26 Sep 2022

Three reasons human rights defenders should care about the ITU

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU)—a standards-setting body of the UN, which has existed in different forms since 1865—has a particular reputation within the ecosystem of international policy forums. Its structures are known to be unwieldy; its decisionmaking processes opaque; and its voting structure prioritises national governments over all other stakeholders. It is seen (legitimately) as largely closed to civil society input. For these reasons, many human rights groups—even those who are deeply enmeshed in other forums—tend to avoid engaging with it.

But is this strategy of non-engagement viable? The ITU exerts a powerful and growing influence over a range of critical digital policy areas, from cybersecurity and emerging technologies to internet governance. Its ongoing efforts to develop regulatory frameworks for these issues may significantly shape the norms and contours of the future digital environment, with wide-ranging potential impacts on users’ rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and privacy. For this reason, it has attracted the close interest and engagement of governments with drastically different geopolitical interests and visions for the future of the Internet. 

With the latest edition of its most important meeting, the Plenipotentiary Conference (“Plenipot”), kicking off next week, we set out three reasons why human rights defenders should be paying close attention.


1. There’s a very important election happening

One of the core functions of the Plenipot is to elect a new Secretary-General (SG) of the ITU. The SG has influence over the body’s priorities and oversees the implementation of the four-year strategy (also determined during the Plenipot). While not directly responsible for developing ICT standards, the SG is responsible for the overall management of the Union and, as such, can steer the direction of discussions. 

At the same time, the 2022 Plenipot comes at a moment of intense geopolitical polarisation, with the internet and other digital technologies a key battleground. As a major standards-setting body for the digital environment, the ITU is a critical forum in this conflict. And in this election, two distinct visions for its governance (and the internet more broadly) are being put forward. Doreen Bogdan-Martin has emphasised an open and inclusive model of governance, which would include [the voices of human rights defenders, vulnerable and marginalised groups. Her rival, Rashid Rustamovich Ismailov, favours the ITU’s current top-down, multilateral model, which gives governments greater control, including governments with poor human rights records, including in relation to the digital environment.


2. The ITU is influential

The results of the election matter because decisions made at the ITU have significant normative influence. Although standards developed at the ITU are technically non-binding, they are often widely adopted by a range of entities—from regulatory agencies, to multinational corporations and states—with the forum’s institutional weight and reputation for impartiality adding legitimacy.

ITU outputs have influenced WTO agreements, which recommend the implementation of ITU standards as means of avoiding barriers to trade. And in the private sector, ITU standards such as the ITU-T x.509 network security standard have been widely adopted by large multinational companies, highlighting the ITU’s influence beyond the public sector.  

In the case of standards that touch more directly on the rights to privacy and freedom of expression, wholesale adoption at the national level could have wide-ranging impacts on users. Having civil society voices, perspectives and scrutiny in such discussions at the ITU prior to such standards being finalised is therefore crucial.


3. Current proposals at the ITU could have big implications for human rights

While the ITU’s normative power is significant in and of itself, human rights defenders should pay particular attention to the possibility of this normative influence being abused. The priorities of the ITU and the principles enshrined (or not) in the standards it develops can shift the balance of power in internet governance—as illustrated by China’s recent efforts to promote an alternative form of internet architecture known as ‘New IP.’

First proposed in 2018, ‘New IP’ is a set of technical proposals to overhaul the current architecture of the internet and the principles of openness and interoperability that underpin it. The effort is both ideologically and politically motivated. If passed, the proposal would achieve China’s aim to use the ITU as a means of legitimising a system of greater state control of the internet. The proposed architecture would integrate new methods of government-enabled surveillance, putting the rights to privacy and freedom of expression as well as encryption protections at risk. If the standards developed at the ITU tend to be adopted verbatim by developing countries, such proposals legitimising digital authoritarian practices risk spreading around the world. 


What can civil society achieve at Plenipot?

Human rights defenders cannot have any direct impact over who is elected to be SG at the ITU, since only states are able to vote. But there are other areas where engagement can be productive.

It is during the Plenipot that member states develop and agree on the organisation’s mandate and priorities for the next four years. Engagement at the ITU—through the Council Working Groups and open consultations hosted by member state delegations—help ensure that the ITU’s mandate is not extended to work on internet-related issues in a way that would put human rights at risk. 

Plenipot is also where the working methods of ITU Council Working Groups (WG) are decided. Different WGs have different membership policies, with some being open solely to ‘Sector Members,’ ITU member states, nominated experts, or all three. However, these groups often hold consultations that are open to “all stakeholders,” as stipulated in the resolution on the WG on international public policy issues pertaining to the internet, which was adopted at the 2018 Plenipot. 

Decisions made at Plenipot may therefore lead to more open, inclusive and transparent processes; or move to close down existing opportunities for stakeholder engagement. To ensure the former outcome is achieved, civil society engagement in the lead-up, during, and after the conference is crucial. 

Additionally, as the thinktank CSIS has noted, “member states are held accountable for implementing the terms of the resolutions and reporting to the ITU on progress.” For those resolutions that aim to uphold human rights protections, civil society can leverage the commitments states have made at the ITU to ensure governments fulfil their promises at the national level.


Practical steps

Civil society engagement at the ITU is difficult, but it isn’t fruitless. Our joint engagement at the 2018 Plenipot yielded some important successes (and averted disasters), as well as lessons learned—read our full case study here.  

Wondering where to start? GPD has mapped the following potential opportunities for CSO engagement in the intersessional period after Plenipot:  

  • Monitor policy discussions at the ITU: there are several working group and focus group meetings during the intersessional period that focus on various issue areas
  • Raise awareness: The intersessional period provides an opportunity for CSOs to raise awareness of the ITU, the significance of its work, and the human rights implications of its recommendations. These efforts can be targeted at:
    • Policymakers (such as members of your national delegation, listed here), 
    • Other CSOs (particularly to coordinate engagement at the next plenipot and intersessional meetings)
    • The general public 
  • Familiarise yourself with the ITU’s various Working Groups: Different Working Groups have different membership policies, and these groups are all likely to host virtual consultations, which provide an opportunity for CSOs to provide input (independently or via government delegations and/or industry representatives)
  • Contact your country’s national delegation: See whether it’s possible to join, take part in preparatory meetings and/or consultations, or simply communicate your thoughts and concerns.
  • Follow our ITU hub. We will continue to post content to help you stay on top of key developments.