Groups say ITU's transparency efforts aren't enough

Two civil liberties groups say the ITU's December treaty-writing meeting still isn't open to outsiders

The United Nations' International Telecommunication Union (ITU) still isn't transparent enough, even though the organization has promised to give the public more information about a December treaty-writing meeting, representatives of two digital rights groups said Monday.

The ITU's governing body, the Council, announced Friday that it would publish the main conference preparatory document for the upcoming World Conference On International Telecommunications on the ITU website and allow the public to comment on the document.

The announcements were "extremely modest first steps, and don't really go nearly far enough to create the kind of open, inclusive and transparent process we believe needs to take place," said Cynthia Wong, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology's Project on Global Internet Freedom.

The ITU's Friday announcement was the first move by the ITU to publish information about proposals made by member countries, although the site WCITleaks.org has published several leaked documents.

Many U.S. watchers of the ITU have raised concerns that the December meeting will include proposals to restrict the Internet or to revamp Internet governance. ITU observers in the U.S. say they expect proposals that will create new taxes in the form of Internet traffic termination fees and efforts to transfer Internet governance from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and other organizations to the U.N.

One proposal, from Russia, Belarus and other countries, would make Internet traffic and its termination a regulated telecommunications service, potentially leading to termination fees similar to ones exchanged between traditional voice carriers. That proposal was published by WCITleaks on June 15.

While developing countries may see termination fee proposals as a way to fund their broadband infrastructure, the fees may be counterproductive, said David Sohn, CDT's general counsel. "You create a system where all kinds of content providers find it expensive and possibly exorbitant to serve less developed countries," he said. "You really go down the road toward a balkanized, less global Internet."

ITU representatives didn't immediately respond to a request for comments on criticisms voiced Monday by CDT and Public Knowledge.

Representatives of the two digital rights groups said they remain concerned that the ITU process limits participation by groups not connected to member governments. "The ITU process is fairly closed and quite government centric," Wong said during a press briefing.

Internet users expect a voice in policy debates, as evidenced by public activism in the past year over controversial copyright enforcement bills the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act in the U.S. and over the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), Wong said.

"There's now this broad and growing base of users and civil society groups who no longer think it's acceptable for governments to go behind closed doors and make long-lasting decisions about how we all use the Internet," she said.

The ITU is the wrong venue for dealing with Internet governance issues, because it lacks transparency and limits participation from groups outside government, Wong said. The ITU also lacks expertise on human rights and civil liberties concerns, she said.

The ITU has worked on telecom and satellite communications issues, but has largely stayed away from Internet regulation until now, added Sherwin Siy, vice president of legal affairs at Public Knowledge. The ITU is a "bad fit" for Internet governance, he said.

CDT called on governments to solicit comments and ideas about ITU proposals from their residents.

"A country doesn't owe CDT an explanation of what it's doing," said Leslie Harris, CDT's president and CEO. "It does owe its own citizens and civil society representatives and industry."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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