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As ITU Eyes the Internet, Where is Civil Society?

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency, will soon hold a meeting of world governments to decide whether and how it will regulate the Internet. However, global civil society has had little opportunity to take part in the debate.

Currently, the ITU’s treaty does not touch on core Internet issues. Some states, notably China and Russia, are advocating for an expansion of the ITU treaty to include Internet regulation. These states argue that challenges related to cybersecurity, cybercrime, and child protection require more regulation at the global level.

So far, however, the Internet has prospered because it is governed by a lightweight and decentralized framework. Participation of civil society, along with the private sector and the technical community, is vital to fostering the Internet’s growth. Indeed, OECD states have reaffirmed the importance of the multistakeholder model for policy development and governance just last year. But the ITU’s structure creates barriers to civil society participation – cost of membership is prohibitively high and ITU documents are only available to members.

CDT has released a memo providing an overview of the ITU treaty renegotiation process. As member states renegotiate the treaty, we ask civil society and other stakeholders to urge their governments to preserve an open and decentralized system of Internet governance. A crucial first step is to ensure that the negotiation process is transparent—starting with publication of treaty proposals and working documents.

Civil society should also petition their governments to create a process at the national level to collect public input. The new ITU treaty will have binding force on member states. As with any matter of public policy in democratic societies, what governments propose at the ITU must reflect the will of their citizens.