Last month we attended the 2022 Plenipotentiary Conference of the International Telecommunication Union—a major agenda-setting juncture in the calendar of this UN telecoms body.
A few takeaways:
- This Plenipotentiary, there was a heightened focus on the election of the Secretary-General and other senior posts, because of the underpinning geopolitical context. The candidates (Doreen Bogdan-Martin from the US and Rashid Ismailov, Russia) reflected, by virtue of their nationalities, how the conflict in Ukraine is having a wider impact on negotiations at the UN and in other multilateral forums. In the end, there was no contest. Bogdan-Martin received an overwhelming number of the votes from member states and the Russian candidate received a historically low number (25). The result is indicative of a broader isolation of Russia in multilateral forums, as well as reflecting Bogdan-Martin’s record and experience (in, for example, in the ITU’s Development Sector, which was evident in the support she received from developing countries). This result was also a broader opportunity for greater openness of the ITU to coordination with other bodies (based on Bogdan-Martin’s commitment to multistakeholderism, one of the hallmarks of her election campaign) and with non-governmental stakeholders—although, ultimately it is the will of the member states that will decide.
- Contentions remain around the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs)—binding treaty-level provisions on international telecoms—and whether they should be changed. The last revision in 2012 resulted in less than half of ITU membership signing, causing a major split among ITU member states. Non Signatories didn’t support the inclusion of the internet in the ITRs. Since then, an Expert Group on the ITRs was convened to examine the 2012 ITRs in the context of emerging trends and issues in the telecom/ICTs landscape. Some of the non-signatories had hoped that this Plenipot would signal the end to that work but, in the end, the Plenipot agreed to reconvene the Expert Group with its terms of reference and working methods established by the ITU Council. The Council is instructed to review and revise the terms of reference for the EG ITR at its 2023 session. More details here.
- From a digital rights perspective, few substantive new resolutions or amendments were passed. Several proposed additions to resolutions—mainly pushing the ITU to “do more” on cyber, through developing vulnerability databases and other tools—were rejected. This was also the case for attempts to integrate text encouraging greater coordination of the ITU with internet governance stakeholders and forums that are multistakeholder (and where internet standard setting happens) and to open up the discussions to more stakeholders in internet public policy specific resolutions. Even some seemingly unobjectionable new language on gender and digital inclusion was rejected (illustrating the highly politicised nature of the negotiations), leading to a joint statement from some member states, led by Denmark, as well as numerous other statements from individual member states expressing grave disappointment.
- The ITU did pass its first ever AI-specific resolution—calling on it to “continue its work on AI related to telecommunication/ ICTs within its mandate and core competencies, including studies, information sharing, and capacity building”. But it will not affect the ITU’s mandate, and the likely impacts will be modest: new guidance documents, toolkits etc. However, down the line it may also result in increased attempts for the ITU to extend the scope of its work on AI-related issues (as has happened with the internet of things, for example), including technical standards that currently take place in public sector and commercial spaces.
- There was also a resolution passed relating to the upcoming 20th anniversary of the WSIS (WSIS+20) in 2025. It instructed the ITU to use the WSIS Forum in 2024 as a platform for a WSIS+20 review, including multistakeholder discussions and a stock-taking of achievements and key trends, challenges, and opportunities. This could be an important opportunity, alongside discussions on the Global Digital Compact, for civil society to engage in discussions on the high-level commitments that member states will make regarding the future of internet governance.
Will these developments have any material impact on the direction of the ITU? Yes and no. The ITU Plenipot is where big decisions are made. But the substantial work of the ITU happens in between these big conferences, with the Sector Conferences and, particularly the work of the Study Groups. The work of these Study Groups in each ITU Sector will continue and will be impacted by resolutions and decisions made at the Plenipot (which is why the Plenipot is significant). The first Council meeting after the Plenipot in 2023 is an important one, as it will address the instructions received from the event.
The scope of work and priorities of the Sectors and their Study Groups are determined by their respective assemblies or conferences (e.g the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly in 2024 and World Telecommunication Development Conference 2025), which will likely pass AI resolutions now as result of the PP-22 AI resolution. Seemingly innocuous text in resolutions could continue to become ways to enact long standing agendas to build out new internet standards such as Digital Object Architecture (see our explainer here); and new IP related concepts, which could fragment the internet and have serious consequences for human rights.
- ITU highlights from the ITU itself
- Reflections from the ITU from RIPE NCC
- Webinar on ITU from GIGAnet (recording)