December 6, 2012

What is the U.S. position on the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) and the ITRs?

The U.S. strongly believes that the global Internet sector- the world driving our economic and social progress- require no global regulatory regime and that all these systems will thrive wherever there is free and open access to content and information. We believe the International Telecommunications Regulations or ITRs should promote market-based solutions and approaches, not “regulatory” ones. From market-based approaches, growth and investment in the international telecommunications market will be driven by consumer demand not governments, and will result in benefits for citizens and societies. National governments hold the key to investment potential, through liberalization, competition, content-generation and other pro-growth policies.

What is the ITU and who can join it?

The International Telecommunication Union or ITU is a specialized agency of the United Nations that coordinates the global use of radio spectrum, promotes international cooperation in assigning satellite orbits, and works to improve telecommunications infrastructure and standards. The ITU has roots extending back to 1865, as the International Telegraph Union, serving as the entity that coordinated the interconnection of telegraph cables. The present-day ITU has three “sectors”: (1) Radiocommunications (ITU-R), which provides a venue to coordinate usage of radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbital locations, (2) Development (ITU-D), which provides assistance to developing countries for capacity-building and policy and regulatory issues, and (3) Telecommunications standardization (ITU-T), which provides a forum for development of telecom standards.

There are two types of ITU members: (1) governments, which have full membership and voting rights, and (2) sector members, which include companies, industry groups and other organizations. Sector members pay an annual membership fee of 31,800CHF, which comes to about $34,297 USD. Through their membership, sector members can contribute to the ITU’s work across all three sectors, but they do not have full rights to vote and function as observers.

What are the ITRs?

The ITRs are an international treaty that addresses the methods for exchanging telecommunications messages among the telecommunications carriers in different countries. The ITRs are not regulations in any comprehensive sense; the main body of the treaty is less than 12 pages long and consists of high-level principles, for telecommunications operators when administering connections between them. Moreover, when the ITRs were revised in 1988, the delegates included provisions allowing a large degree of flexibility for commercial traffic exchange agreements – and these agreements have become the predominant mode for routing and terminating calls. In addition, when the ITRs were revised in 1988, they pertained only to circuit-switched (i.e., telephone) calls. There is nothing in the current ITRs that would apply them to the Internet or to data content and processing, although several national and regional proposals to the WCIT appear to presume that the ITRs should incorporate these newer technologies.

Why is the WCIT important?

Revisions to the ITRs could have a negative economic impact. Some countries are concerned that the pace of development of broadband infrastructure is too slow and have embraced proposals to require producers of Internet content to pay in order to have their data carried by telecommunications carriers and terminated in other countries. The United States and most developed countries, however, oppose such a fee and believe it would be ineffective in promoting development and could curtail both content generation and the availability of that content in developing countries. In fact the only model that has proven to work is a liberalized one. Liberalized markets offer a faster and more effective way to drive broadband availability and penetration.

Moreover, there are proposals that would specifically address content, creating an international precedent and treaty-based authority for regulation of content. The United States opposes proposals of international authority that could lead to stepped up monitoring and blocking of the free flow of information, including Internet content. The ITU maintains, however, that its charter and constitution contain language that would preclude any use of the ITRs to justify attacks on freedom of expression.

In summary, many countries believe that the current model of international telecommunications, which is characterized by commercially negotiated agreements, competition and liberalized market access, has been very successful in establishing an environment for growth of mobile and Internet services. These countries caution that an intrusive, regulatory approach to the ITRs could stifle that growth and defeat the goal of enabling more people around the world to connect to the Information Society. The U.S. has repeatedly called for full and transparent multi-stakeholder engagement in the WCIT process on issues of modern telecommunications, as well as internet policy which is the key to legitimate policymaking.

How does the WCIT work?

Countries have been making proposals, known as “contributions” for several months prior to the start of the WCIT. These contributions will provide the basis for discussion, and potentially revision, of the text of the ITRs.

The structure of the Conference is based upon committees. Committee Five is charged with reviewing the text of the ITRs. It establishes working groups to review the separate articles of the existing treaty and to consider potential new articles. Each working group may then also create one or more drafting groups to hash out new treaty language. Once the drafting groups reach consensus on that language, it is sent up to the working group, and then to the full committee. Eventually, text is considered by all the delegates in a plenary session.

ITU process is also based on consensus through discussion. The ITU can conduct votes but rarely does so – it traditionally considers voting divisive and a last resort when consensus cannot otherwise be reached.

During the first week of the two-week WCIT, the contributions are sent to the working groups and drafting groups for discussion and resolution. By the end of the first week, text will likely begin to be sent up to Committee Five. By the middle of the final week, nearly all text should be ready for review by that Committee, and then by the full plenary. Once text is finalized, countries can take principled “reservations” marking their disagreement with part or all of the revised treaty. These will be presented on the last day of the conference, followed by a signing and closing ceremony, slated for Dec. 14.

Once the revised treaty is signed by a sufficient number of countries, it becomes a working treaty, although each country then must approve it through ratification or another domestic legislative process.