WCIT-2012: Threats to Internet and Consumer Freedom


26 ITUThe International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is a United Nations body working for telecommunications and radio related regulations and developmental projects in this area. This international body last revised its general principals for international telephonic system called International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) in 1988 and they are due for revision again in 2012. Recent debate regarding amendments to the ITRs becomes very critical for the consumer representative groups and civil society organizations working for consumer rights.

Recently, the move from some of the member states to expand the control and scope of ITU to include internet into its domain has embarked a handful debate between the stakeholders. The upcoming meeting of ITU in Dubai named the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) is scheduled in December , 2012. All the stakeholders are in process of receiving support for their proposals in the upcoming meeting, but the government and private sector are the most active and aggressive towards achievement of their agenda. While the most affected stakeholders from these amendments are the billions of consumers all over the world and unfortunately very little voice has been raised to protect the consumer rights in this forum. The major reason behind this misrepresentation is the lack of awareness and resources as well as the opportunity to participate.

To date ITU is not a transparent and accessible institution with almost no formal representation by the consumer groups and civil society organizations, specially the CSOs dealing with consumer rights have no access to raise the concerns and the agenda under discussion on Council Working Group. Dealing with all these challenges very few organizations are playing a vital role in generating awareness about consumer concerns and raising voice for consumer rights outside the ITU.

These organizations include Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), Consumer International (CI), Global Knowledge, Knowledge Ecology International, Public Citizen and Open Media, and a significant effort by individuals running WCITLEAKS.ORG to provide a handful awareness and information regarding ITU activities. Also a “Sign the Petition” campaign launched by accessnow.org is playing a vital role in generating public awareness about issues.

The most controversial issue is bringing the internet under domain of ITU, as previously since its inception internet was governed by different multi-stakeholder organizations and technical standard bodies. With almost no bureaucratic control by the governments and private sector, but the current efforts are driving internet towards more government-dominated control and will harm the basic human right of free access to internet and ICTs.

The existing governance mechanisms for internet are transparent enough with handful participation by consumer groups and civil society organizations while in case of ITU the situation is totally different. Transparency in ITU is one of the major concern for public and civil society organizations working for consumer rights. On the other hand very high membership cost is the major barrier in consumer participation in ITU activities giving an indication that this forum is only encouraging the participation of governments and private sector instead of civil society and consumer representative groups.

With the scarcely available information regarding ITU text the major issues for consumer concerns are cyber security, accessibility, multilingualism, and future internet.

  • The existing ITU proposals regarding cyber-security are biased towards government and private sector lacking focus on consumer privacy, free expression and right of access. The more attention has been paid towards security and the aspect of liberty has been compromised.

  • Increasing trends of forced regional treaties for intellectual property rights has raised concerns of accessibility for the disabled and under privileged people across the globe.

  • Multilingual issues in the digital age are another hot issue for basic human right protection in cyberspace and internet regulations.

  • Rapidly changing technology and ICT applications has raised the important issue about future of the internet rules and regulations. Specially this becomes very crucial for WCIT-12 while proposal to extend ITU control over internet governance are on the table at ITU.

There are several concerns regarding control of internet by the ITU as well as transparency issues of ITU. As the control of the internet by ITU may result in undemocratic censorship and control by governments over basic human right of public access. As the basic principal of internet communication is that no need for intermediaries to connect with the people across the globe. While private sector telecommunication giants are trying to curb this right through European Telecommunications Network Operators (ETNO) proposal which will result in increased long term revenue for telecoms MNCs while limiting the access of public to free information.

Another concern is the storage and use of personal data by the private sector for commercial interests which will harm the basic consumer rights of secrecy and privacy. These examples are clear violations of the basic human right principals. For the rest of the concerns we are blind because negotiations are not open for public and civil society organizations. So currently the negotiating parties only belongs to governments or private sector with almost no representation from consumers. Paul Budde (2012) highlighted the major interests of the governments and private sector who are pushing over to transfer the control of internet towards ITU. “In this politically charged environment there are several forces at work in and around the internet:

  • Certain groups want greater regulation on content and copyright (SOPA, PIPA, CISPA, ACTA, TPP);

  • Technologically-advanced nations are now also using it for cyber warfare;

  • Several developing economies want to assert greater control over it;

  • Other countries want greater protection for children and other vulnerable people in their societies;

  • The internet community wants to keep it as free as possible from national or international interference.

  • Commercial interests in this trillion-dollar industry”1

This situation demands greater sense of responsibility and enhanced levels of awareness campaigns from human right activists, consumer groups and civil society organizations to put more pressure on national governments for bringing the transparency in ITU negotiations. There is an intensive need of collaboration between the civil society groups all over the world to bring consumer representative members into the ITU platform for better consumer representation and consumer rights protection. All the stakeholders of internet should raise a strong voice against hijacking the basic human right of free internet for everyone, everywhere. Let's raise the collective voice for consumer rights against all the efforts by governments and private sector and stop achieving them their political and commercial agenda at the cost of our basic human rights. Concrete steps you can take include:

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1. Paul Budde (2012), The Future of the Internet, WCIT-2012, http://www.itu.int/en/wcit

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