By Hamadoun I. Touré – ITU Secretary-General
With over 90 percent of the world’s people now within reach of mobile phones, the challenge today is bringing internet access to the two-thirds of the world’s population that is still offline. This challenge is compounded by the need to ensure connectivity is affordable and safe for all.
If we can achieve this, all the world’s citizens will have the potential to access unlimited knowledge, to express themselves freely, and to contribute to and enjoy the benefits of the knowledge society.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which is the United Nations specialized agency charged with coordinating global information and communication technology (ICT) resources such as satellite slots and international wireless spectrum, will host the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) in Dubai next month.
The goal? To review the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) global treaty last considered in 1988 – and which forms the basis for our increasingly connected world of communications today. Our world has changed dramatically in the past 25 years, and nowhere more dramatically than in the domain of information and communication technologies.
The conference will chart a globally agreed-upon roadmap that offers future connectivity to all, and ensures sufficient communications capacity to cope with the exponential growth in voice, video, and data. The sole focus of the event is making regulations valuable to all stakeholders, creating a robust pillar to support future growth in global communications.
There has already been much debate. For example, could the internet be impacted as a consequence of revising the regulations?
One Internet for All
The conference will address issues that relate to improving online access and connectivity for everyone. (To be clear, the conference will not examine management of critical internet resources such as domain names and IP addresses. These functions are already performed by ICANN and regional internet registries.)
Let’s look at some of the topical proposals to revise the treaty regulations. The December conference in Dubai is where these fundamental issues can be openly debated in search of a solution that is acceptable to all. No proposal will be accepted if it is not agreed upon by all participants through consensus.
Proposals here range from combating spam and improving network security to mandating identification of communications’ origins.
Could the internet be impacted as a consequence of revising the regulations?
Governments are looking for more effective frameworks to combat fraud and other crimes. Some commentators have suggested such frameworks could also legitimize censorship. However, Member States already have the right, as stated in Article 34 of the Constitution of ITU, to block any private telecommunications that appear “dangerous to the security of the State or contrary to its laws, to public order or to decency.” The treaty regulations cannot override the Constitution.
Many authorities around the world already intervene in communications for various reasons – such as preventing the circulation of pornography or extremist propaganda. So a balance must be found between protecting people’s privacy and their right to communicate; and between protecting individuals, institutions, and whole economies from criminal activities.
The conference will also focus on how ICTs – and particularly broadband – can be highly effective catalysts for sustainable social and economic progress.
Right now, access to this potential is constrained by issues of affordability, with high costs a reality for many users. Related to this is insufficient investment in infrastructure, especially in developing countries.
An important and influential factor is network financing, so the conference may consider strategies around sharing revenues more fairly, stimulating investment, mainstreaming green ICTs, and expanding access as widely as possible to meet booming demand. Solutions could include full transparency in pricing – for example, in mobile roaming.
Other important barriers to connectivity to be addressed at the conference are the serious obstacles faced by the one billion people in the world today with some form of disability.
The ICT sector needs to step up to its responsibilities in this regard and define workable solutions that fully include all people. We need to recognize everyone’s potential and fulfill the shared need to be connected.
In fact, the right to be connected is itself enshrined in Article 33 of the ITU Constitution.
Who Can Share Input?
WCIT-12 is a treaty-making conference, so all 193 ITU Member States can submit proposals and vote.
But consultations are not restricted to governments only. More than 700 private organizations are also members of ITU and they have been actively encouraged to engage. Many of these organizations are likely to be included in national delegations at the conference – composed entirely as each country wishes.
Meanwhile, ITU has opened an online space where anyone can post an opinion on the issues, to be shared with all conference delegates.
Ultimately, ITU would like to see the conference deliver guidelines and high-level principles for creating an accessible, globally connected world. This is why, at the behest of all the world’s nations, the UN must lead this effort. Otherwise, the alternative is siloed, scattered discussions – which would put a brake on expanding connectivity to the communities that need it most.
The stakes are high.