A Pocket Guide For The WCIT-12

So here I am in Dubai, attending the World Conference on International Telecommunications (#WCIT or #WCIT12) of the International Telecommunications Union (#ITU). The good folks at the ITU are webcasting the Plenary Sessions (the official part where the countries vote). You can tune in here (archives of live caption transcripts here). As you might expect, the WCIT has its own specialized vocabulary which can make following all this rather difficult. I have therefore prepared an impromptu and very incomplete glossary of the acronyms and peculiar phrases of the WCIT for the benefit of folks trying to follow along.

Disclaimer: I am an advisory member of the U.S. delegation, but nothing in here is an official statement of U.S. Del. I’m offering this for information purposes only.

Key Terms to Follow The Debate

ITRs — International Telecommunications Regulations. The rules agreed to by the ITU and binding on the member states, subject to all the caveats about binding member states in the ITRs themselves and in the ITU Constitution.

Article– The ITRs are divided into a Preamble and a set of Articles (and appendices). Proposed revisions are refered to by Article number and sub-number. For example “proposed Revision to Article 6.2.” Multiple proposals get designated by letter. So “Revised text of 6.2a” means a revised draft of a proposal to 6.2.

DT — Short for Temporary Document (but based on the French). A DT is a text disseminated by the ITU Secretariat through the official document distribution system that serves as the basis for discussion. DTs are numbered to keep track of iterations, but the numbers are purely sequential and do not have any significance or relationship to previous revisions that I have been able to discern. For example, “DT/29.”

Member State/Sector Member – There are two kinds of ITU members. A country is eligible to become a “Member State.” Industry groups and other groups with relevant missions and expertise are allowed to join as “Sector Members.” Only member states can vote. Sector members get access to all the documents and can sit in on meetings.

Plenary — The WCIT is structured with a Plenary composed of all members. Only member states get to vote. The ITU prides itself on being a consensus organization, so it tries to avoid deciding things by vote wherever possible. The Plenary is the highest body of the WCIT, and makes decisions on the final text of the ITRs.

Committee — The Plenary forms Committees to get things done. Committees report back to the Plenary.

Committee 5/Com5 — The substantive committee charged with trying to take the proposed changes to the ITRs submitted in advance by the member states and blending them into a final text for Plenary consideration.

Ad Hoc Group/AHG — the next level down from a committee. A Committee or a Plenary can create an AHG. The AHG reports back to the creature that spawned it.

Informal Discussion Group — the next level down from AHG. AHG’s can create informal discussion groups (as can anyone above it).

Square Brackets aka [] — the whole point of this exercise, in its numerous layers, is to create a consensus text for approval by the Plenary. Because it is very common to get hung up on a specific word or phrase (or paragraph, or Article), if the AHG/WG/Com/Plenary cannot agree on a proposed text, they will agree to put it in “square brackets” and come back to it later. “Square brackets” can be both a noun and a verb. e.g. “Please square bracket this phrase.” Or “We want to remove the square brackets” (we want to come to consensus about the wording).


Some Important Issues To Watch

“Scope of the ITR” — The ITU deals with international telecommunications. Parties will object to proposals they say go beyond the scope of the ITRs, such as to Internet governance.

“Recognized Operating Agency” v. “Operating Agency” (or ROA v. OA) — The term “recognized  operating agency” means a provider of telecommunications service somehow licensed or otherwise “recognized” by a member state. An “operating agency” just means anybody providing services. Countries that want a very expansive reading of the ITRs to include over-the-top (OTT) services or internet content want to use Operating Agency/OA. Countries like the U.S., which want to prevent expanding the jurisdiction of the ITU to Internet services, want to use Recognized Operating Agency/ROA.

“Security” — Several countries proposed text to add language on Cybersecurity or Security generally. This is a potentially very broad topic, and has raised a great deal of concern in civil society that “security” or “cybersecurity” would legitimize censorship or threaten te right to communicate anonymously. The U.S. and many other countries have tried to exclude cybersecurity as outside the scope of the ITRs, a position widely supported by civil society globally (see the Declaration of Civil Society from Best Bits in Baku, Azerbaijan). Many other countries, however, argue that cybersecurity is within the scope of the ITRs and is a widely recognized problem requiring global coordination through the ITU.

There are many other issues that raise similar concerns. For example, some governments argue they need to have access to routing information outside their borders, or an ability to control routing information entirely, to prevent fraud and protect consumers. Others object that this would enable global censorship and eliminate anonymous speech online.

This is not a comprehensive list by any stretch of the imagination. But I am hopeful that this pocket guide will help remote participants follow along a fairly important debate for the Internet’s future.

Stay tuned . . .

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