The ITU’s Quest for Relevance

The United Nations International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has received a lot of attention over the hotly contested debate regarding Internet governance. During the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) in Dubai, the ITU meant to renew an outdated treaty about simple international telecommunication regulations (ITRs) but instead, nation-states walked out of the conference accusing the ITU of trying to control the Internet. This past week, at the most recent WCIT conference, the ITU failed again to rally sufficient support for its agenda.

The inability of the ITU to get all member states to sign the updated ITR treaty has revealed a barrier to its effectiveness and has continued to make Internet governance a controversial topic, especially among Democratic states. The ITU can solve this challenge by revising the wording of the treaty regarding Internet governance. The revision of the treaty ought to increase the likelihood that it would pass and ensure the Union has a role in future discussions about the development of the Internet.

Previously considered weak, declining in importance and necessity, the ITU decided to update its ITRs to include the Internet as part of its telecommunication jurisdiction. However, many of the Western democratic members states (G55) feared that the treaty could be interpreted as granting governments legal rights to manage and regulate the Internet.

With the current treaty, the ITU has failed to convince member states that the above accusation is false. Months later, with member states still disputing, the ITU has proven that it is incapable of resolving this issue. In many ways this is counterproductive to the ITUs quest for relevance in the international community.

Continuing on with the treaty as is would be a major detriment to the ITU given the stark divisions between member states on how they view the Internet. This would not improve the organization’s political or problem-solving effectiveness by any means. As a result, the ITU would lose its membership and funding. Furthermore, the G89 (non-democratic member states) and the G55 would have separate telecommunications systems, which would go against the Union’s mission to establish standardizations for all states to work on.

In revising the treaty, specifically resolution #3, there are two amendments that can be made to increase the likelihood of it passing with a majority consensus. For example, in section D of the resolution, the ITU should eliminate the notion that nations have “the equal role and responsibility for Internet governance.”

Instead, it should simply state that all governments are committed to ensuring the stability, security and continuity of the existing and future development of the Internet. This would ease the discomfort of explicitly permitting governments to govern the Internet. Additionally, the role of the ITU Secretary General (SG) needs to be re-worded. Under resolution #3 the SG is charged to “play an active and constructive role in the development of…the multi-stakeholder model of the Internet.”

This suggests that the SG has considerable power over the development of the Internet. The SG and the ITU should not concede to any more roles and responsibilities other than being a facilitator. Meaning, the ITU can help formulate texts to move countries closer to an agreement but it should not dictate or govern the development or outcome of the Internet.

Understanding that the ITU is trying to secure its position as mediator for future Internet-related discussions, it must seek to create a hospitable environment where member states can engage in deeper cooperation. Ultimately, it needs to amend the treaty for all members to sign. Revising the treaty with the amendments mentioned above will address the concerns of the G55 and solve the problem of resistance against the ITRs. The ITU’s political capabilities would be restored as well because the Union would have succeeded in influencing the position of member states to adopt the treaty.

Furthermore, the ITU should make the revisions mentioned above and present them to all the players. In order to implement this strategy basic understandings would also have to be met. First, there should be negotiations to mend the ties that were broken from the final meeting. Second, all players must acknowledge that the Internet is a part of the telecommunication system. Agreeing to this would allow the ITU to discuss uses of the Internet in regards to standardizations and telecommunications. Third, a majority consensus is needed in order for the treaty to be legitimate. Ratifying the treaty by a small margin will not guarantee commitment or compliance to the treaty by member states. Lastly, the ITU should consider including other stakeholders into future discussions of the Internet, not just member states. Allowing businesses and other non-governmental organizations to enter into discussions would foster greater innovation and development through greater cooperation.

Revising the treaty would improve the ITU’s chances of ratification. Unfortunately, this past week at the Fifth World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum (WTPF-13), the ITU continued to push its original agenda of Internet governance. Even though the dialogue was open to receive more opinions from key international stakeholders, the ITU continues to receive the same negative backlash. The 2014 Plenipotentiary Conference is the final meeting where ITU member states decide on the future role of the organization. It would be in the ITU’s best interest to revamp its current strategy with the above recommendations if it has any chance of remaining significant.

The challenge of achieving relevance in the international community has not been easy for the ITU. The ITU should not attempt to resolve the debate over Internet regulation and governance, only position itself as a facilitator and mediator for the dialogue. This would breathe sustainable life back into the ITU, eliminating the current obstacles to effectiveness while improving the legitimacy and relevance of the organization.