ITU In A Converging World — Interview With ITU Strategist Alexander Ntoko 06/04/2010 by Intellectual Property Watch 3 Comments Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window) The views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and are not associated with Intellectual Property Watch. IP-Watch expressly disclaims and refuses any responsibility or liability for the content, style or form of any posts made to this forum, which remain solely the responsibility of their authors. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), based in Geneva, is a 191-member United Nations body. Intellectual Property Watch recently spoke with Alexander Ntoko, a top strategist in the organisation, about priorities in this critical year, inclusion of the public interest, and how convergence is bringing more issues related to digital content to the traditional telecom body. Intellectual Property Watch (IPW): Please describe your role at the ITU, and some key policy and strategy initiatives underway or foreseen at ITU? NTOKO: The three main areas [are]: Facilitating the coordination of intersectoral activities; assisting and advising the secretary general on strategy and policies; and the strategic plan, the high-level strategy adopted every four years on what the Union does. My main responsibility is to work with member states to come up with a new strategic plan and then follow up on its implementation. [The strategic plan] also includes making sure that we bring to the attention of the secretary general the trends, the changes, if there’s something like net neutrality, or something like freedom of expression on the internet, what role does ITU have to play, should we have a position or not. So my job is pretty tricky. IPW: Where are you in the four-year cycle for the strategic plan? NTOKO: We are now heavily, seriously preparing for the 2010 plenipotentiary conference, which will be in Guadalajara, Mexico in October 2010. http://www.itu.int/plenipotentiary/2010/index.html The new secretary general will be elected and four other elected officials, because we have the federal structure, there are five elected officials. And the strategic plan is adopted by the plenipotentiary, it’s one of the main outcomes of the plenipotentiary. IPW: There’s already a draft strategic plan? NTOKO: Yes, I had to present a preliminary draft to membership and they make their comments and then the process continues until its adoption at the plenipotentiary in October. I just signed the latest version to send it to the secretary general who will submit it again to members. The process goes on until Mexico. IPW: Can you give an indication of some areas that seem to be emerging of interest to the member states and the Union that are different from the past? NTOKO: The trend that we see today [is that] environment is changing a lot. We used to have three distinct industries: telecommunications, broadcasting and computing. With convergence, ITU is seeing itself having a broader role because its members also have broader roles. In many countries, like for example, Senegal, when you go several years back, it was Ministry of Post and Telecommunications. Today they are involved in information technology, which is broader, they are dealing with some services, internet services. This is also reflected in ITU’s mandate because we are a membership-driven organisation. So the main trend would be aligning ITU’s mandate with the changes taking place today in telecom, where there’s convergence, where you have Google providing broadband services, you have Microsoft looking into spectrum management for white space. Those changes are the key thing that needs to be reflected in the strategic plan, the flexibility for the Union to adjust itself. IPW: Does that include the copyrighted content that travels across the networks? NTOKO: This would be something that membership would have to decide on. Most of the digital content, particularly that of high-definition, is based on an ITU standard. Will they push this standard one step further to include protection of content? I do not know, this is up to members. Most digital content, particularly that of high-definition, is based on an ITU standard. But because the mandate and the scope of our work is broadening, they are bringing new elements, and whether we would be more involved in the protection of content, that is something that would come from the membership. It would come in three main areas: there’s the council of the ITU meeting in April. The council is the governing body which acts between plenipotentiary conferences. Then in May, we have the World Telecommunications Development conference, which is also once every four years. That defines the development agenda of the ITU, the ITU-D. Then in October we have the plenipotentiary, which is the supreme organ. So some of those radical, if you can call it such, decisions can only be made at the plenipotentiary. We see that membership want more from the Union, they want the Union to be more involved in a number of areas which are of concern to them. We think that there might be some additional dimensions to, for example, our standards activities, which could include what you can regard as more involvement in content. IPW: Do you find a variety of positions among members on these issues? NTOKO: Content is a very tricky matter. Content has strong link with cultures. It has a strong link with religion. So when you have 191 countries, what could be considered freedom of expression in terms of things like pornography in one country would be considered against the religion or religious and cultural values of another. ITU is a unique organisation, since we do not have a political agenda, we succeed in arriving at consensus even on difficult topics. But you are right, not all the member states have exactly the same views on matters which relate to content. Some also is a reflection of what happens in their own national jurisdictions. That means in some cases it is left more to industry, in other cases there is strict regulations on what you can have on tv or radio. That mix is what comes into the ITU, and the Union tries to find a balance, what is the least common denominator which will bring the membership together and have the same understanding. IPW: ITU is a member of the United Nations, which is often seen by the private sector as the last place to go to get things done, out of concern that things won’t get done quickly. How is ITU different and how might it be changing? NTOKO: The ITU structure is very different from any other organisation in the United Nations system. It is the one organisation that has the private sector as part of its membership. We’re not just working with private sector, they are part of the Union. The other thing which makes ITU unique is that we are a technical organisation, we have to move at the pace of industry. When we are dealing with standards, we cannot spend five years on a standard because we will be obsolete. We now have an accelerated procedure where we can get a standard approved in five weeks. Because behind a standard is industry, industry wants rapid response. We work with all the big names that you know in IT, they are driving the standards process. The ITU structure is very different from any other organisation in the United Nations system. The second thing is because we do not have a political agenda, we address matters in a technical nature. Some people have mentioned the slowness of the UN system. We existed in 1865, that’s almost 80 years before the UN came up. We have an agreement with the UN, you have what you call UN proper and then the specialised agencies, like WIPO and others, they have their governing bodies, they have their decision-making structure. The secretary general of ITU does not report to the UN secretary general. The plenipotentiary is the supreme organ, it doesn’t report to the Security Council or the General Assembly. We use the best practices within the UN system but we also know that we are in a domain where things are moving very fast, and we have to move fast. Most of the people you would find in ITU, the professionals, are engineers and scientists. We are not political, from the secretary general who is a PhD in telecommunications, he’s been putting in place real satellite systems, so the whole of ITU management are all engineers and scientists. I am a computer scientist so I focus on information technology. It is not the same structure, it is not the same academic background, and it is also not the same clientele. We work in a sector which is fast and we work with industry. IPW: If there is concern on the public interest side about a body of governments working so closely with industry, particularly large northern industry, how does the Union address that concern? NTOKO: The Union has addressed this matter by reducing the level of what it takes for industry from developing countries, for example, to be part of the Union. The development sector for example was created primarily with the purpose of assisting developing countries. In some cases even, the Union may go far enough to say there is this small company in this small country that should be part of the Union, they don’t have the means to pay, and if the governing body of ITU authorises, they waive the payments for this. ITU keeps on bringing down the entry level barriers so developing countries can participate, and the industry from developing countries can be full participants in the Union at the same level as those who are from the big companies. IPW: You mentioned ITU helping members to work together around common areas. But it has been said there would be a minimal number of issues for which this would work. How far can the cooperation go? NTOKO: There are a certain number of elements that have to be taken into account when you are dealing with global cooperation. You need to build bridges between existing national and regional initiatives and take into account the fact that we have cultural diversity. We have come up with a strategy based on five pillars. We said instead of trying to focus on what the issues are, come up with areas where people can work together, and within those areas the people will agree on those common elements that they need to work on. It’s a well thought-out strategy. We have five areas. We have what we call technical measures, legal measures, procedural measures, capacity building, and international cooperation. Because what happens is when you focus on the issues primarily, there’s a divergence of views about what those issues are. But put the space where people who are legal people can all work together, the chances are much higher they will be able to establish some common ground. A number of the decisions that we make, they do not have the same importance to all our member states, but we still arrive at a consensus. Why? Because the governing structure makes it that way. It is one country, one vote. There is equality in the structure of ITU. If you come as a powerful country and you say, I only want my way and I will not give in on anything, you will not be able to get any decision, because this very small country when they are opposed to it, it cannot be an ITU decision. That makes people compromise a lot in the ITU. The secretary general is elected by secret ballot, one country, one vote. It does not matter if you lobby for one candidate you will not know what Afghanistan for instance put in the ballot box. It’s always a surprise. IPW: What is the status of the election? NTOKO: If you go to the plenipotentiary website, you will see the declared candidates. You have to declare, and then the election takes place the first week of the plenipotentiary. [Current Secretary General Hamadoun Touré is so far running unopposed for reelection, but there are more than one candidate for the other positions.] [Touré] is somebody who has succeeded in bringing the membership together, and he has led the organisation in a very positive way. He’s very frank, very open. He’s not a politician, he’s an engineer. You can see his direct way of talking. That creates a lot of confidence amongst membership because you know what he is thinking. So far there’s no other candidate, but it does not mean there won’t be another candidate. IPW: At the ITU, how is the public interest represented? NTOKO: We are an intergovernmental organisation which has private sector as its membership. We cannot go into every government and change how it functions. The assumption is the people who represent a sovereign state and come to the ITU reflect to some extent the views and concerns of that population. That is why having a structure where each country has the same power is very important. We are representing public interest through the processes and structures that exist in the country. When you have an organisation which doesn’t have the structure like that of ITU, then you need very strong additional external influence because you need to balance maybe some very extreme power, you need maybe business or NGOs to push. But my country, Cameroon, is capable of saying in ITU Council or plenipot, I disagree with this, and people have to negotiate with Cameroon to agree before it becomes a decision by consensus. Our assumption is that people who represent sovereign countries in ITU decisionmaking bodies reflect to a large extent the interest of the population of that country. That might not be a universal truth in all countries. IPW: Are you saying that government delegations with industry on board are considered to represent public interest concerns? NTOKO: That depends on the country. In the same country, those big businesses are influencing everything else, so it is not something which is a problem for the ITU. It is something which has to do with how much influence big businesses have in certain countries. There are industries which influence even global policies because of their power. So it is not limited to NGOs in a particular country. When a company is so powerful that they can pick a fight with 27 other countries, let’s say Microsoft and EU. Or when a company is powerful enough to go head on with China [as with Google]. What do you think the influence is of that company in their own country regarding NGOs? There are countries where they are giving power to the people. That’s the government doing that. In a particular country the policy might be let the private sector take the lead, let the private sector take the initiative. So you cannot blame ITU structure for the policy which gives the power to the private sector, and the private sector is very influential. IPW: On internet governance, ITU has a natural role. In cases such as internet freedom, such as has arisen with Google and China, what role does ITU have? NTOKO: The role ITU plays is the role its membership wants it to play. With convergence, we are seeing the change from telecom regulatory to communications regulatory. We are seeing the broadening of the scope of the telecom regulators. As I mentioned there used to be three types of regulators. You had the telecom regulator, the broadcasting regulator, and in some cases, you had some entity dealing with the competing industry. Now, these things are converging. The broadcast regulator who used to deal with regulating content for radio and television now has the function to regulate content including on the internet. We believe this trend might put more pressure on ITU to get more involved in matters which are considered content today because the membership is facing these challenges and they would want these things to be discussed in ITU. The plenipotentiary will be one of those areas where we will see what the members want. This trend might put more pressure on ITU to get more involved in matters which are considered content today…. IPW: Do you see any movement on enforcement such as internet service provider liability and net neutrality issues arising to a greater degree now? NTOKO: Yes. As far as our membership we are seeing a lot more in those areas. We have our membership trying to figure out how to deal with this particular type of new challenge. This challenge might be related to certain threats in the information society. It might be related to things which have to do with regulating a certain type of content where before the laws were clear, maybe pornography, it’s illegal, you could not sell pornographic books but today how do they transfer this same law to the internet where things are done differently. We are getting more and more of such requests from our membership. And some also want to be able for national security reasons or to preserve their cultural values how do they implement those same measures they have implemented in the traditional environment on the cyberspace today. That trend could lead ITU to have a little bit more to do in the area of internet freedom, content, but that would be a decision of our membership. [On enforcement], we are getting more and more requests in this area also. Enforcement legislation that needs to take into account new types of crime, the knowledge or policies that need to be put into place, the training for the enforcement officials who now need to be able to track down the criminals. We are seeing more of that. We have just been invited by Interpol, who has been coming to our meetings and trying to say how do we work together. You know, you are in this area, we are in this area, but there are some areas now which are common amongst us. That is also this pressure from membership to start looking at this. IPW: ITU has had quite a role in internet governance. But there was concern a couple of years ago that the Internet Governance Forum that arose from the ITU-led World Summit on the Information Society [2003 and 2005] was a meaningless exercise. What is the view now of ITU of that exercise and the IGF now that a decision must be made about its future? NTOKO: This was discussed in a meeting with membership and we were asked this question. There is a Council working group dealing specifically with this subject. I was asked what the Secretary-General said in Sharm El-Sheikh [the latest meeting of the Internet Governance Forum, held in November 2009]. He and the other elected officials will recommend to membership the continuation. It is a decision of the membership. It will start in the Council, and this will be a serious topic at the plenipotentiary. His proposal is posted. As far as the secretariat is concerned, our recommendations have been made. This recommendation will be subject to discussion by membership. IPW: In the past, some have seen a competition between ITU and other bodies like ICANN for the leading role in global internet governance. NTOKO: Our role in internet governance, or internet policies, stems again from clear decisions of ITU membership. A good reference would be on our website on internet governance. You will see decisions of ITU membership. They have to do with ITU playing a significant role in internet domain names and addresses. One of the concerns that a number of countries have raised is that the model for governing this global network needs to change from what it was when it came out 35 or so years ago when it was a research and academic network. Today it is a core infrastructure for countries, including security, health, all types of services governments that provide and businesses are relying on. It is no longer a research network for people who knew each other. It is a global infrastructure and its governance model needs to take into account the policies. For example, you are a minister of health or minister of defense, you have your national health policy or national security policy. The tool that you are using or that everybody is using is the internet. How do you reflect, what influence do you have, in the policies that govern the internet so they can take into account your national needs. I think it is a lot about sovereignty, it’s a lot about countries wanting to play an equal role in those global policies that affect the internet. And that is one of the reasons why WSIS came up with those types of languages where no country should be involved in the management of another country’s ccTLDs and all of that. Those pressures have moved into ITU. Our policy is not defined by IGF, it’s not defined by ICANN, it’s not defined by the ICANN community but it is defined by ITU member states. Our policy is not defined by IGF, it’s not defined by ICANN, it’s not defined by the ICANN community but it is defined by ITU member states. This means we have to look for ways of addressing this consensus. We don’t have a battle with ICANN. There are misunderstandings sometimes. These misunderstandings are more to do with, ‘ITU wants to take over what we are doing’. We believe the resolutions, the decisions taken by ITU members, particularly taken at plenipotentiary conferences, are very clear. Governments need to play a role in public policies, and our membership is saying we need to play that role on an equal footing. The plenipotentiary will tell us how far they want to push on this. There are signals that it is a topic of high interest [this year]. That is very clear. What will come out of this high interest will depend on the beginning that will take place in Mexico. But it is clear it is an area of high interest on both sides. There are two sides. We are caught in the middle. We try to make sure we don’t go out there and say things that will upset either one side or the other. We as secretariat stick to the decisions and we defend them because they are taken by sovereign countries, and they are taken by consensus. Not all countries necessarily agree on how these will be implemented and the role it will have, and that is the difficult thing we fight with on a daily basis. IPW: On the work on the IPv6 [the next generation internet], how does that represent ITU’s role in the internet infrastructure? NTOKO: ITU was formed to harmonise the global coordinated development of telecommunication networks and services. That’s the core mandate of ITU. ITU in that regard ensures the fair and equitable access to public resources related to global telecommunications networks and services, it’s important, and services. We do that for spectrum, which has more implications than IPv4, IPv6 addresses. When you remember WRC [ITU’s World Radiocommunication Conference], you cannot imagine the implications of the treaties that ITU arrives at for spectrum management. Spectrum was sold for billions when the Europeans were launching 3G. We have done that, and the only organisation who [does]. Some of the WRC people will sit at the [Geneva conference centre] for a six-month conference, they have to agree. Spectrum is … from your mobile phone to military and very sensitive applications, [so] there should be no interference. If we can manage something that complex, which requires extreme calculations, renting supercomputers to manage the interference, the management of IPv6 is peanuts, it’s a trivial matter. People should not continue with this argument that this is too technical for ITU. We are doing much more complex matters than IP address management could ever lead to. This is locating blocks of numbers. What will ITU do there? It is important to put it within the context of the public resource it has become today. Internet protocol v6 and v4 are considered today as a public resource like spectrum. Some of our member states believe that the policies that govern the v4 addresses which led to the almost depletion of the v4 address space might be used in the v6. So there’s a debate going on right now on this, with of course the two sides again. We will have to see what the membership wants us to do. Probably they will have to make it very clear and say, ‘Well, we want you, ITU, to manage IPv6 at the global level, and discuss with the relevant entities’ – in most cases that has to be the IANA [Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, which solely makes underlying changes to the internet root] contract and the US Department of Commerce [which retains control of IANA]. So the decision has to be clear, hopefully this will come in the plenipot. I don’t know which way it’s going to go, but now we are playing a facilitating role, a role to study, to maybe work on global policies, build capacity, raise awareness amongst developing countries, promoting IPv6 deployment. People should not feel worried or scared that ITU is trying to take over anybody’s responsibility. We are driven by decisions of our membership. If they make a decision that we should become a global registry then we would have to work this out. But there has to be clarity in what membership wants us to do. IPW: Thank you very much. Alexander Ntoko is the head of ITU Corporate Strategy and ITU Focal Point for WSIS Action Line C.5 (Security and Confidence). His responsibilities include assisting and advising ITU Secretary-General in ensuring the achievement of ITU Strategic Goals and in ensuring a coherent ITU-wide strategy in a number of domains including internet and cybersecurity. He represents ITU in the ICANN/GAC. Ntoko is also responsible for managing the execution of the ITU Global Cybersecurity Agenda (GCA) – a global framework for international cooperation launched by ITU Secretary-General on 17 May 2007 in response to WSIS decisions and calls from ITU membership for ITU to coordinate global efforts in building trust and security in the information society. His activities in information technology (IT) security began in the late 1980s in the United States where he obtained Bachelors and Master of Science degrees in Computer Science from the State University of New York (SUNY) in 1985 and 1987 respectively with specialisation in Distributed Operating Systems and Data Communication Networks. From the early 1990s, he played a key role in the introduction of internet and IT security services to ITU. Since 1998, he has implemented projects on internet and cybersecurity including the use of advanced security technologies (biometric authentication and public key infrastructure) in a number of developing countries. He has organised and spoken at many international events, written papers on technology strategies and has assisted many developing countries on policies and strategies in internet and cybersecurity. He has been an official of ITU in Geneva, Switzerland for more than 20 years. William New may be reached at email@example.com. 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