance. Some member states share Dr. Touré’s apparent agenda. For example, Brazil’s proposed replacement for Opinion 5 explicitly says, “ITU is a multistakeholder organization.”

Russia’s proposed edits to Opinion 5 focus much less on the ITU itself and more on the role of government. For instance, it invites member states:

to exercise their rights on Internet Governance to control distribution, appropriation and development of Internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources and support the operation and development of the basic information and communication infrastructure, include the Internet, at the national level.

In other words, Russia wants to supplant existing Internet governance structures with national laws.

Aside from Opinion 5, the other major issue I am keeping my eye on is Working Group 2 on IP addresses and the IPv6 transition. Late last week, there was an unexpected shuffling of Working Group chairs. The chairwoman of WG3 was removed, the chairman of WG2 was moved to WG3, and Musab Abdullah from Bahrain was announced as the new chairman of WG2.

Those of us who were at the WCIT remember Mr. Abdullah as a forceful advocate for measures, like calling party identification and government-managed naming and numbering resources, that would have enabled greater government control of telecommunication services. And Bahrain is one of the most repressive regimes with respect to the Internet in the world. Reporters Without Borders considers Bahrain one of only five “state enemies of the Internet” in 2013.

So why did this shakeup of Working Group chairs happen, and why is one of the world’s top censors now chairing the Working Group on IP addressing? Could there be a strong push in favor of an expansive role for governments in assigning IP addresses, one that would allow governments to more easily link IP addresses to individuals in order to support censorship? We’ll find out next Wednesday morning when WG2 convenes.

For updates during the WTPF, follow me on Twitter. As always, any views expressed in this post or in future posts and tweets are my own, and should not be attributed to any government or delegation.

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