Report on the eve of WCIT

Hello, from Dubai where the WCIT (World Conference on International Telecommunications) – under the auspices of the United Nations agency, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) – is set to get underway.

There is already a buzz around the World Trade Centre in Dubai, where the conference will take place. There are plenty of meetings taking place beforehand, with people trying to check each other out, win them over to their camp, or look for compromises. There is a great deal of jockeying for position taking place, and it is interesting to walk through the corridors and listen to what is going on.

Despite the many sensational press articles that have preceded this conference the mood is optimistic. All those attending the conference are very well-informed and they are ignoring the conspiracy theories that many uninformed members of the press have been pumping out. All the 1,500-plus delegates here have a good understanding of the issues.

This is not to say that there are no controversies. There certainly are – and there is nothing wrong with that. However conflicting positions should not lead to the failure that some people on the outside might hope for. Obviously nothing is certain when the governments of 193 countries come together, but the mood is optimistic and I am confident that this conference will prove the doomsayers wrong.

We will have to wait until the end of the conference to find out if I am right, but if the communications industry can’t work together what hope is there for the other sectors of the global community?

In the meantime, let us clarify some of the points of contention.

This conference is not about:

  • a takeover of the internet by the UN, ITU or anyone else;
  • an undermining of the freedom of speech; and
  • content control or any of those governance issues.

The conference is about:

  • international telecommunications regulations that have underpinned the global communication system since its inception in 1865.

There are very few people who would claim that the international telecoms network that has been built up over all those years is not extremely useful for our societies and economies; and that it is not worthwhile for this international network to continue along these lines.

And that is basically what this conference is about.

The decisions that have been made over that time have been based on consensus, and the Secretary-General of the ITU, the UN body in charge of the organisation organising the conference, is determined that any decision-making  at this conference will take place on that basis also.

This is the first time an ITU event has received such international public attention, and that shows how important telecommunications has become as critical infrastructure for the rapidly growing digital economy. The degree of interest has taken the ITU by surprise and it has realised it was not prepared for such intense scrutiny. And it will certainly have to urgently address the criticisms regarding lack of transparency, since it is most unlikely that the public interest in its work will diminish when the conference is over.

The conspiracy theories and doomsday scenarios also need to be seen in the context of what is at stake for those involved in the debate:

  • The internet economy is now a trillion dollar-plus industry, and for many companies billions of dollars are at stake.
  • The telcos are seeing their traditional income being eroded and they are experiencing enormous problems transforming themselves and moving to a better position in the market.
  • Countries are beginning to understand that this is no longer just a telecoms issue, and that this national infrastructure is critical for their social and economic development.
  • Telecommunications facilitates the internet, which in turn facilitates the democratisation processes in all sectors of society, including politics and government.

All of the players are jockeying for position, putting up proposals and criticising proposals from others. This is fine, as that is what an international organisation such as the ITU is for. Some vested interests, however, do go overboard and use scaremongering tactics to further their cause, spreading FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt). And when that happens it is important to identify the source of the activity in order to judge its validity.

I personally hope that the ITU will use this golden opportunity to facilitate an ongoing debate on the issues that the public has indicated are important, but which are not a part of the ITU itself. Obviously it will not make any decisions, but it can be a catalyst in the formation of a multi-stakeholder group that will follow up on those issues.

The goodwill that I sense is here at the start of the conference is something we should harness and carry forward when all the delegates have gone home. A multi-stakeholder follow-up is essential in order to avoid a continuation of the ill-informed debate that preceded the conference.

From a very pleasant 25oC Dubai,

Paul Budde

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