ITU agenda: the missing link of consumer rights
International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is not living up to its own recommendations on consumer representation. The Resolution 64 of World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC, 2010 Hyderabad) demands proper consumer participation in the ITU regulatory process. To date ITU management has failed to comply with its own promises and this has raised many concerns about ITU transparency and consumer protection. Consumer representative bodies and civil society organizations are expecting more a positive role by the ITU to safeguard fundamental rights of telecommunication and internet consumers.
Introduction / Background
Emergence of the world as a global village is backed by rapid innovations in technology, internet and telecommunication. This rapid pace of development has raised many challenges / concerns for society and governing institutions involved in regulating telecommunications and internet.
ITU is a UN body responsible for the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), responding to these emerging challenges to hold the World Conference on International Telecommunication (WCIT, December 2012) at Dubai. The issues on the agenda are the amendments to the ITRs to respond to emerging challenges and an attempt to share control of the internet geared by some of the member countries and telecommunications operators.
In this connection the private sector and governments are actively involved to save their interests but the dilemma is the lack of representation by the consumer groups and civil society organizations. The major hurdle in this way is the very high cost of membership as well lack of transparency in ITU. To date almost no effort has been done by ITU bodies to involve consumer representative groups in the process. Being the most affected stakeholders of these negotiations without consumer involvement all the recommendations and amendments are going to be threatening. This scarcity of representation by consumers in the negotiation process stresses the need to highlight some facts about the requirement of consumer involvement in the regulatory process.
As per ITU statistical data mobile cellular subscriptions touched 6 billion at the end of 2011, with significant rise across 105 countries and the mobile broadband subscriptions surpassed to 1 billion consumers across the globe in addition to 590 million fixed line consumers. Similarly, about 2.3 billion people were using internet at the end of 20111.
Keeping in view this increased consumption of telecoms services, current rivalry among the governments in international politics paradigm, rivalry among private sector giants in telecommunication and radio industries, and the recent trend of regional treaties between different countries, demand higher levels of responsibility from CSOs and consumer representative groups. The rights of billions of consumers are on stake by the ITRs amendments without proper consumer representation.
Specifically focusing on ITU negotiations there are four important elements which help protecting the consumer interests in telecommunication sector: these include self regulatory frameworks, ICT and Internet law, law about consumer rights and law of competition. These elements play a key role in binding governments and private sector players (operators) to maintain standards of fundamental consumer rights.
Global state of consumer protection legislation is not up to the mark, as reported by a ITU survey in 2005, 42% of the member states lack any formal consumer protection clauses in their law, the majority of these belong to developing world. This situation is represented across the continents as 21% in Africa, 48% in America and Asia Pacific region countries were found without any consumer protecting legislation2.
Lack of Consumer Representation
In policy making institutions nationally or globally most of the time regulators / policy makers represent the consumers and rarely they feel the need to consult and get feedback from consumers and their representing bodies. The argument here is that no matter how vigilant the regulators are they can not represent consumers by themselves. Specially when increasing rivalry among private sector as well as political forces poses a threat to consumer rights (i.e. in case of ITRs).
A report submitted to ITU-T study groups as a guideline ETSI/OCG25 (05)183 stresses the need to involve consumer representative bodies in the negotiation process. Linking lack of proper consumer representation in the standards / regulatory process with costly revisions and threat to consumer rights. It additionally suggested that participation of consumer representative bodies in regulatory process may result in transparency, critical evaluation of regulations and supreme quality of products and services.
Another strong reference and recommendation for involvement of consumer representative bodies is the Resolution 64 of World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC, 2010 Hyderabad), which strongly stressed the need to involve global consumer representative bodies in the negotiation process.
But to date no visible effort can be seen by the management of ITU to comply with resolution 64 and ITU miserably failed to engage the consumer representative institutions and civil society organizations. Even the high membership costs have not been relaxed for consumer groups and civil society. Some of the global consumer bodies like Consumer International (CI), Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), Public Citizen, Open Media, and Knowledge Ecology International (KEI), are keenly observing this lack of representation and potential threats to billions of consumers across the globe. To date no invitation has been sent to these organizations to participate in the negotiation process, exhibiting the casual attitude of ITU management to comply with the resolution 64.
Civil Society Response
This situation boosted the concerns of civil society and human rights organisations to write an open letter to ITU management titled “ Key Message for Advocates4” aimed to generate awareness regarding key consumer concerns in ITU at upcoming WCIT-2012. The letter focused to highlight some of the major consumer rights threatened by amendments of ITRs and sharing of internet control by ITU. These concerns include;
Threat to free expression arising by the proposals of some of member states.
Private sector move to change payment system of internet trafficking may result in loss of internet neutrality and free access to information.
Threat to online privacy of the consumers on internet by accessing their personal information, and threat to use this information for commercial purposes.
Transparency issue in ITU text is keeping billions of consumers blind about their future in the digital age.
All the control is with the governments and private sector so raising concerns for fundamental human rights of consumers.
Technically ITU is not capable of dealing with internet governance issues and specifically this non technicality will harm consumer interest in regulations.
Release of Council Working Group (CWG) and WCIT-2012 documents for consumers, provide free membership to global consumer bodies such as Consumer International.
Here it is worth mentioning that OECD consumer protection guidelines5 can be used as a reference which stresses the need to engage consumer representative bodies in all regulatory process, and consider it as a fundamental human right. ITU being a global institution should follow the pattern of OECD to improve ITU transparency and consumer representation. Despite of the fact that reasonable resolutions are available to facilitate the consumer participation process in ITU regulations. It is astonishing that still ITU management is not considering the urgency of the issue.
How to Contribute
This critical scenario and urgency of time when WCIT-2012 is about to approach in December,2012 the responsibility of civil society, and consumer / human rights organizations has much more increased. This is the right time to raise consumer voice across the globe to protect basic human rights of almost 6 billion telecommunication and internet consumers. Responding to this urgency of action you can contribute towards ITU transparency and consumer protection by:
Contacting your national ITU delegation to raise concerns about consumer rights protection
Making a public submission of your concerns by 3 November at http://www.itu.int/en/wcit-12/Pages/public.aspx
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1Key Statistical Highlights: ITU data Release (2012).http://www.itu.int/ITUD/ict/statistics/material/pdf/2011%20Statistical%20highlights_June_2012.pdf
2Russell Southwood (2006), Consumer Protection in Digital Age: Assessing Current and Future Activities, Background Paper, BDT, ITU, Global Seminar on Quality of Service and Consumer Protection, Geneva, Switzerland, 31 August-1 September 2006
3Guide for ITU-T Study Groups – Considering End- User needs in developing recommendations ETSI/OCG25(05)18.
4 CDT (2012), ITU- Key Messages for Advocates by CDT awareness campaign, https://www.cdt.org/files/file/ITU-Key-Messages.pdf
5Consumer-protection, consumer privacy and data protection, Civil Society background paper OECD Ministerial Meeting on the future of the internet economy, Seoul , Korea, 17-18 June , 2008 citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.182.3697&rep=rep1&type=pdf
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