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ITU Gives a Nod Towards Transparency; Still a Long Road to Full Civil Society Participation

Late last week, the ITU Council announced its decision to make public one of the summary documents of proposals to amend the ITRs. (For background on the ITRs and the WCIT, see our ITU page.) Notably, a prior version of this document was leaked weeks ago on WCITleaks, and we welcome the release of an updated version. But it is hard to see how this limited release translates into meaningful transparency. The vast majority of documents related to the WCIT process, including specific positions governments are taking on behalf of their citizens, remain locked behind a password wall and are only available to Member States and Sector Members. The ITU Council was forced to confront the issue of transparency following significant pressure from civil society groups from around the world.

With this decision, the ITU has taken a very small but welcome first step toward transparency. To be clear, however, this measure is in no way equivalent to meaningful, direct participation of civil society in the process as an equal stakeholder. The document the Council has decided to release, called TD-64, does not provide any information about which governments proposed specific text and whether that proposal has support of other governments.  That information is provided in the “matrix” document TD-62 (leaked here), which collects all of the proposals made thus far and includes necessary commentary from Members about the asserted need for proposed amendments as well as the potential impact proposals would have on the Internet. This information is vital, both for understanding the complexity behind seemingly subtle changes to the treaty text, and for allowing civil society to engage in public discussion with government and experts to weigh in on the proposals’ human rights or technical impact. As we have seen so far, some proposals aim to radically alter the current structure of the Internet or encourage greater state interference, with unclear public benefit and potential public harm. Without attribution of treaty edits to the national governments proposing them—a prerequisite for a meaningful public dialogue between citizens, industry, and government—the WCIT process is still fatally opaque. As they say in sports, “you can’t tell the players without the scorecard,” and the ITU Council has made a strategic decision not to share its scorecard with the Internet’s users.

The Council also decided to create a publicly accessible page that will allow members of the public to submit comments on TD-64 and the WCIT process. While this is a welcome first step, we question whether and how any public comments raised on this page will actually be incorporated into internal discussions between Member States at the ITU and at the national level. And without knowing which Members proposed specific edits, citizens have limited ability to engage with the governments acting on their behalf, and hold them to account.

Perhaps the most significant statement out of the meeting was the Secretary General’s clarification that “all ITU members have full access to all WCIT-12 documents and can share them within their constituencies.” That means the ITU has given a clear signal that it is placing the onus for transparency and participation back on Member States. The question is whether and how member states will take up the challenge.

CDT believes each Member State of the ITU needs to move quickly to:

  • Publicly release preparatory documents for the WCIT, including revisions of the TD-62 compilation of Member State proposals and the final report of the Council Working Group
  • Publicly release the Member State’s own proposals for revising the treaty
  • Convene open, public consultations to solicit input from all stakeholders to inform the Member State’s positions in advance of the WCIT.

A brief examination of documents released so far reveals that Member States and industry members are proposing matters that go to core issues of policy and the technical functioning of the Internet—including but going far beyond mere technical matters. Member States must take the steps outlined above to ensure full consideration of the proposals’ impact on Internet openness, human rights, and economic growth.