International Telecommunications Union secretary-general Houlin Zhao has revealed that some of the 54 countries who sided with the US in 2012 to reject a claimed intrusion of government into Internet governance via revised regulations have since reconsidered and asked to sign up.
The controversial International Telecommunications Regulations treaty was not signed by 55 countries who were concerned about the inclusion of implied mission creep that was being pushed by Russia and China, backed by a large number of African and Middle Eastern states. But Zhao told CommsDay on a visit to Sydney that he had resisted the overtures of those who wanted to subsequently adopt the regulations, fearing that such a move would spark fresh international tensions.
And Zhao said that the ITU itself had never sought to use the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications, where the rift occurred, to discuss internet governance matters – blaming “hijacking” by American media for distorting perceptions of the event.
The tensions that built up through WCIT in 2012 erupted at the eleventh hour when the African bloc won a vote, called by Iran, to have its preferred form of words over the rights of member states to access telecoms networks accepted in the treaty.
The US and its allies saw that language as an attempt to open the ITRs up to governance and content regulation, and declared they would not sign the treaty. “The United States has consistently believed, and continues to believe, that the ITRs should be a high-level document and that the scope of the treaty does not extend to internet governance or content,” said US ambassador Terry Kramer at the time. “Other administrations have made it clear that they believe the treaty should be extended to cover those issues, and so we cannot be part of that consensus.”
Speaking to CommsDay this week, Zhao – who in 2012 was deputy secretary-general, under Hamadoun Toure as secretary-general – said that for the ITU itself, internet governance was never meant to be on the agenda. Kramer had made a similar point at the time, noting that provisions on internet governance had made it into the treaty despite the ITU’s statements that the conference was never meant to focus on internet issues.
“That meeting was designed to address the issue of international telecoms regulations; there was no plan to talk about internet governance related matters! And there was no plan to think about taking over internet governance, not at all,” said Zhao, adding that the previous set of ITRs had been agreed back in 1988 before the advent of the internet or mobile.
“ITU members agreed to have that meeting in Dubai in December 2012, with the goal very clear: updating these international telecom regulations, with the hope to encourage investment into ICT and telecom businesses. Simply that.”
“Then it was unfortunately hijacked by American media, saying that the ITU wished to use this conference to take over internet governance – which was absolutely not true. With this kind of misperceptions, there were difficulties at the conference itself… at such kind of important communications conference, the word ‘internet’ could not be used, even!” he continued.
“Unimaginable, but that was the case. You could not talk about the internet, you could not use the word ‘internet’. For the telecom operators, they were fighting against spam… they wished to address the issue and at a global level, we also had to show our efforts in the fight against spam; and even the word ‘spam’ could not be used, it [was] not there… when we talked about the word cybersecurity, even the word ‘cybersecurity’ could not be used… so they managed to find the words ‘the robustness of the network’… [for fear that] if they used that [other] word, the ITU would take over internet governance! [Which was] absolutely wrong.”
“The majority of the members… tried very hard, our American friends also tried very hard… and finally, they all agreed. But then… in the approach to the end of the conference, unfortunately, tensions came up,” added Zhao.
According to the secretary-general, the head of the US delegation said after the conference that the country had refused to sign “not because of the contents, but because of the political tensions there, that there was a fight against America. And America did not want to be forced to sign something under such a kind of pressure.”
“So that was the US. But the US also mobilised its allies, particularly the European members,” continued Zhao. “While European members, some of them, immediately after the meeting told us – told me, even, in person! – that they could have signed that one, [when asked] ‘why did you not sign that?’ they said ‘because we have to show solidarity with our American friends’.”
CHANGE OF HEART: But more recently, said Zhao, some of those US allies have changed their minds. “Last year, I talked with them, and they also came back to me saying ‘what we can do, now we can sign that one’,” said the secretary-general. “I said no, no, no.”
“Even after a recent meeting with European ambassadors, the ambassadors raised that issue to me: ‘now you have two regulations; one is the 1988 regulation [on which] everybody agreed, and you have another regulation with 89 countries agreed, but still 53 countries did not sign that one. So what is the situation, what can we do; what happens if we have a conflict between the two regulations? What are we going to do? So can we sign that one?’ And I said ‘no, for the moment that is already there; if we encourage you to sign that one, one after the other, maybe [there will] be new tensions. I think it’s better to find opportunities to come together to look at this issue’.”
“But the problem that then I mentioned [was]: ‘If you already found that the text at that moment could be signed and you did not sign, why did you not raise your voice during the meeting, try to come up with some kind of compromise? Then everybody can accept, and people would have appreciated your voice; why didn’t you do that at that moment?’ So that was one of the lessons we learned; we should have everybody’s voice heard, and everybody should actively participate and then try to contribute.”
HARMONY: Today, according to Zhao, the climate amongst ITU members has subsequently become less tense. “Another thing, more important: immediately after the meeting, both sides realised that this was very unfortunate, not good, and both sides worked very hard to try to improve the environment,” he said.
“In 2013, in May, the ITU organised the World Telecom Policy Forum, with a clear mandate to address internet governance. You can imagine that should have been more difficult, but in fact we did not have any difficulties, because we followed the multi-stakeholder preparatory process, invited everyone to come together and talk, and both sides made an effort, saying ‘we have to change this situation, change the atmosphere’.”
“Therefore, in May 2013, the World Telecom Policy Forum adopted six options without any difficulties, and everybody appreciated the multi-stakeholder preparatory process. And that was not the end; after 2013, we had our World Telecom Development Conference in 2014 in March… [where] we also talked about internet governance, and nobody said ‘you cannot use the word internet!’ It appeared in the resolutions, everywhere. And again, we did not have any problems. And then in 2014, at our plenipotentiary conference, we again renewed resolutions concerning the internet… without any problems.”
“This is the good lesson people have already learned; they try to avoid these kinds of unnecessary divisions by creating a better environment. That is one of the reasons why, during my campaign for election as secretary-general, I [used] the word ‘harmony’. Harmony is very important; if you have harmonided atmosphere, people can come together to talk about the issues. If you have tensions, even issues that could have been agreed will not [be] agreed.”