Never say die: the ITU goes door-stepping for signatures

Mar 12, 2013

Several observers report that the ITU hierarchy has been out and about on a sort of world tour, pressing flesh and holding seminars and trying to get at least some of the 55 countries that failed to sign last year's ITU treaty to do so.

Readers will recall the back-story. The 2012 WCIT was convened by the ITU to 'update' the International Telecommunications Regulations. Forged at the WCIT before in 1988, their thrust had been to loosen the ITU's grip to make room for the new wave of competitive telcos as the global market was rapidly de-regulated and privatised. New regulations were agreed on fundamental things like international interconnect.

The 2012 WCIT, on the other hand, was riven by the issue of Internet regulation. The ITU hierarchy and a significant number of African and Middle Eastern country representatives wanted to extend the remit of ITRs to include some Internet oversight. The US and its allies were highly resistant to any encouragement to state-level involvement in Internet governance, fearing censorship and an eventual fracturing of the Internet as states sought to take control of issues like Internet numbering.


In the end the contentious bits were mostly removed from the ITRs but put in a resolution. This attempt at sleight-of-hand angered the US and its allies and 55 of then refused to sign.

Now the ITU is back on tour and urging a rethink by the 55. According to Grahame Lynch of leading Australasian publication, CommsDay, "ITU senior official, Malcolm Johnson, visited Bangkok last week in an attempt to persuade seven Asia Pacific non-signatories to change their minds. Johnson, who heads the ITU’s Telecommunications Standardization Bureau, told a meeting of the Asia Pacific Telecommunity that many of the criticisms of the international telecoms regulation treaty were misplaced."

It's a similar story in Europe. My sources say there has been a vigorous courting of the ex Soviet bloc countries in particular in an attempt to get them to sign. Russia and China were both supporters of the new ITRs.

If nothing else, the continued attempt to have the ITRs ratified must raise serious questions about the impartiality of the ITU secretariat. Just why is it spending large amounts of ITU money travelling about trying to influence its members against what they perceive to be their own best interests?

According to the ITU it's all part of the process. In 1988, it says, many countries also refused to sign or reserved their positions (went back home to consult). Then, after a period of reflection (and lobbying) they signed up. It thinks it can repeat that trick this time out if it spends enough time cajoling and pleading.

But this version of past events and future probabilities is hotly disputed. According to Tony Rutkowski, advisor to the ITU Secretary General in 1988 and now a trenchant critic of the ITU and most of its doings, the 1988 WCIT was held in Melbourne, Australia and the reason there were some non-signatories then was that many country representative weren't actually there. All the nations that were present, signed, claims Rutkowski, so there's no meaningful comparison at all.

"[At WCIT-12 last year] the non-signatories walked out because of two fundamental jurisdictional differences dealing with scope and effect of the provisions. That's not going to change," he says.

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