A Week Into WCIT, Few Compromises In Fragile Discussions

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More broadband rollout and better access to networks everywhere – that’s a position shared by participants at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), which started last week in Dubai. And this is where the consensus ends, according to a more sceptical reading on progress made in negotiations to review the future International Telecommunication Regulations (ITR).

In fact, on Friday afternoon the conference stood at the brink of failure, with the United Arab Emirates announcing a new “substantive” and “complete” proposal on the new ITR. While the UAE representative said it was just a compilation of existing proposals (with no surprises, according to Russia), the unexpected move was said by the European Union to call into question the ongoing tough and so far slow work of the WCIT ad hoc working groups and committees that were set to work all weekend.

If the UAE try to table the proposal it might be rejected on formal grounds as it might appear cooked up in one side of the kitchen, raising suspicions of the other – as Hamadoun Touré, the secretary general of the organiser International Telecommunication Union (ITU), noted in an effort to ease the tensions rising during the Friday plenary. Dick Beaird of the United States State Department, deputy head of the US delegation, immediately pointed to standard ITU procedures that would make the proposal too late. He was countered by Iran’s representative who said the conference had not made any decision on a deadline for contributions from member states.

The Scope: What is the Treaty About?

The UAE proposal was motivated by the slow progress, which was even noted by the chair of the WCIT meeting, the head of the UAE regulatory body TRA, Mohamed Al Ghanim. A week into the 3-14 December meeting, there was not even agreement about the scope, delegations supporting the UAE proposal (Bahrain, Jordan and Russia) said.

One proposal in particular, filed by the US and Canada and supported by Europe and others, had asked to first agree on who would be bound by the future ITRs – recognised operating agencies or (more broadly) operating agencies which, according to US concerns, could include internet providers, cloud providers or private or government networks.

Will the future ITRs cover the internet? Alternatively, can they not cover the internet and still be relevant? The effect of the “old telecom” treaty on the internet already sparked an (for ITU standards) unprecedented debate in the weeks before the meeting. It also resulted in mud-wrestling between Google, most prominently (see their take-action campaign and Vice-President Vint Cerf’s not-so-polite description of WCIT) and the ITU Secretary General Touré who while welcoming even the WCITleaks founder during his opening speech, spoke of Google’s campaigning as “dishonest.” yet strategically flawed as it was started too early, allowing ITU to react in time for the meeting.

The ITU, and the anti-ITU-campaigners with Google as most prominent member and the US seen as a backer of it, have taken their blows in media coverage over the week.

During a press call, the US delegation insisted that there was in fact progress this week. “We’ve seen a couple of good elements of progress in our work,” Ambassador Terry Kramer, head of the nearly 130-person strong US delegation said in a press briefing on Thursday evening.

Kramer listed agreement on the “overall wording of the preamble” and also “on the definition of telecommunications” both with a US view that the compromises here were a first step to ensuring that “we’re not confusing the ICT sector, companies that are involved in processing, et cetera.”

Yet Kramer had to acknowledge that there still could be people “talking about ICT” as a term for inclusion in the text. Plus the proposal on operating agencies versus recognised operating agencies is still under discussion.

WCIT nevertheless certainly moved to discussing a long list of issues over the week, including a lot of new topics to possibly be put into the future treaty text, from e-waste (no agreement) and energy efficiency (no agreement) and accessibility for disabled persons (not agreed yet even for a resolution by the conference only) to landlocked countries (agreement on a resolution).

Besides the two major topics the conference is trying hard to come to consensus. But issues that have nearly not moved at all are security and the financial chapter of the ITR.

An additional “scope” related debate is the change of the reference of the Comité Consultatif International Téléphonique et Télégraphique (CCITT), responsible for standards before the existence of the ITU Telecommunications Sector (ITU-T). To replace CCITT with ITU-T in the text would be too narrow for those who want a rich ITR, but to replace it with ITU would make it too broad for the ITR minimalists.

Scope: Internet Governance and Critical Internet Resources?

With regard to the anticipated discussion on internet governance – in the narrow sense of the management of names and numbers – there is not a lot to report so far. Touré made a big bow to the (old arch-rival) ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, with technical oversight of the domain name system) during the opening session. ICANN President and CEO Fadi Chehadi bowed back politely. These are two organisations out to demonstrate they are interested in nothing more than peaceful cooperation.

WCIT Chair Mohamed Al Ghanim in the opening press conference rejected claims that the Arab countries would try once more to install ITU as an IP address registry beside the regional internet registries (RIRs). Work on possible state interventions on the routing of traffic also are not yet solved, and will not be by Monday.

The WCIT plenary has broken into several committees. WCIT Committee 5 is tasked with the major work on substantive issues, and has a long list of ad hoc groups on each of these controversial issues. Progress was reported in some areas, including “numbering misuse” and a resolution on measures to make connection better in landlocked nations.

With regard to the nitty-gritty negotiations on numbering misuse, the Italian chair of the respective ad hoc group of WCIT Committee 5, Fabio Bigi, announced “agreement,” according to observers, based on “ITU-defined resources only” (which would for the time being not include names and numbers). Yet final decision has still to be made – and Egypt made a quick reservation during Committee 5 to announce its intention to include “origin identification” in addition to “calling line identification.”

The farthest-reaching proposal with regard to internet governance – which got perhaps the most press coverage over the week – was the Russian proposal. While toned down and politely acknowledging the multi-stakeholder model, it opens the old debate on internet governance issues (i.e., root zone oversight), but also rights of governments to pass public policy not only on national, but also international aspects.

The Russian proposal sparked a fierce debate during the Friday plenary, not the least because many delegations, including countries from Europe and Asia said they felt the work on that proposal was non-transparent. It is handled in an informal debate led by the WCIT chair.

Once more there were a number of complaints that a week into the conference, the Russian “internet chapter” has not been really addressed. Al Ghanim promised to bring it to the plenary.

During the discussion of the new UAE ITRs, the Russian delegate said: “The last century was the last century. We are now on the verge of a completely different era. And we therefore have to express new features of that new era in our documents.”

Charging and Accounting and Security

Another yet undecided issue is related to the chapter on charging and accounting. There still are extreme positions on getting rid of it because it only covers two to ten percent of traffic today to keep the accounting and charging as it is. A new ad hoc group has combined from Article 6 old text and new proposals under Canadian-Indian chairmanship.

Security again is rejected as an addition by the ITR minimalists (especially the US) out of the fear that it would open the door to government intervention to a much higher degree.

Conference Cyberattacked

The reported cyberattacks on one of the ITU website which led to the disruption of one of the working groups Wednesday were taken by some, like the Com 5 Chair Joshua Peprah or US head of delegation Kramer, as an important reminder about the importance of cybersecurity. While Peprah saw it as an hint that cybersecurity was important for the treaty, Kramer said it was a reminder about the necessity of cooperation between many partners.

Touré said that the ITU expected another attack on Saturday. And he also said during a second debate on referencing Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) in the treaty that the lack of agreement on this issue was a reason for this. An initial proposal to include Article 19 on freedom of expression in the treaty by Tunisia failed in the first plenary, and Poland has proposed to have it in a light form.

Civil society, which is being courted by the ITU (with a meeting between civil society groups and Touré on Monday), published a declaration calling on the “potential hackers” to not disrupt the medium needed for participation.

Where is this Heading?

After the first week, compromise looks very far away, and failure of the conference seems a possibility. The US has asked to change to plenary work only to carve out the consensus. Given the differences, success at least will be a solid piece of diplomatic work.

Monika Ermert may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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