Spotlight on the ITU #2: A brief introduction to the ITU

21 Apr 2017

By Richard Wingfield

As we saw in the first blog post of this series, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is currently discussing and setting standards on a range of technological and communications-related subjects which potentially have significant human rights impacts.

It’s clear human rights defenders urgently need to engage with the ITU; but we have heard many tell us they do not know how, or that they find its structure and processes difficult to understand.

So in this second post, we’ll be taking a closer look at the ITU as an organisation, covering: its origins and history; its evolving remit; its structure; and how it makes decisions and sets standards.

Some of this information might seem a little abstract and granular, but it’s crucial – both for understanding current debates and developments within the organisation, and, ultimately, getting involved. We’ll be referring back to this entry later in this series – when we examine specific thematic issues, and outline how you can engage on them in the ITU.

As part of this post, we’re also launching a new calendar to help you keep track of upcoming events at the ITU. Read on to find out more.

What is the ITU?

The ITU (then, the International Telegraph Union) was established in 1865 to develop international standards and rules on the use of telegraphy which, at the time, was the primary means of electronic communication.

The idea was that through common, internationally agreed standards and rules, sending telegraph messages across jurisdictions would be as simple as sending telegraph messages within them. As technology developed over the next century-and-a-half, and as new forms of electronic communication emerged, states agreed that instead of creating new international standards-setting bodies, the remit of the ITU should simply be extended to cover these new forms of communication. Over the decades, the ITU became the international standards-setting body for telephony (1885), radio (1906), television (1949), satellites (the 1960s) and mobile telephony (the 1990s). In recent years, with the advent of the Internet, some have argued that certain aspects of the internet – as the latest form of electronic communication – should also be regulated by the ITU.

But the internet is not just another type of electronic communication. There are distinct risks in allowing for it to be regulated by governments, whether at the ITU or elsewhere. This has created tensions within the ITU, which we’ll come back to in a moment.

As well as having an expanded remit, the ITU has also undergone other changes over time. In 1932, it renamed itself the International Telecommunication Union to better reflect its scope. And in 1947, shortly after the establishment of the United Nations (UN), the two organisations agreed that the ITU would become a ‘specialized agency’ of the UN, which means that – while it remains an autonomous organisation – it works closely with the UN and other such agencies. In 1948, it moved its base from Berne to Geneva, where the UN and many other specialized agencies have their offices.

What does the ITU do?

The ITU’s most significant role is to regulate and set standards for global telecommunication. The most notable of these are the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) and the Radio Regulations (RRs). The ITRs set out high level rules and principles relating to telecommunication, and the RRs do the same for radio-frequency spectrum and radiocommunication technology.

The ITRs and the RRs are both treaties, and therefore binding in international law upon the ITU member states which have ratified them. The RRs are relatively uncontroversial, including from a human rights perspective, and have been reviewed and amended by consensus every few years without significant problems (most recently in 2016).

The same cannot be said for the ITRs. Although they were originally adopted by consensus (in 1988), proposals in 2012 to revise them were not unanimously supported, causing a major split among ITU member states. Many states were concerned that a new Resolution attached to the ITRs could extend the ITU’s remit into internet governance, with potential risks to human rights. As a result, although 89 states signed the revised 2012 ITRs, 55 did not (although a very small number of those states have since signed them).

In addition to the ITRs and the RRs, the ITU also sets standards (called “Recommendations”) for the many and various forms of telecommunication which fall within its remit. The ITU has produced over 4,000 Recommendations in its history which, while not legally binding like the ITRs and the RRs, are commonly used by the ITU’s member states when setting out national legislation, policies and regulation. There are Recommendations covering almost all aspects of telecommunications, from telephone transmission quality to cloud computing to optical fibre cables. As we explained in the first blog post in this series, the specific standards set out in these Recommendations, where they relate to certain forms of technology and communications, pose potential risks to human rights.

How is the ITU structured?

All this work is structured into three ‘sectors’, reflecting the various fields within the ITU’s remit. These are:

  • The Radiocommunications Sector (ITU-R) which regulates the radio-frequency spectrum used by radiocommunication services, including satellites;
  • The Standardization Sector (ITU-T) which sets standards on various aspects of the global infrastructure of information and communication technologies, ranging from telegraphy to television, broadband to bluetooth; and
  • The Development Sector (ITU-D) which supports international cooperation in delivering technical assistance and in creating, developing and improving telecommunication and ICT equipment and networks in developing countries.

As well as the three sectors, a General Secretariat supports the ITU’s members, and is responsible for its administrative, financial and other corporate functions, as well as organising and coordinating meetings and events. Discussion of issues with human rights implications can crop up in any of these sectors, even those which seem on the surface uncontroversial – which underscores the importance of being aware of the full range of ITU activity. 

Who is involved?

All 193 UN member states are members of the ITU, and it is the representatives of those 193 member states who make the decisions and set the ITU’s standards at its various conferences and meetings (see below).

Membership is also open to businesses in the ICT industry, international and regional organisations (including NGOs) and academic institutions. There are over 400 businesses (mostly telecommunication service providers), around 130 international or regional organisations, and a similar number of academic institutions which are members of some or all of the ITU’s sectors. Being a member allows you attend and contribute to conferences and meetings, but not to vote, which only states can do.

Even for non-members, there are still opportunities to engage: through open consultations which take place from time to time, and through engagement with national delegations which often coordinate with civil society organisations in preparation for their own participation.

How are decisions made?

The most important event in the ITU’s calendar is the Plenipotentiary Conference (Plenipot) which takes place every four years (the next will be in Dubai in 2018).

Here, the ITU’s member states make high-level decisions on the role of the ITU over the next four year period; adopt its general policies, strategic and financial plans; and elect the senior members of the ITU staff, such as the ITU Secretary General, the most senior position in the organisation.

Between each Plenipot, the ITU Council, made up of 48 ITU member states (elected at each Plenipot), acts as the ITU’s governing body. The ITU Council has a number of Working Groups to consider general administrative and policy issues, such as child online protection and internet-related public policy issues.

In addition, there is a sector-level conference, also every four years, but staggered so that there is one conference each year between Plenipotentiary Conferences:

  • The Radiocommunications Sector (ITU-R) hosts the World Radiocommunications Conference (next taking place in 2019) to review, and, if necessary, revise the Radio Regulations, and sets out the ITU-R’s work for the next four years.
  • The Standardization Sector (ITU-T) hosts the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (next taking place in 2020) and sets out the ITU-T’s work for the next four years.
  • The Development Sector (ITU-D) hosts the World Telecommunication Development Conference (next taking place in Buenos Aires in 2017) to consider topics, projects and programmes relevant to telecommunication development, and to set out the ITU-D’s work for the next four years.

Each sector has a number of ‘Study Groups’: small groups of ITU member states and sector members which develop and revise – in accordance with the outcomes of the sector level conferences – the Recommendations which inform the setting of standards.

While the majority of this process takes place within the Study Groups, all ITU member states are able to input into the development of Recommendations, through consultation and approval processes. These vary greatly depending on the particular sector, and the nature of the Recommendation. Later in the series, we’ll be taking a closer look at opportunities for civil society to engage in these forums.

How can I keep track of what’s going on?

While the ITU hosts its own a calendar of events, there is often so much going on each day that keeping track of the important, high profile forums can be difficult. To help people keep up-to-date, GPD has developed an ITU calendar, setting out the dates and locations of the most important forums to follow, and explaining what is actually taking place at each of them. This calendar will be regularly updated, allowing civil society organisations to plan their engagement in the relevant ITU forums and meetings.

In the next blog post, we’ll be looking at the recent history of the ITU since the World Summit on the Information Society in 2005, and why the organisation is now – controversially – looking at internet-related issues, including internet governance.


Between now and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)’s quadrennial conference (known as the “Plenipotentiary”) at the end of 2018, Global Partners Digital will be working to raise awareness of how the ITU’s activities have an impact on human rights, and to support civil society engagement on these issues at the ITU itself. Building on our work at the ITU’s World Conference on International Telecommunications in 2012, as well as at the last Plenipotentiary in 2014, we hope to facilitate greater civil society involvement at the Plenipotentiary in 2018. This blog post is the second in a series to help explain what the ITU is and how it functions, the issues on which it is working, and how civil society can engage. If you are interested in our work on this issue, and would like to be involved, please get in touch with us at