Q4/2018 - International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Plenipotentiary Conference

Dubai, 29 October - 16 November 2018

Despite highly controversial discussions in the various working groups and committees, the four-yearly ITU Plenipotentiary Conference (in Dubai from 29 October to 16 November 2018) was concluded with a consensual outcome document. The 360-page paper (Dubai Final Act) provides ITU with a basis for its work until the next Plenipotentiary Conference in 2022. With the outcome document ITU follows up on a trend that has been emerging since the last Plenipotentiary Conference (2014 in Busan) to take a middle course for critical issues. At the ITU World Conference on International Telecommunication (WCIT) in 2012, ITU had experienced its first split in its 150-year history. Half of the ITU members had rejected the newly negotiated International Telcommunication Regulations (ITR) because they feared the ITR might cause ITU to go beyond its narrowly limited mandate and claim responsibility for aspects of Internet governance.

In the run-up to the Dubai conference some had feared that a number of ITU member states might attempt to extend the mandate of ITU to areas of responsibility like cyber security, Internet governance or artificial intelligence, which would have been generally rejected by the Western states. But this did not happen. There were no applications at the start of the conference striving to change the ITU mandate as based on its two policy documents (constitution and convention). Nevertheless, some draft resolutions included items that were targeted to trigger a mission creep. In the four weeks of negotiating, however, a “middle course” could be found for all issues, which even though it did not fully correspond to the original position of the various parties was acceptable for all. The Dubai Final Act does not define any major changes to the role of the ITU in the Internet governance ecosystem. In principle, it confirms the status quo, both for controversial issues of Internet governance in the narrower sense and for  issues emerging from the evolution of new IT technologies (cyber security, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, Big Data, etc.).

The more relaxed attitude of ITU is largely due to the constant ongoing improvement the ITU – ICANN relationship has been experiencing since the IANA transition. The process is further supported by the new climate of confidence based on mutual respect and enhanced communication that has been created by ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao and ICANN President Göran Marby. Houlin Zhao spoke at the ICANN conference in Abu Dhabi in November 2017, when Steve Crocker was given an official farewell, and participated in the High Level GAC Meeting of ICANN in Barcelona in October 2018. Göran Marby was the first ICANN President to be invited by ITU to deliver a keynote at the opening ceremony of the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in Dubai in November 2018.

One of the results of this “policy of détente” was that the seven ITU resolutions on Internet and WSIS adopted at Dubai were continued with hardly any amendments being made. Proposals like those submitted at the previous ITU Plenipotentiary Conference under ITU Secretary-General Hamadou Toure, such as creating an independent ITU Internet registry for IP address allocation or establishing ITU competencies for managing country-code domains (ccTLD registries) or IDNs, did not come up again at Dubai. Even though the mentioning of ICANN is still restricted to the footnotes in the so-called ITU Internet Resolutions (and so are IETF, ISOC and W3C), ICANN is no longer a buzzword in the ITU negotiations. When topics are concerned that are in ICANN’s sphere of competence, ITU now restricts its role to contributing to studies, to information exchange and the development of a “collaboration with relevant bodies”.

The relaxed atmosphere also has a positive impact on the framework conditions for discussing which position ITU shall take with regard to the new developments in the field of IT technologies. ITU has particular expertise in many of the fields concerned, especially when it comes to building infrastructure and telecommunication in developing countries. It also has a WSIS mandate to follow up on a variety of goals from the WSIS Plan of Action (Geneva 2003). So it is only natural that the discussions in Dubai also dealt with the role of ITU in closely connecting the activities designed to reach the WSIS goals with those aimed at achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

  1. Especially the developing countries are increasingly confronted with new challenges of the digital world to which they have no answers of their own. Most of the new digital services and applications that have a significant impact on national politics and economies in developing countries are offered by Western or Chinese companies. Developing countries, especially in Africa, are therefore looking for a trustworthy neutral place to seek advice and share experiences. Topics, such as Over the Top Services (OTT), Smart Cities, Internet of Things, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence etc, which are discussed also by the ITU-T Study Groups, do not yet have a “natural home” in the system of the international organisations. For some of these issues, ITU would be most suited as a discussion forum that well provides of the necessary expertise.
  2. The point in Dubai was to define to which extent ITU should and could get involved in these new areas and where it would reach the limits of its decision-making power, also according to the provisions of the ITU constitution, or where it would invade the sphere of competence of other organisations. “eHealth” served as an example in this debate. Responsibility for the health issue with its boosting importance in the digital world rests with World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva. But the WHO has no expertise in the field of IT technologies. However, critics warned that if ITU was to cover this whole range of new issues of the cyber world, it might turn into a “digital global government“ or a “UNO of the Internet”. This would not only be incompatible with the ITU constitution but also unbalance the global Internet governance ecosystem. Instead, new innovative task sharing models had to be established for international organisations. But such an extended cooperation, which would have to include non-state institutions and organisations, required an atmosphere of trust based on mutual respect and enhanced communication.
  3. So the fact that the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in Dubai refrained from taking an extreme position can be understood as a confidence building measure. The discussion of the pending questions will be continued after the conference. Major platforms for this will be the annual WSIS meetings of the ITU, the UN Internet Governance Forum and the preparations for the WSIS+20 conference scheduled for 2025. Postponing issues of considerable political controversy thus turns out to be a sensible strategy, as shows the contentious question if and when negotiations on the International Telecommunication Regulation (ITR, Dubai 2012) will be taken up again. Though the Expert Group on ITRs (EG-ITR) established four years ago is requested to continue its work, the report with options for a potential future approach is scheduled only for the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in 2022. The question of whether the ITRs will be renegotiated at all therefore still remains unanswered.

The ITU Plenipotentiary Conference 2018 also elected the organisation’s new management. The Chinese Houlin Zhao was re-elected as ITU Secretary-General for another four years. There was no other candidate. Prior to being Secretary-General, Houlin Zhao served eight years as Director of ITU-T and another eight years as ITU Deputy Secretary-General . The British Malcolm Johnson also was confirmed as ITU Deputy Secretary-General. The three positions of directors were filled with Mario Maniewicz (Uruguay) for ITU-R, Chaesub Lee (South Korea) for ITU-T and Doreen Bogdan-Martin (USA) for ITU-D. Doreen Bogdan-Martin is the first women to be elected to the management of ITU in the 150-year history of the organisation. There were also elections for the members of the ITU Council, the highest body of ITU in the periods between the plenipotentiary conferences. The Federal Republic of Germany was re-elected member of the ITU Council.

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