ITU continues push for controversial telecom regulations

Posted on: Monday, 11th March 2013

The International Telecommunications Union remains determined to persuade 55 dissenting countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia, to agree to controversial new telecom regulations which critics say could damage the current system of internet governance.

CommsDay can reveal that a senior official with the ITU, 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.

Some 55 mainly Western countries refused to ratify the regulations at a December meeting in Dubai citing concerns over lack of clarity regarding their scope over the internet as well as open-ended clauses on network security, open access and spam which could give governments potential new powers to intercept and regulate Internet traffic content.

However, Johnson claims these concerns were addressed by countervailing conditions and clauses in the treaty text. “There seems nothing in the treaty that should prevent a Member State implementing it, indeed quite the opposite there are many reasons to do so: provisions requiring Member States to take action against any misuse of names and numbers in their territory; to improve transparency in mobile roaming charges; to improve energy efficiency; cut e-waste; to bring access to the 650 million people living with some kind of disability; to improve broadband connectivity for landlocked developing countries and small island states; and encourage investment and competition,” Johnson said.

Attendees at the meeting weren’t totally convinced by his arguments, however. Johnson, for example, downplayed concerns over the scope of the regulations saying they applied only to “publicly available international telecommunication services,” with “government networks and private corporate networks” outside the reach of the treaty.

One attendee, who declined to be named, told CommsDay that governments and corporates made pervasive use of publicly-available telecommunications services and that it was not at all clear that such types of network usage would be excluded from coverage of the regulations.

But Johnson believes that many of the 55 will change their minds and sign up.

“In total 89 countries signed immediately, and we hope many more will accede before it comes into force on 1 January 2015. This compares well with the 112 that signed the current treaty in Melbourne and to which 190 member States are now party to,” Johnson said. He said one reason that 55 countries declined to sign was because “the final text was adopted less than 24 hours before countries were being asked to sign. Clearly this did not allow sufficient time to consult many capitals, especially taking account of time differences.”

Johnson’s push to convince dissenters to sign may be moot anyhow, with speculation rising that acceptance of the treaty may become a virtual pre-requisite to continued ITU membership by 2015. CommsDay understands that members may be asked to ratify a revised version of the ITU constitution at its next plenipotentiary in South Korea in 2014, and that the controversial treaty may be embedded in the constitution’s “administrative regulations.” Non-ratifiers of the treaty at this point could potentially be ineligible for continued membership as the ITU requires them “to abide by the provisions of this Constitution, the Convention and the Administrative Regulations.”

The United States initially refused to ratify the regulations on the grounds that the ITU has no place in internet governance. Its Dubai delegation head, ambassador Larry Kramer, said on 14 December last year “we candidly cannot support an ITU Treaty that is inconsistent with the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance. As the ITU has stated, this conference was never meant to focus on internet issues. However, today, we’re in a situation where we still have text and resolutions that cover issues on spam and also provisions on internet governance … the United States continues to believe that Internet policy must be multi-stakeholder driven.”

His UK equivalent, Simon Towle, said “we all agreed that content was not intended to be part of the regulations, but content issues keep coming up. We preferred no text on security but in the interest of compromise we worked towards language we could accept.”

“Unfortunately, the language that we proposed and the various alternatives we proposed were constantly rejected and the compromise that we have before us we could only possibly accept in the context of a treaty that was acceptable in all other respects. On the internet itself, our position is clear. We do not see the regulations as the place to address internet issues. The proper place is multi-stakeholder fora: the IGF, the ICANN GAC.”

CommsDay sources say that Johnson’s efforts are unlikely to persuade critics of the regulations and cast doubt on whether the ITU secretariat should still be actively promoting one side of an argument that has clearly divided its membership.

The 55 non-signatories to the ITU’s international regulations include 7 countries in Asia-Pacific, including Australia, New Zealand, India and Japan; 34 countries in Europe including the UK, Germany, France, Italy and Spain; and 14 others including Israel, Kenya, the US and Canada.

 Grahame Lynch

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