7 December 2018

Recap of the 2018 ITU Plenipotentiary: From Connecting the World to Investigating Digital Applications and Services

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ITU’s role in internet-related activities have long been among the most divisive issues among its member states. But at this year's plenipotentiary a new area of intense debate emerged. 

The International Telecommunications Union’s quadrennial plenipotentiary conference (“plenipot” for short) concluded two weeks ago in Dubai. ITU’s role in internet-related activities, including the domain name system, have long been amongst the most divisive issues among its member states, but in Dubai, a new area of intense debate emerged: ITU’s role in digital applications and services that often travel over the internet’s infrastructure.

As expected, ITU member states in Dubai debated internet infrastructure-related resolutions about domain names, IPv6 and international public policies pertaining to the internet for days, nights, and weekends. But ultimately, given the basic infrastructure of the internet works, governments agreed to live with no major changes to these internet resolutions, which have remained substantively unchanged since 2010.

While governments may have agreed to maintain the status quo for internet management, a new area of contention became apparent in Dubai: digital applications and services. Developing countries, in particular, brought their concerns about the legal, regulatory, policy, economic, and social implications of these applications and services to Dubai, wanting ITU’s assistance. Today’s applications and services are mostly created by the private sector in developed countries. Many developing countries do not yet have the capacity to know if these technologies are useful, harmful, or both, so are looking for a trusted organization for advice; they don’t believe developed countries have their best interests at heart, but they do trust ITU.

For example, over-the-top (OTT) services, such as Skype and Netflix, were a hot topic in Dubai. OTTs have crept into various ITU processes in recent years, but this was the first time OTTs received their own resolution. Some of the original proposals for the new resolution wanted ITU to investigate possible regulation of OTTs. But after pulling an all-nighter, the final text focused on capacity-building, best practices, and enabling environments for OTTs. The resolution does not go as far as developing countries wanted, but it also goes further than developed countries had wanted. Both sides are equally unhappy, which, in ITU, is a good outcome.

Governments debated a whole host of other ICT applications and issues, including artificial intelligence, big data, data privacy, digital financial services, using ICTs to combat human trafficking, smart cities, and enabling environments for ICT-related innovation by small- and medium-sized enterprises, start-ups, incubation centers and young entrepreneurs.

Governments wanting ITU to cover such a wide array of issues put the organization in a quandary: are all ICTs within ITU’s scope, including ICTs that are sector-specific (for example, should ITU leading on e-health, rather than the World Health Organization)? Should other bodies, whether UN entities or industry organizations, be responsible for developing their own sector-specific ICT applications and policies? Can the best of both worlds be combined? Dubai demonstrated that ITU’s membership struggles with these questions.

The challenge with viewing everything touched by ICTs as within ITU’s scope is that ITU staff and delegates are specialists in ICTs, not in fields such as financial services and human trafficking. Fundamentally, ITU’s mandate is to ensure telecommunications systems work and everyone can connect. Having ITU develop best practices, policy and regulatory guidelines for ICTs in issue-specific areas risks excluding the vast expertise available within issue-specific entities, resulting in solutions unfit for purpose.

Equally, if ITU stepped back and let issue-specific entities with no ICT expertise create their own ICT-related solutions, those entities may fail in their attempts.

Finding a middle path, where ITU’s activities can reach into the borderlands of other issue-specific or ICT-related entities, providing ITU’s expertise when those other entities can benefit from them, requires immense amounts of trust and mutual respect from all parties involved. Previous cases of attempted empire building inevitably leave some skeptical. For example, around a decade ago, ITU tried to enter the internet protocol address management space, despite the regional internet registries already performing that function. This, and other unwanted expansion attempts into the territories of others, means some parties remain cautious about partnering with ITU.

The difficulty of finding a middle path is why negotiations on topics like artificial intelligence and big data were so fraught in Dubai: as much as developing countries hoped ITU could provide relatively quick fixes for the deluge of ICT issues they increasingly face, many developed countries were concerned about mission creep, duplicating existing processes, and ITU entering fields in which it lacks expertise. The Dubai resolutions show this tension, with many references to “in collaboration with relevant bodies,” “information sharing” as well as to ITU-specific studies and activities.

The majority of plenipot delegates come from ICT or telecom ministries. To effectively manage the increasing number of ITU activities shifting into issue-specific areas, such as artificial intelligence and digital financial services, future plenipots will need experts from those areas to attend, too. Ultimately, though, if member states continue adding more issue-specific activities to ITU’s plate, plenipot risks becoming the de facto UN General Assembly for the digital world. Given the analog and digital worlds are increasingly becoming one, if ITU’s membership doesn't find an appropriate middle path, ITU could find itself in direct conflict with the UN General Assembly and other UN specialized agencies.

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