Civil Society Seeks Access to Planning Documents for Secret Negotiations Around Internet Regulation
An upcoming treaty renegotiation process could prove to have dire implications for digital civil rights. As we have explained, the World Conference on International Telecommunications – "WCIT" for short, pronounced “wicket” by insiders – will be held in Dubai this coming December, and preparations for this important treaty-writing conference are in full swing. The forum is being organized by a secretive United Nations agency called the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
The fear that’s been bouncing around the blogosphere amid civil society organizations this week is that the WCIT could be used to push through expansion of the ITU’s mandate beyond telecommunications, to encompass the Internet.
This does not bode well for the future of the Internet.
At the WCIT, member states will hash out revisions to a set of regulations that make up a treaty called the International Telecommunication Regulations, or ITRs. Some proposed revisions to the ITRs have already been made, but they haven’t been made public. This renegotiation process could prove to have a serious impact on online civil liberties – yet the talks are being held in secret, without adequate input from the organizations that represent the public interest.
If negotiations continue down this path, we could end up with a treaty that allows for greater governmental control over the Internet.
That’s why EFF and 30+ civil society organizations issued a letter May 17 demanding that the ITU ends its secrecy. We are calling for the immediate release of all the documents describing preparations for WCIT and proposed ITR revisions. Since it’s prohibitively expensive to obtain the planning documents that are being drafted in advance of the WCIT, it’s impossible for most public interest participants to review them and weigh in with informed opinions.
Joe McNamee, Executive Director, European Digital Rights (EDRi), a coalition of 32 privacy and civil rights organisations based in Europe, told EFF:
Beyond the creaking bureaucracy, the undemocratic procedures and the fact that the ITU effectively sells access to decision-makers through exorbitant corporate membership fees, the single biggest practical problem with the ITU is that it moves extremely slowly and cannot readily remedy any mistakes that it makes. Any damaging policy adopted under this process will burden global freedom of communications for years to come.
Jérémie Zimmermann, co-founder and spokesperson of citizen advocacy group La Quadrature du Net, told EFF:
This trend by governments to increasingly use trade agreements and treaties to try to control a free, open and universal Internet is alarming. Citizens must take action and expose their governments' roles in these negotiations, in order to protect the networked public sphere that we all share as a common good.
The secrecy surrounding these talks brings to mind the closed-door negotiations that civil society has condemned throughout negotiations of ACTA and the TPP, as Milton Mueller of the Internet Governance Project pointed out in a recent blog. Mueller noted that ACTA was negotiated in secret to appease the copyright and intellectual property lobbies, but this tactic ultimately backfired because “the closed process … gave the resulting treaty a lack of legitimacy,” triggering organized opposition.
It’s time for ITU to respect the multi-stakeholder process and let the sun shine in. All restrictions on sharing the preparatory materials and proposed ITR amendments should be lifted, and the documents should be released and subjected to public scrutiny.
We demand transparency, and call upon the ITU to open the process and disclose the WCIT preparatory documents and treaty proposals. The public should not be kept in the dark.
Letter from Civil Society
Civil society organizations and academics are invited to join this call to address deficiencies in the WCIT process. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
17 May 2012
To Secretary-General Dr. Hamadoun Touré, the Council Working Group to Prepare for the WCIT-12, and ITU Member States:
The undersigned human rights advocates, academics, freedom of expression groups, and civil society organizations write to express our desire to participate in the preparatory process undertaken for the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). The current preparatory process lacks the transparency, openness of process, and inclusiveness of all relevant stakeholders that are imperative under commitments made at the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS). We ask that the Secretary-General, the Council Working Group, and Member States work to resolve these process deficiencies in several concrete ways.
The continued success of the information society depends on the full, equal, and meaningful participation of civil society stakeholders (along side the private sector, the academic and technical community, and governments) in the management of information and communications technology, including both technical and public policy issues. Indeed, WSIS outcome documents recognize the need for a multi-stakeholder approach in technical management and policy decision-making for ICTs. The Tunis Agenda for the Information Society urges international organizations “to ensure that all stakeholders, particularly from developing countries, have the opportunity to participate in policy decision-making … and to promote and facilitate such participation.” And such participation depends on transparency and openness of process at every stage of substantive and procedural dialogue.
Yet there has been scant participation by civil society in the Council Working Group’s preparatory process for the WCIT so far, even as media reports indicate that some Member States have proposed amending the International Telecommunication Regulations to address issues that could impact the exercise of human rights in the digital age, including freedom of expression, access to information, and privacy rights. Under the current process, civil society participation is severely limited by restrictions on sharing of preparatory documents, high barriers for ITU membership (including cost), and lack of mechanisms for remote participation in preparatory meetings.
As an important step towards fulfilling WSIS commitments for building a more inclusive information society, the undersigned request that the Secretary-General, the Council Working Group, and Member States:
- Remove restrictions on the sharing of WCIT documents and release all preparatory materials, including the Council Working Group’s final report, consolidated reports from all preparatory activity, and proposed revisions to the International Telecommunication Regulations;
- Open the preparatory process to meaningful participation by civil society in its own right and without cost at Council Working Group meetings and the WCIT itself, providing formal speaking opportunities and according civil society views an equal weight as those of other stakeholders. Facilitate remote participation to the extent possible; and
- For Member States, open public processes at the national level to solicit input on proposed amendments to the International Telecommunication Regulations from all relevant stakeholders, including civil society, and release individual proposals for public debate.
We welcome Secretary-General Touré’s commitment to creating a more inclusive information society and ensuring equitable access to ICT around the world. Collectively and individually, the undersigned human rights advocates, academics, freedom of expression groups, and civil society organizations work to fulfill this vision through a range of national and global institutions and we call for the same opportunity to engage at the WCIT, consistent with WSIS commitments. We urge you to ensure the outcomes of the WCIT and its preparatory process truly represent the common interests of all who have a stake in the future of our information society.