Conference sends strong signal affirming right to freedom of expression online
The World Conference on International Telecommunications on 4 December supported the importance of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, affirming the right of all people to freedom of opinion and expression.
Tunisia’s proposal to include in Article 1 of the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) an explicit reference to the right to freedom of opinion and expression generated some debate. The proposal was calling on Member States to “acknowledge that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice, in accordance with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights…”
Delegates voiced their views in support of online freedom of expression, but did not consider it necessary to include Tunisia’s proposed wording in the ITRs.
The conference asserted that there was no need for additional text to the highly technical treaty in view of the fact that the right to freedom of expression is already expressly protected by the text of treaties which take legal precedence over the ITRs, including Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 33 of the ITU Constitution. In the end it was agreed, following a suggestion from ITU Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun I. Touré, to issue a press release that would send a strong signal about the need to protect the right to freedom of expression.
Accessibility for persons with disabilities
Hungary presented its proposal for a new article on accessibility for persons with disabilities (Article 8B). The Inter-American Telecommunication Commission (CITEL) also took the floor to announce a similar proposal requesting to add it to the discussion.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Botswana, Uganda and Peru took the floor to support the Hungarian proposal, emphasizing that the current text complements previous ITU Resolutions and provides general principles that could then be applied in the telecommunication sector.
The United States and Japan took the floor to indicate that, although this issue is relevant, it is already covered by other ITU Resolutions, and suggested not incorporating this proposal into the ITRs.
Noting all comments from the floor, the Chairman of the Conference decided that the matter will be debated in ad hoc group, to be chaired by Egypt. The group is expected to deliver a consolidated proposal on accessibility for persons with disabilities.
The conference heard two proposals: one tabled by the Africa Group on “Environmental Issues” and the other by Cameroon on “Energy Efficiency”.
The Africa Group’s proposal requests Member States to cooperate to encourage operating agencies and industry to adopt energy-efficiency international standards and best practice, including disclosure and labelling schemes, so as to reduce energy consumption of communication facilities and installations. Both proposals were presented as a new provision (Article 8A Environmental Issues/ Energy Efficiency).
Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Japan and the United States took the floor to indicate that, while the issue was relevant, there were other ITU Resolutions that covered it. They therefore suggested that the proposal should not be incorporated into the ITRs.
Egypt and the United Arab Emirates took the floor to support the Africa Group’s proposal, emphasizing that the text as it stood complemented previous ITU Resolutions and provided general principles that would then be applicable across the telecommunication sector. They expressed the sentiment that it was important to have treaty-level text, not just Recommendations or Resolutions.
Here again, the Chairman of the Conference noted all the comments from the floor and referred the matter to the ad hoc group chaired by Egypt. This group is expected to deliver a consolidated proposal.
The Preamble goes for editorial refinement
Discussing the “Preamble” of the ITRs, the conference reached agreement on proposals to change “Country” to “State” and “Supplement” to “complement”. These changes are intended to help maintain consistency with the ITU Constitution and the Convention. The Arab Group, the United States, Australia, the Russian Federation, Brazil, the Philippines, the Africa Group (with Egypt voicing this group’s position), the United Arab Emirates, Philippines and the Islamic Republic of Iran and Canada took the floor to express their positions on those proposed changes.
The United States underlined that consistency was a very important concept to maintain. “We would also note, consistent with all administrative regulations, that there may be instances in which the administrative regulations are narrower and technically specific than may be found in the Constitution and Convention. But we certainly do maintain the principle of consistency.”
The Russian Federation said “Our proposal mainly concerns precision in the text. In the Preamble, which we are currently looking at, we think that we must take into account what was indicated to reflect the current situation.”
Europe, which had made similar proposals, described the changes as being “in line with what most regions have made, replacing ‘country’ by ‘State’ and ‘supplement’ by ‘complement.’”
Australia said it wished to align the text of the Preamble of the ITRs with that of the Preamble in Article 4.3 of the Constitution.
With these and other comments from the floor, the Chairman concluded, “We are done with the Preamble”. So this part of the ITRs has been passed on to the Editorial Committee for refinement.
Operating agencies/recognized operating agencies still under discussion
The discussion that started on Monday, 3 December on operating agencies or recognized operating agencies continued, but no agreement or consensus has been reached. An informal group of the plenary, led by the Chairman of the Conference, will continue to look for a way forward.
ITU Recommendations – binding or not?
The discussion focused on Article 1.4 (incorporation of certain ITU-T Recommendations by reference) and 1.6 (compliance with ITU-T Recommendations). A general consensus emerged that ITU Recommendations should remain voluntary. But there was also some support for making certain Recommendations mandatory. The conference agreed to establish an ad hoc group chaired by South Africa to move things forward.
Definitions (Article 2)
Definition of “telecommunications”, “telecommunications/ICTs”, “international telecommunications”
Some proposals were made to the conference underlining that with convergence we also need to include information and communication technologies (ICTs) with telecommunications, in ITR definitions, as already used in ITU Resolutions.
There was broad support for sticking with the definitions in the Constitution. The term “ICT” is not defined anywhere in ITU treaty texts so if discussions do take place on its incorporation, the Plenipotentiary Conference is the right place for that and not WCIT, it was argued. The Chairman of the Conference proposed that the same group dealing with operating agencies or recognized operating agencies will take on board this definitional matter.
There was general agreement to make no change to the definition “international telecommunication service”, stressing that modification can only be made by a Plenipotentiary Conference.
A proposal from the Russian Federation to include in the ITRs a new provision on the Internet (new Article 3A) was supported and endorsed by Algeria. China and the United Arab Emirates also agreed that the Internet should be included in the ITRs and should be discussed in Working Group 2 of Committee 5. Canada, France, Europe, Sweden, and the United States do not support the proposal, and do not want it discussed in Committee 5. The matter, they said, should only be discussed in plenary.
The Chairman of the Conference deferred the discussion on the proposed new provision to the next plenary, with informal discussions in the meantime. Concern was raised, though, that informal discussions might not result in satisfactory conclusions.
Dissemination of information (Article 8)
Discussion on this article centred on whether or not it should be deleted. Initially, there was some support for deletion. But later there was even more support for retaining the text, albeit with minor edits as proposed by a number of delegates. The Chairman of the Conference proposed discussing the text in an informal working group in a bid to harmonize views.
Landlocked developing countries table resolution on access to the international optical fibre network
A new Resolution was tabled on special measures for landlocked developing countries regarding their access to the international optical fibre network. The reason for putting forward the proposal is that measures are needed for these countries to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, as well as targets of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). Countries around the world are making substantial efforts to achieve these goals. In many countries, the deployment of a network infrastructure that bolsters broadband uptake has become a priority on their development agendas.
Landlocked developing countries are seeking to raise awareness about the difficulties they face in securing access to the international optical fibre network. This, the draft proposal says, is hindering progress of their communities, as the network is an indispensable tool for trade and, above all, for knowledge. Essentially, the proposal is aimed at “promoting a new paradigm, one involving close cooperation between landlocked and transit countries that would enable joint and regional growth and bridge the digital divide between countries, in search of a genuine and fully integrated knowledge society.”
Paraguay agreed to work with other countries concerned to present a new combined Resolution to plenary.
Proposal to review the ITRs more regularly
Ghana tabled a new Resolution that would aim to review the ITRs more regularly, stating that these regulations constituted one of the pillars supporting the ITU’s mission. The proposal recognizes that while the ITRs are high-level guiding principles that should not require frequent amendment, the fast-moving sector of telecommunications made it necessary for them to be reviewed more regularly.
The proposal was backed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates. It is not supported by the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United States, who also took the floor following its presentation. The proposal has been assigned to Working Group 5-1 of Committee 5 for further debate.
Suppression of some Resolutions, Recommendations, and an Opinion
A decision was taken to suppress the following ITR texts:
- Resolution 1: Dissemination of Information Concerning International Telecommunication Services Available to the Public
- Resolution 2: Cooperation of the Members of the Union in Implementing the International Telecommunication Regulations
- Resolution 3: Apportionment of Revenues in Providing International Telecommunication Services
- Resolution 5: CCITT and World-Wide Telecommunications Standardization
- Resolution 7: Dissemination of Operational and Service Information Through the General Secretariat
- Resolution 8: Instructions for International Telecommunication Services
- Recommendation: 1 Application to the Radio Regulations of the Provisions of the International Telecommunication Regulations
- Recommendation 2: Changes to Definitions Which also Appear in Annex 2 to the Nairobi Convention
- Recommendation 3: Expeditious Exchange of Accounts and Settlement Statements
- Opinion 1: Special Telecommunication Arrangements
Committee 5 and its terms of reference
Committee 5 (Review) and its two working groups have begun work. The committee has a heavy mandate:
- Examination of proposals from Member States
- Discussion of the proposed revisions to the ITRs, as appropriate
- Discussion of WATTC-88 Resolutions, Recommendations, and Opinion
- Preparation of proposed ITRs and Resolutions, Recommendations, and Opinions, as appropriate
- Preparation of reports to Plenary and of proposals to be considered by Plenary.
Full terms of reference of Working Groups 1 and 2 of Committee 5