Spotlight on the ITU #3: WTDC 2017 – and why the ITU needs to change

13 Nov 2017

By Richard Wingfield

Last month, the World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC) took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The conference, organised under the ITU’s Development Sector (ITU-D), brought together governments, telecommunication service providers and other industry representatives from around the world to discuss how telecommunications and information and communication technologies (ICTs) can be used to support sustainable development. At the end of the two week series of meetings and negotiations, the conference concluded with the adoption of the Buenos Aires Declaration, a statement of agreed positions and intentions of the conference delegates, accompanied by an Action Plan. In addition, the conference agreed upon revisions to the various Resolutions that set out the mandate, roles and responsibilities of the ITU-D, and developed a small number of new ones.

On paper, this might sound like a good result – and, to be clear, some of it is. New and updated Resolutions on increasing access to ICTs in rural and isolated areas, supporting states emerging from war or natural disasters, and tackling the digital divide are particularly welcome. There is no dispute that ITU-D has a valuable role to play at this intersection between ICTs and development.

But in this blog series, we’ve urged human rights defenders to engage at the ITU for two main reasons: first, because decisions made at the ITU can have serious and wide-ranging implications for human rights; and second, because as a closed, opaque forum with little scrutiny – and no specific human rights mandate or expertise – the ITU is not well-suited to make those decisions. The WTDC this year proved a perfect case study for both of those points.

Several (thankfully shelved) proposals at the WTDC could have posed serious risks to human rights had they been adopted. Paragraph 17 of the final Buenos Aires Declaration states that “building trust, confidence and security in the use of telecommunications/ICTs” is a “priority” and calls for coordination between various stakeholders to help develop “public policies and legal, regulatory and technical measures” in response. But some member states had argued that this paragraph should include references to “privacy” with coordinated support to develop “public policies and legal, regulatory and technical measures” on privacy as well.

But the ITU, as a technical standards setting body, is not an appropriate forum for discussing privacy, which is ultimately a human rights issue. Other bodies have far greater expertise on privacy, and a much clearer mandate to discuss it: the UN Human Rights Council, Human Rights Committee and Special Rapporteurs, to name but three. If the ITU were to start determining what national laws, policies and regulations related to privacy looked like, this would be a real cause for concern, particularly given the restrictions on the rights to privacy that exist in many of the states which make up the ITU.

Another notable risk to human rights at the WTDC came from a Resolution on the role of ICTs in combating and dealing with counterfeit devices. While this is a perfectly legitimate issue for states to work together on, some member states wanted to amend the Resolution to include an explicit reference to digital object architecture (DOA) as a tool that can be used to tackle counterfeit devices. DOA – as we explain in our fact file – has the potential, if widely adopted as a means of information management, to facilitate much greater control, surveillance and tracking of online data by governments, creating a clear risk to the right to privacy. Other organisations, such as Article 19, have raised concerns about proposals relating to DOA in other ITU processes.

In the end, both of these proposals were stopped. But this was only thanks to a concerted pushback from certain member states, supported by civil society groups engaging with national delegations at the WTDC. A joint statement on privacy published by three of them before the WTDC also helped raise wider awareness of the issues. The impact of such actions underlines the importance of having a strong human rights voice in ITU spaces.

The second major problem with the WTDC is the way it works as a process. The high cost of membership and attendance meant that very few civil society organisations were able even to attend the WTDC and input into the discussions.  Many of the proposals submitted by member states ahead of the WTDC were not made publicly available, and were accessible only to those attending the event, restricting the ability of non-attending organisations to scrutinise them.

Even for those who were able to attend, the logistics of the event sometimes made effective involvement in discussions impossible. At times during the Conference, up to six separate discussions on different Resolutions were taking place simultaneously. These meetings typically began at 8.00am and went on until past midnight (one even finished at 4.00am). Even if, as a civil society actor, you were able to attend all of the relevant sessions and stay until the end of the day, access to the documents under discussion was far from assured, with the Secretariat sometimes struggling to keep up with the large number of new documents being prepared throughout the conference. Sometimes, documents were not available to view even while they were being discussed. On top of all this, many of the key final decisions about text in Resolutions were not even made in these meetings – they were taken in closed, private corridor discussions between a few delegations. Given the seriousness of the issues under discussion, and their potential impacts on internet governance and other internet-related policy issues, this fundamental lack of transparency and openness is deeply troubling.

It’s clear that things have to change – and not just at the WTDC. The same concerns about the WTDC apply equally to many other forums within the ITU. As a first step, the ITU needs to increase the number of its processes which are more open, such as the Council Working Group on Internet-related public policy issues, which already has open consultations. It also needs – as a matter of urgency – to review the existing arrangements for membership and its processes to enable greater access for, and engagement from, civil society.

No one organisation can make this case alone. Achieving change at the ITU will require concerted advocacy from a range of civil society groups, particularly in the run up to the Plenipotentiary Conference in 2018.

To support these efforts, GPD recently launched its ITU Info Hub, offering useful information, resources and regular updates. To stay informed of key developments, activities and opportunities around the ITU, you can also sign up to our ITU mailing list by emailing Richard (richard@gp-digital.org) using the subject line ‘ITU mailing list’.