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ITU Plenipotentiary 2018: What Just Happened?

Chris Buckridge — 20 Nov 2018
As the ITU’s Plenipotentiary wraps up, we look at the outcomes and what it means for the Internet community, and for the ITU itself.
The Final Acts of the ITU Plenipotentiary 2018 are available in multiple languages. The texts mentioned in this article are contained in that document.

“The fact of the matter is, that the Internet has changed things for everyone. For us, members of the ITU, that change has caused a line to appear, if you like, between us. The people involved in the creation of the Internet have said that even they don't know what else is going to happen, and this is powered by the very networks and infrastructure that we are responsible for.

As Chair of this Committee, I have been listening carefully to the arguments on both sides of this invisible, yet very clear gap in the room today between us.  It has made me wonder whether the way we are working today is sustainable for the future of the Union.  While we pride ourselves for the consensus that has been reached ‑‑ and we should pride ourselves for the many, many compromises which have been made over the last two weeks ‑‑ in order to achieve that consensus, we go away asking ourselves if what has been achieved will actually work for each of us.”

Ms Nur Sulyna Abdullah, Chair of the Working Group of the Plenary

Speaking in the final session of the Working Group of the Plenary (WG-PL), the group tasked with negotiating some of the most contentious Resolutions at the ITU Plenipotentiary (including those relating to the Internet), the Chair of the Working Group reflected on the difficult discussions over the previous weeks. Even as the WG-PL passed along Resolutions for final consideration by the Plenary itself, there were key areas of disagreement that would eventually see the Plenary session itself run through until 5:30am on the last day of the conference.

It’s practically a mantra at this point, but the Internet has fundamentally changed discussions and negotiations in the venerable International Telecommunication Union, and divided the Member States between those who feel that the ITU should evolve its remit and take on a stronger role in Internet governance, and those who feel that the Internet is separate from (though in many ways linked to) the business and remit of the Union. This is the battle that has been playing out for more than a decade now, in conference after conference. In 2018, after three weeks in Dubai for the Plenipotentiary (which is the highest level ITU conference, and sets the Union’s agenda and priorities for the coming four-year period), the respective positions seem, if anything, even more entrenched.

About that Internet…

Coming into this Plenipotentiary, a number of proposals came from Member States that hit directly upon this division, some of which we discussed earlier on RIPE Labs (here and here).

The most contentious proposals relating to the Internet Resolutions (i.e. 101, 102, 133 and 180) included:

  • The inclusion of references to the DONA Foundation (and more broadly, Digital Object Architecture technology) in the Internet Resolutions (primarily as part of the list of “relevant organisations” with whom the ITU is instructed to cooperate, which includes the RIRs)
  • Changes to the outcomes, openness and working method of the Council Working Group on International Internet-related Public Policy Issues (CWG-Internet), such as giving it more power to draft and propose international public policy to the ITU Council or opening its sessions to more/all stakeholders
  • Some quite strong language specifically regarding the absence of a “decisional role” for governments in Internet governance structures operating in a multistakeholder fashion (with particular emphasis on ICANN) and suggestions on what the ITU could do to help remedy this

While negotiations over the last two weeks managed to remove the language around that final point (leaving the existing instructions for the ITU to coordinate with relevant organisations), the differences on the inclusion of the DONA Foundation and the CWG-Internet could not be resolved, meaning that the language on those points was placed in “square brackets” (meaning it was “still to be agreed”), to be resolved in the final Plenary.

The issue concerning the DONA Foundation and DOA is long-running (going back beyond the last Plenipotentiary); some Member States see DOA technology as a potential alternative to the current Internet naming and numbering systems, while others regard it as a service (currently in limited use) that can operate over the Internet. The latter see the DONA Foundation (the central administrative organisation for DOA) as categorically different to the RIRs, ICANN and the IETF.

The role of the CWG-Internet also has history going back to the last Plenipotentiary – currently structured as a closed group (open only to Member States) which holds adjacent “open consultations”, the remit of the group in terms of output is relatively limited. Arguments this time around covered both the openness to non-Member State participants and the ability of the group to develop policy proposals for consideration by the ITU Council.

On both issues, the status quo held – no mention of DONA Foundation/DOA (though the technology is referenced elsewhere in relation to counterfeit devices and mobile device theft), no change to the mandate or working methods of the CWG-Internet – but the argument was long and intense, with Europe (CEPT) and the Americas (CITEL) siding against the Arab States and Africa (ATU).

Changes agreed to elsewhere in the Internet Resolutions were positive overall, including a shift in the language of Resolution 180 (concerning IPv6) from “transition” to “adoption and deployment” – my colleague Marco Hogewoning has discussed this in a separate article that focuses on some of the technical issues raised at the conference.

However, text proposed by CITEL countries in Resolution 139, “Use of telecommunications/information and communication technologies to bridge the digital divide and build an inclusive information society”, recognising the role of community and not-for-profit networks in some countries, proved unexpectedly contentious and did not reach a final draft following strong resistance from countries in Africa and the Arab States.

A question of scope

Questions of the ITU’s mandate often proved a flashpoint in discussions in Dubai, with the most notable victim of this a proposed Resolution on Artificial Intelligence, an area that the ITU has been edging its way into over recent years. Irreconcilable disagreement over whether to include language limiting the scope of the ITU’s activities in this area (and specifically excluding “regulatory guidance or governance for AI technologies”) meant that the Resolution was scrapped in the final Plenary.

At the same time, disagreement throughout much of the conference over the inclusion of the term “frontier technologies” in relation to ITU activities in the Internet and future networks hit the same wall. The term, while used in several other United Nations venues, was seen as too broad (often extending to include topics like biotechnology) and may open the door to a broader ITU mandate in technology generally. In the end, the phrase was replaced with the more specific “emerging telecommunications/ICTs” in numerous Resolutions.

On the other hand, a new Resolution on over-the-top services (simply entitled “OTTs”, as per the final negotiation) did manage to make it through to adoption, bringing together some quite diverse proposals from different regions, and recognising both the opportunities and regulatory challenges that these technologies pose to the telecommunications community (as well as the “the sovereign right of each State to regulate its telecommunication”).

And the rest…

There were a few other discussions that proved somewhat less contentious, but that may have some operational impact for the RIPE NCC and RIPE community. The ongoing clean-up of the last attempt to review the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) will continue, with a reconvened Expert Group set to report to the next Plenipotentiary on any progress. This was a compromise between those who wanted the issue dropped, and those seeking endorsement of a new World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), the conference that could actually revise the ITRs (which are in the form of an international treaty).

In addition, it was agreed that a further World Telecommunication/Information and Communication Technology Policy Forum (WTPF) will be held back-to-back with the WSIS Forum 2021. While the actual topic will be determined over the coming period, it’s a reasonably safe bet that it will be something related to Internet technologies and governance.

The final analysis

Well, we ended up with (largely) the status quo. And from the perspective of the RIPE NCC going into the conference and as observers to the discussion, that’s a good outcome – indeed, the best we could have hoped for. And having our staff at the conference to work alongside Member State delegations (and RIPE community members on national delegations) was extremely positive.

On the other hand, a couple of things are clear coming out of this event – calling back to the words of Ms Abdullah, quoted at the beginning of this article, a clear gap exists between Member States, and the policy aims of certain States (in some cases whole regions) have, in this case, been thwarted. In a global Internet governance discussion, that should be seen as a less-than-positive outcome; building positive, productive relationships across all Internet stakeholders (including all governments) needs to be at the top of the agenda.

At the same time, it’s clear that in some countries there is also a gap between the practical realities of national Internet deployment, use and management, and the political positions that they pursue in the ITU. Working to establish a better connection between those two points is something that the RIPE NCC and the broader Internet community can work towards, and we saw some positive examples of this at the Plenipotentiary, with the RIRs (and the RIPE NCC specifically) explicitly acknowledged for their engagement work (Marco's article also illustrates some success stories in this area). But we also need to acknowledge the political dimensions to these discussions, and understand that all our work to engage communities, governments and regulators may not change the hearts and minds of ITU delegations in the ways we hope.

At a time of growing and increasingly serious interest in government regulation of the Internet, this Plenipotentiary conference represents one more chapter in a much longer story (that’s about to get very interesting!).

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