26 Sep 2022

The ITU: a brief explainer

By Michaela Nakayama Shapiro and Richard Wingfield

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is currently discussing and setting standards on a range of technological and communications-related subjects which have the potential to significantly impact a range of human rights.

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

Below, we’ll be taking a closer look at the ITU as an organisation—covering its origins and history; its evolving remit; its structure and membership; and how it makes decisions and sets standards.


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. Efforts to expand the forum’s mandate to include internet governance have been controversial. We will come back to this issue later.

But the internet is not just another type of electronic communication. While governments have a role in its governance, so far they have done so alongside other stakeholders as part of a multistakeholder governance model. Giving greater – or even exclusive – control over the internet, whether via ITU standards or otherwise, would create distinct risks. 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 are regularly reviewed and amended (as deemed necessary by the ITU Council) by consensus during the World Radiocommunication Conference (held every three to four years) without significant problems. The RRs were most recently updated in 2020.

The same cannot be said for the ITRs. ITRs aim to ‘facilitate global interconnection and interoperability of telecommunication facilities.’ Although they were originally adopted by consensus (in 1988), proposals at the 2012 World Conference on International Communications (WCIT) 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 and security, with potential risks to human rights. As a result, although 89 states out of the 144 delegations with voting rights signed the revised 2012 ITRs, 55 did not (albeit 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. The specific standards set out in these Recommendations and 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 discussed in our recent blog, the ITU’s Plenipotentiary Conference—held every four years—is when member states elect the ITU Council, the Secretary-General and deputy Secretary-General as well as the directors of each sector. The Conference sets the general policies and strategy for fulfilling the ITU’s mandate for the next four years.

The Council guides the work of the union, approves its budget and controls its finances, and acts as an administrative body guiding the work of the organisation during the intersessional period. There are 48 member nations elected to the Council during the plenipotentiary conference, with a set number of representatives per region. The organisation’s General Secretariat, headquartered in Geneva, is administered by a Secretary-General, assisted by a Deputy Secretary-General as well as the directors of Radiocommunication Bureau, Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, and the Telecommunication Development Bureau.

In addition to the three sectors, the General Secretariat also supports the ITU’s members, and is responsible for the forum’s 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. 

Additionally, the ITU coordinates and organises the annual World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum, one of the largest annual gatherings of the ‘ICT for development’ community. 


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 the ITU’s sectors. Being a member allows you to attend and contribute to conferences and meetings, but not to vote, which only states can do.


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 Romania in 2022).

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. 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. However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many conference dates to shift, which has impacted the frequency of sector conferences as can be seen below:

  • The Radiocommunications Sector (ITU-R) hosts the World Radiocommunications Conference (next taking place in 2023 in Dubai) 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 (the most recent one took place in March 2022) and sets out the ITU-T’s work for the next four years.
  • The Development Sector (ITU-D) hosts the World Telecommunication Development Conference (most recently convened in June 2022) to consider topics, projects and programmes relevant to telecommunication development, and to set out the ITU-D’s work for the next four years.

The ITU’s decisionmaking process functions on the basis of member state delegations’ participation, meaning only nation states have the power to vote in ITU elections. This makes it more closed to stakeholders and more conducive for states to advance their positions and push for the expansion of the role of national governments in Internet governance. This model also facilitates the adoption of policies that could lead to or condone the restriction of human rights, serving the interests of states aiming to shift Internet governance discussions away from multistakeholder forums and towards multilateral ones.