Nov. 3, 2014
Week 2 of the ITU’s 2014 Plenipotentiary Conference (the “plenipot”) has come and gone after a marathon of negotiations on critical Internet-related issues. Working through many late nights and early mornings, delegates from over 175 countries that are represented here in Busan, South Korea, have come together to reconcile the wide range of proposals submitted prior to the conference and are working toward finalizing these texts now. With a lot of the difficult conversations out of the way, this final week will be dedicated primarily to shoring up the remaining unresolved language and going through the official process of finalizing and adopting these revised resolutions. This post will explain how negotiations happen at the plenipot, what happened in the negotiations last week, and what we can expect this final week.
What happens during the negotiations?
The beginning of the second week of the plenipotentiary conference meant the end of elections and formal receptions. As many of the high-level diplomats and ministers departed Busan, the remaining delegates settled down to start discussing a wide range of policy issues related to global communications interoperability, including the Internet. The ITU generally works by consensus, so moving from proposals to final resolutions can be a complex and lengthy process of negotiation.
The substantive work of the plenipotentiary conference is distributed across six committees and Working Group of the Plenary (WG-PL). Most of the discussion about Internet-related public policy issues takes place in the WG-PL, although some critical questions are also considered in Committee 5 (Policy and Legal Issues) and Committee 6 (Administration and Management). The committees are assigned specific resolutions and proposals and are responsible for reaching consensus about the new texts. Once approved by the appropriate committee, proposals are sent to the full plenary where all 193 UN member states have a final opportunity to speak up before they are adopted.
Each committee is chaired by a delegate from a different country who schedules meetings, sets and executes the agenda for each session, and makes sure that there’s sufficient time during the conference to discuss all of the proposals that have been offered. If a proposal is straightforward or non-controversial, it’s likely that it will be debated and decided upon directly in one of the committee sessions. But contentious or complex issues — especially on resolutions with multiple proposed changes that are fundamentally at odds with one another — often need more time for debate than the committee meetings allow. In these cases, the chair of the committee may decide to create an ad hoc working group or consolidation group, in which interested countries go through the text line-by-line and collaboratively edit it until they can come up with a consolidated, single text to bring back to the committee.
Nearly twenty ad hoc and consolidation groups were created in the WG--PL alone at this plenipot. (To get a sense of what these various ad hocs were tasked with, see this helpful chart of the “offspring” of the WG-PL.) Some of the groups needed to meet only once or twice for a few hours to resolve all of the outstanding issues and send clean text back to the full committee. But others moved slowly and carefully through multiple rounds of revision, working late into the night and through the weekend to find compromises and language that could be accepted by all interested stakeholders. Among those holding marathon negotiation sessions were the ad hoc group on resolution 130 (which deals with cybersecurity), the informal group on access to ITU documents, and the ad hoc on Internet-related resolutions, which was given the monumental task of addressing resolutions 101, 102, 133, 180, and four new draft resolutions related to international Internet public policy.
By late Sunday evening, virtually all of the ad hocs had finished their work and were ready to send temporary documents back to Committee 5, Committee 6, and the WGPL. Those documents have now been translated into the six official languages of the ITU and are being considered by all of the member states in their respective committees. Although much of the language represents carefully crafted compromises and is meant to be nearly final, states still have the ability to object or suggest additional changes to the text. Often, the countries that raise concerns at this step in the process are those who were unable to participate in the ad hoc groups and are not happy with the results that were brought back to the full committee. Ad hocs are open to all member states to participate, but for many of the countries that only send a small handful of people to the plenipotentiary — or in some cases just a single delegate — it’s virtually impossible to be a part of all of the negotiations at once.
What’s happened so far?
With the work of the ad hoc groups coming to a close, here are some of the key developments on the issues I’ve been following.
Transparency and Openness
The 2014 plenipot has been considering a number of resolutions and proposed changes to the way the ITU conducts its work in order to promote greater transparency and openness. In one of the first acts of the conference, the heads of delegations decided to open up access to all input documents (proposed revisions from member states and regional organizations) and output documents (final changes to the texts as agreed upon by the conference) from the event. Both the United States and the European regional group submitted proposals to establish permanent policies for open access to documents, which were considered in Committee 5 and informal discussions last week and over the weekend. In general, there was a lot of support for providing greater public access to ITU documents — many of which you currently need a password protected account to view — but differing opinions about how the policy should work in practice, including whether the type and source of the documents needs to factor into the decision about whether they are made available. The compromise solution does not go quite as far as the Europeans suggested, but it creates a clear path forward for progress on this issue in the next few years. (And of course, the text of the compromise is already available on WCITLeaks, the website set up prior to the ITU’s 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications to provide public access to leaked ITU documents.)
In addition to document access, other important issues under consideration include the possibility of opening up ITU membership to the academic community (which has been allowed on a trial basis since the last plenipotentiary in 2010) and allowing sector members and observers to attend and contribute to the meetings of the Council Working Groups (CWGs). A number of civil society groups have urged the ITU— unsuccessfully, so far — to open up the meetings of the CWG-Internet, which deals with international Internet-related public policy issues.
The ITU secretariat has also taken some immediate steps to make this plenipotentiary conference more open, responding to calls from governments and civil society prior to the event. All meetings of Committee 5, Committee 6, and the Working Group of the Plenary have been webcast (although the ad hoc groups and other negotiations are open only to members of delegations). Outgoing Secretary General Hamadoun Touré has also held two open briefings with civil society to give updates on the work of the conference and allow members of civil society to raise issues with him directly. And incoming Secretary General Houlin Zhao will host a Twitter Q&A on Wednesday, November 5, under the hashtag #AskHoulin.
Internet and Cybersecurity-Related Resolutions
Discussion on the Internet-related issues has progressed as well. Prior to the conference, many observers expressed concerns about proposed new language that would expand the ITU’s role in Internet governance, mandate regulation of international interconnection agreements to “balance” costs between developing and developed countries, and broaden the ITU’s role in cybersecurity debates beyond its current mandate. So far, it looks like there may only be minor revisions and editorial changes to the key texts on these issues, which include Resolution 101 on “Internet Protocol-Based Networks,” Resolution 102 on “ITU’s role with regard to international public policy issues pertaining to the internet,” and Resolution 130 on “Strengthening the role of ITU in building confidence and security in the use of information and communication technologies.”
Notably, the plenary has already approved final changes to Resolution 174 on illicit use of ICTs without any text referencing discussions about a global cybersecurity treaty or charter, which had been proposed by the Arab States. And it looks like the last-minute proposal that India put in on “ITU’s Role in Realizing Secure Information Society” — which generated significant concern about how such changes to IP allocation and Internet routing could impact on free expression and human rights online — has not gained enough support at this meeting to move forward, although it will likely be discussed further at the ITU level as well as in other forums.
All in all, the plenipotentiary conference seems to be on track heading into the final few days — although some delegates who remember the dramatic diplomatic divide at 2012’s WCIT meeting are still wondering if a late-breaking development will shake things up at the eleventh hour.