The topics on the agenda of the Plenipot which were seen as most relevant from a human rights perspective – based on an agreed set of priorities developed by civil society groups attending – were:
- The ITU’s mandate on internet governance, including its role in discussions on cybersecurity and the WSIS
- The ITU’s policy direction on infrastructure and standards – including the implications of spectrum allocation and management for access, especially in developing countries
- The openness and transparency of the ITU
The preparatory process for a Plenipot can begin years in advance of the Conference itself, once national and regional preparatory processes are factored in. Civil society involvement can therefore benefit from early engagement with relevant national and regional mechanisms.
In the case of the 2014 Plenipot, a few civil society groups started their engagement as early as 2013. This gave them time to consider some of the challenges outlined above, and led to the formation of loose civil society coordination networks – some operating via designated Skype groups, others through more ad-hoc communication channels. This helped build trust and improve information sharing among groups, leading to more effective engagement later on.
Closer to the Conference date, a number of organisations decided to join national delegations that were open to accrediting civil society groups. This allowed groups to get early access to proposals coming from member states (otherwise not public), and gave them time to understand the agenda, analyse key positions and arguments, and form strategic positions.
Before the event
A more structured coordination mechanism was established after a meeting of civil society groups participating in the network ‘BestBits’, which took place on the margins of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in September 2014 in Istanbul, Turkey.
After the meeting, 25 civil society organisations decided to set up an informal working group to coordinate pre-Conference knowledge sharing, organise specific advocacy efforts, and plan on the ground civil society activities at the Plenipot. In the months running up to the Conference, the group communicated on a designated email thread, and set up several coordination calls. At key points before and during the Conference, the group used the BestBits listserv to facilitate outreach to the broader civil society community.
Results of pre-event coordination
- A coordinated, collaborative approach towards maximising attendance at and participation in the Conference. Facing a difficult registration process, civil society groups conducted brainstorming exercises on modalities and shared information on ways to attend. In some cases, organisations used their contacts and connections to facilitate the accreditation of colleagues whose own national delegations had denied their requests to join the delegation. This meant that several civil society members were able to register for the Conference as members of delegations unrelated to their nationality.
- A joint analysis of key issues and priorities for civil society advocacy. Some of these key issues included: ITU transparency and openness, the role of the ITU in internet policy and governance issues, the creation of a cybersecurity treaty, and proposals for data localisation that would control routing and increase traceability of user data.
- An open letter to the Secretary General of the ITU calling for greater transparency. This resulted in a formal response from the ITU, a set of briefings for civil society facilitated by the ITU Secretariat during the Conference, and a face-to-face meeting with the Secretary General.
- A division of tasks for those attending the Conference in person. Pre-Conference coordination facilitated civil society presence throughout the Plenipot. This allowed for more effective use of time and resources which was important as budgetary constraints meant that most groups could only attend a limited part of the 3 week conference.
At the Conference
Most formal negotiations and discussions during the Conference took place through designated committees and ad-hoc working groups, many of which took place in parallel. To maximise the limited resources available to those participating on-site, groups held in-person coordination meetings and maintained an open Skype channel to delegate tasks and coordinate interventions. Civil society groups also organised private meetings with country representatives and fed relevant info back to other civil society colleagues.
On-site information sharing to coordinate and target interventions was complemented by online coordination with those engaged offsite. This meant groups not able to attend the Conference in person could participate in discussions and contribute their expertise on particular issues. Weekly reports were also prepared by several civil society representatives at the Conference and shared on the BestBits listserv.
Civil society participation in the Plenipot contributed towards the following outcomes:
Steps towards greater transparency and openness. Increasing the ITU’s overall transparency and openness was one of the key priorities for civil society participating in the Plenipot. This was emphasised in the open letter drafted before the conference in interactions with the ITU Secretariat, and through national delegations. As a result of the discussions at the Plenipot, the ITU members decided to:
- Open access to all input documents (e.g proposed revisions from member states and regional organisations) and output documents (final changes to texts). Although there was no decision on a final policy for access to ITU documents, it was recommended that all input and output documents from ITU conferences and assemblies should be made publicly available in future.
- Set up stakeholder consultations adjacent to the Council Working Group on Internet Policy (CWG-Internet) (resolution 102). It was decided that online and in-person consultations open to all stakeholders should be held prior to each meeting of the ITU CWG-Internet (actual meetings of the Council Working Group remain open to member states only).
- Continue the discussion on further increasing ITU transparency and openness, with the aim to make final decisions at the next ITU Plenipot (2018).
Amendment to the Resolution “Combating counterfeit telecommunication/ICT devices” (p. 344 of final acts). Civil society was able to introduce a preambulatory clause mentioning user connectivity as a relevant consideration in combatting counterfeit devices (“considering […] c.) the importance of maintaining user connectivity”).
Without the introduction of this amendment – which was tabled via the Dutch delegation – the resolution would have effectively legitimised state shutdowns of unlicensed equipment, mainstreaming a practice that was already exercised by the Kenyan Telecom authority after the Kenyan elections in 2008, and raising serious concerns for rights to freedom of expression and association and assembly. Although implementation of these practices ultimately lies in the hands of national governments, the introduction of user connectivity as a consideration in combatting counterfeit devices at the ITU level sends an important normative signal, and provides a useful point of reference for civil society efforts to hold governments to account.
This text has been compiled by Global Partners Digital, on the basis of observations and input by civil society groups and individuals participating in the Plenipot and its preparatory process, including Carolina Rossini from Public Knowledge and Niels ten Oever from Article 19. Global Partners Digital participated in the process as members of the UK delegation.
The cover image belongs to ITU/Rowan Farrell.