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Half Time at the ITU Plenipot 14: Observations from Busan

The 19th Plenipotentiary Conference (PP-14) of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is half over, so I thought this might be a good time to offer a few observations from Busan.

The ITU is not going away: Next year, the ITU marks 150 years in existence. In spite of all its myriad financial, institutional, and administration challenges – and there are many – this institution is going to be around a while longer. With over 170 countries and thousands of delegates in attendance at PP-14 (with the United States once again bringing the largest team), the ITU is clearly a priority for many government information and communications technology (ICT) and telecom leaders who view it as the pinnacle forum, and perhaps the only place, where they achieve status and respect. Without question, the ITU is not the preferred global venue to advance work in many issue areas for our sector. Nevertheless, the ICT industry can’t and shouldn’t ignore the ITU, because… 

Serious issues are being discussed at the ITU: For example, as I type, I am sitting in an ad hoc session on Internet-related issues where the Arab States, with support from Russia and Cuba, are pushing edits that would in effect declare and validate an expansive ITU role in Internet governance. In a meeting this afternoon, the Russian Federation will renew its push to make ITU “recommendations” (aka standards) mandatory for Member States. Not good. Yet another proposal introduced by the Indian delegation would give governments authority over Internet Number Resources within their own boundaries, to facilitate the identification and tracking of individual users. Also, not good. While the United States will not agree to any of these proposals, irrespective of PP-14 outcomes, other countries no doubt would. The impact on the Internet and global ICT industry would be profound. On the other hand…

The ITU does some things extremely well: Perhaps the most important “talent” the institution brings to the table is its ability to attract an audience. With delegations from over 170 countries present, this is a place where efforts to deliver a message can reach many, many eyes and ears at a lower cost and effort. The sidebar opportunities are practically unlimited, offering the significant benefit of personal face-to-face communication. In fact…

Developing countries decidedly want to engage the ICT industry: Irrespective of all the pledges, promises, and proclamations of ITU relevancy by the institution’s leadership and staff, and its strongest proponents among the Member States, a significant number of delegations, if given the opportunity, would probably choose direct engagement by the ICT industry over that of the ITU. 

In a conversation with a colleague from Ghana, he essentially begged us to step up our involvement with Africa and elsewhere. He acknowledged the shortcomings of the ITU, particularly in the area of helping developing countries “digitalize” their economies, but as far as their commitment to Geneva, he posited with exasperation: “What choice do we have? The ITU is the only organization paying us attention. Give us a choice.”

The United States has a strong delegation, led by Ambassador Danny Sepulveda of the State Department, and an able team of other federal agency professionals. We are also fortunate to have strong, experienced representatives from Google, Intel, Microsoft, and other ICT companies pouring over proposals and leveraging Member State relationships on behalf of the delegation. Add to all of this strong collaboration with Australia, Canada, Japan, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, among others, and one can’t help but be confident that things at the ITU PP-14 will turn out well in the end. But we must be honest with ourselves. The risks are real, the stakes are high and current trends are tacking against us. But the opportunities are also real. How will we respond? I will have more to say about that in my next blog entry.

Public Policy Tags: Internet Governance