Fighting for a voice at the World Telecommunications Policy Forum (WTPF)

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35 ITUThis week Consumers International is representing the consumer movement at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum and the ITU's World Telecommunications Policy Forum (WTPF). The ITU is one of two institutions (along with the TPP, which also has a meeting this week) that we have been targetting with advocacy for improvement of its openness and transparency. The WTPF is an example of the need for this: whereas CI wrote a position statement for this WTPF meeting, the ITU has not allowed us to present it, or even to have it uploaded to an ITU website, so we have been reduced to handing out printouts of the statement to delegates during coffee breaks.

Accordingly we were proud this week to be part of the Best Bits coalition that issued a statement to the ITU Secretary-General pointing out how deficient its processes have been when measured against the standards of multi-stakeholder participation that, ironically, the WTPF output documents themselves espouse. The statement also urges the ITU to uphold the public interest and fundamental human rights in its work, which in turn is something that cannot be done effectively while civil society is left on the periphery.

Whilst it was important for us to make this joint statement, it is difficult to know how much effect it will actually have. In an article for Digital News Asia today I wrote that:

…in my experience, that the vast majority of online statements and petitions into which much time and energy is poured, have absolutely no effect on policy makers.

How, then, can online activists influence policy makers? The most effective methods have not changed much in centuries. It involves establishing a relationship with them (which in turn usually requires getting a foot in the door so that you can meet with them personally to talk face to face), and providing them with facts and figures that they can use to justify the position that you are seeking to advance. This involves a lot of research, a lot of writing and talking, and a lot of business cards.

Online engagement does have a part to play in this process, although it perhaps isn't an obvious one. Its importance is not in persuading policy makers directly, because policy makers care very little about what happens online – except in outlying cases like SOPA and PIPA described above.

Rather, the merit of online campaigns is that they can enable campaigners to build a global coalition of partners who can rally around an issue, and put out a consistent set of messages that are easily digested by the media and the general public. This creates an environment for the campaigner in which the more conventional modes of advocacy outlined above can become more effective.

This tells us that the road to reform of the ITU will be a long one, and it won't be won solely online. That's one reason why CI has applied for membership of the ITU and has begun to work with it on other projects such as the consumer protection work of its development arm, the ITU-D. Whilst simultaneously maintaining pressure for the improvement of its openness and transparency, we will help show the ITU the value of civil society's participation in its work through the productive contributions that the consumer movement has to offer.

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