Dispatch from Busan

Arriving at the 2014 ITU Plenipotentiary Conference
Blog Post
Oct. 28, 2014

For the past week, thousands of delegates from over 175 countries have been gathering in Busan, South Korea for the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) plenipotentiary conference, the highest-level policy meeting of the UN agency responsible for the interoperability of global telecommunications networks. I arrived in Busan yesterday, where I am joining the U.S. delegation for the next ten days to serve as an adviser on Internet policy-related issues.

The Plenipotentiary Conference is a three-week long meeting held every four years, at which ITU member states vote to set the agency’s policy agenda and hold elections that determine the organization’s leadership. Although at its core the ITU is a technical agency responsible for standards and telecommunications interoperability, the agency has also become more involved in Internet-related issues, especially since the last plenipotentiary meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2010. As a result, the outcomes of this conference could have a significant impact on the scope of the ITU’s work in Internet governance in the years to come.

Yet because the ITU is primarily a multilateral organization—that is to say, the primary actors at its meetings are governments, in contrast to many of the more “bottom up,” multistakeholder organizations in the global Internet governance ecosystem that allow equal participation from governments, civil society, technical organizations, companies, and academia—the only real avenue to participate in the meeting is to join a governmental delegation. Fortunately, governments are allowed (and even encouraged) to include private sector representatives in their delegations. The U.S. delegation largely comprised of federal agency staff from the Department of State, the Federal Communications Commission, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and the Department of Homeland Security, among others, but there are also a number of representatives from American companies, academia, and civil society here. There are also civil society representatives on a number of other delegations here, including Sweden, the UK, the Netherlands, and Brazil.

While the first week of the plenipotentiary was primarily dedicated to elections, the substantive work of the conference is now well underway. For months, ITU member states have been submitting proposals suggesting revisions to existing resolutions and new resolutions on topics ranging from spectrum allocation to child online protection and counterfeit devices. Those hundreds of draft documents have been assigned to various committees at the meeting, and are now being discussed and negotiated by working groups. Ultimately those working groups will have to reach a consensus on final language before the conference ends. Some of the most controversial proposals that have emerged so far relate to cybersecurity, interconnection, and the ITU’s role in Internet governance.

Throughout the next two weeks, I’ll be periodically posting updates about the work of the conference and offering a perspective of what’s happening on the ground. In the meantime, here are some useful resources from other organizations participating in or observing the meeting: