Centre for Internet & Society

This piece discusses the five major questions that have been the subject of debate after the World Conference on International Telecommunications 2012 (WCIT). The politics surrounding the WCIT are not discussed here but it must be kept in mind that they have played a significant role in the outcome of the conference and in some of the debates about it.

Each question is discussed with reference to the text of the treaty, to the minutes of the plenary sessions (which are available via the ITU website), a little international law and a few references to other people’s comments on the treaty.

1. Do the ITRs apply to content on the internet?

Article 1.1 (a) has been amended to add the sentence “These Regulations do not address the content-related aspects of telecommunications”. Although some discussions about the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) and content have ignored this altogether, others seem concerned about its interpretation.

The ITU Secretary General has issued a statement in which he has clarified that “The new ITR treaty does NOT cover content issues and explicitly states in the first article that content-related issues are not covered by the treaty”.

Commentators like Chuan-Zheng Lee however, continue to view the treaty with suspicion, on the basis that it is necessary to examine content in order to tell whether it is spam (Lee and Chaparro differ on this question). However, others like Eric Pfanner have pointed to this paragraph in their skepticism about the US refusal to sign.

Some highlights from the plenary session discussions

The Chairman proposed the addition to Article 1.1(a) at the tenth plenary session. He did this to address concerns that the ITRs text could be interpreted to apply to content on the Internet. The original formulation that he proposed was ‘These regulations do not address and cannot be interpreted as addressing content’. This text was suggested in the middle of an extended discussion on Article 5A.

Many countries were skeptical of this insertion. Sudan argued that content could not be avoided in telecommunication networks “because it will always be in transit.” The United Arab Emirates seemed concerned about international interference in states’ existing regulation of content, and said “maybe we could actually say this in the minutes of the meeting that this regulation should not be interpreted as on alteration to Member States content regulation”.

Concerns about what the term ‘content’ means and whether it would apply broadly were raised by more than one country, including Saudi Arabia. For instance, it was argued that the text proposed by the Chairman might interfere with parts of the treaty that require operators to send tariff information correspondence. More than one country that felt that the insertion of this text would impact several parts of the treaty, and that it would be difficult to determine what amounted to dealing with content. The primary issue appeared to be that the term ‘content’ was not defined, and it therefore remained unclear what was being excluded. In response to these concerns, the Chairman withdrew his proposal for the amendment excluding content.

However, several states then spoke up in favour of the Chairman’s proposal, suggesting that the proposed amendment to Article 1.1 influenced their acceptance of Article 5A (on security and robustness of networks – discussed in detail below). Brazil suggested that an answer to the definitional concerns may be found in the work by Study Group 17, which had a definition available.

Following this, the next day, at the twelfth plenary, the Chairman brought back the Article 1.1 amendment excluding content. He stated explicitly that this amendment might be the way to get Articles 5A and 5B approved. The text he read out was insertion of the words to the exclusion of their content”, after ‘’services’ at the end of 1.1A. Interestingly however, the term ‘content’ was never defined.

At the next plenary session, Iran raised the objection that this phrase was overbroad, and proposed the following formulation instead: “These Regulations do not address the content-related aspects of telecommunications”. This formulation found its way into the amended ITRs as the treaty stands today.

2. Does Article 5A on network security legitimize surveillance of Internet content?

Article 5A deals with ‘security and robustness of networks’ and requires member states to “individually and collectively endeavour to ensure the security and robustness of international telecommunication networks...”.  This may have given rise to concerns about interpretations that may extend the security of networks to malware or viruses, and therefore to content on the Internet. However, Article 5A has to be read with Article 1.1(a), and therefore must be interpreted such that it does not ‘address the content-related aspects of telecommunications’.

Some commentators continue to see Article 5A as problematic. Avri Doria has argued that the use of the word ‘security’ in addition to ‘robustness’ of telecommunication infrastructure suggests that it means Internet security.   However Emma Llansó of the Centre for Democracy and Technology has noted that the language used in this paragraph is “ far too vague to be interpreted as a requirement or even a recommendation that countries surveil users on their networks in order to maintain security”. Llansó  has suggested that civil society advocates make it clear to countries which attempt to use this article to justify surveillance, that it does not lend itself to such practices.

Some highlights from the plenary session discussions

Article 5A was one of the most controversial parts of the ITRs and was the subject of much debate.

On December 11th, in the Chairman’s draft that was being discussed, Article 5A was titled ‘security of networks’, and required members to endeavour to ensure the “security and robustness of international telecommunication networks”.  The Chairman announced that this was the language that came out of Committee 5’s deliberations, and that ‘robustness’ was inserted at the suggestion of CEPT.

Several countries like Poland, Australia, Germany and the United States of America were keen on explicitly stating that Article 5A was confined to the physical or technical infrastructure, and either wanted a clarification that to this effect or use of the term ‘robustness’ instead of security. Many other countries, such as Russia and China, were strongly opposed to this suggestion and insisted that the term security must remain in the document (India was one of the countries that preferred to have the document use the term ‘security’).

It was in the course of this disagreement, during the tenth plenary session, that the Chairman suggested his global solution for Article 1.1 – a clarification that this would not apply to content. This solution was contested by several countries, withdrawn and then reinstated (in the eleventh plenary) after many countries explained that their assent to Article 5A was dependant on the existence of the Article 1 clarification about content (see above for details).

There was also some debate about whether Article 5A should use the term ‘robustness’ or the term ‘security’ (eg. The United States clarified that its preference was for the use of ‘resilience and robustness’ rather than security). The Secretary General referred to this disagreement, and said that he was therefore using both terms in the draft. The title of Article 5A was changed, in the eleventh plenary, to use both terms, instead of only referring to security.

3. Does Article 5B apply to spam content on the Internet?

The text of the amended treaty talks of ‘unsolicited bulk electronic communications’ and does not use the term ‘spam’[Article 5B says that ‘Members should endeavour to take necessary measures to prevent the propagation of unsolicited bulk electronic communications and minimize its impact on international telecommunication services’].If this phrase is read in isolation, it may certainly be interpreted as being applicable to spam. Commentators like Avri Doria have pointed to sources like Resolution 130 of the Plenipotentiary Conference of the International Telecommunication Union (Guadalajara, 2010) to demonstrate that ‘unsolicited bulk electronic communications’ ordinarily means spam.  However, others like Enrique A. Chaparro argue that it cannot possibly extend to content on the Internet given the language used in Article 1.1(a). Chapparo has explained, that given the exclusion of content, Article 5B it authorizes anti-spam mechanisms that do not work on content.

Article 5B, which discusses ‘unsolicited bulk electronic communications’, must be read with Article 1, which is the section on purpose and scope of the ITRS. Article 1.1 (a) specifies that the ITRs “do not address the content-related aspects of telecommunications”. Therefore it may be argued that ‘unsolicited bulk electronic communications’ cannot be read as being applicable to content on the Internet.

However, many continue to be concerned about Article 5B’s applicability to spam on the Internet. Although some of them that their fear is that some states may interpret Article 5B as applying to content, despite the contents of Article 1.1(a), many have failed to engage with the issue in the context of Article 1.1(a).

Some highlights from the plenary session discussions

Article 5B is inextricably linked with the amendment to Article 1.1. Mexico asked specifically about what the proposed amendment to Article 1.1 would mean for Article 5B: “I’m referring to the item which we’ll deal with later, namely unsolicited bulk electronic communications.  Could that be referred to as content, perhaps?”.  The Chairman responded saying, “This is exactly will solve the second Article 5B, that we are not dealing with content here.  We are dealing with measures to prevent propagation of unsolicited bulk electronic messages”.

The amendment to Article 1.1 was withdrawn soon after it was introduced. Before it was reintroduced, Sweden said (at the eleventh plenary) that it could not see how Article 5B could apply without looking into the content of messages. The United States agreed with this and went on state that the issue of spam was being addressed at the WTSA level, as well as by other organisations. It argued that the spam issue was better addressed at the technical level than by introducing it in treaty text.

The amendment excluding content was reintroduced during the twelfth plenary. The Chairman explicitly stated that it might be the way to get Articles 5A and 5B approved.

The word ‘spam’ was dropped from the ITRs in the eight plenary, and “unsolicited bulk electronic communications” was used instead.  However, in the eleventh plenary, as they listed their reasons for not signing the newly-amended ITRs, Canada and the United States of America referred to ‘spam’ which suggests that they may have viewed the change as purely semantic.

4. Does the resolution on Internet Governance indicate that the ITU plans to take over the Internet?

Much controversy has arisen over the plenary resolution ‘to foster an enabling environment for the greater growth of the Internet’. This controversy has arisen partly thanks to the manner in which it was decided to include the resolution, and partly over the text of the resolution. The discussion here focuses on the text of the resolution and then describes the proceedings that have been (correctly) criticized.

The history of this resolution, as Wolfgang Kleinwächter has explained, is that it was part of a compromise to appease the countries which were taking positions on the ITU’s role in Internet governance, that were similar to the controversial Russian proposal. The controversial suggestions about Internet governance were excluded from the actual treaty and included instead in a non-binding resolution.

The text of the resolution instructs the Secretary General to “to continue to take the necessary steps for ITU to play an active and constructive role in the development of broadband and the multi-stakeholder model of the Internet as expressed in § 35 of the Tunis Agenda”. This paragraph is particularly controversial since of paragraph 35 of the Tunis Agenda says “Policy authority for Internet-related public policy issues is the sovereign right of States. They have rights and responsibilities for international Internet-related public policy issues.” Kleinwächter has pointed out that this selection leaves out later additions that have taken place with progression towards a multi-stakeholder model.

The resolution also resolves to invite member states to “to elaborate on their respective positions on international Internet-related technical, development and public-policy issues within the mandate of ITU at various ITU forums including, inter alia, the World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum, the Broadband Commission for Digital Development and ITU study groups”.

A little after its introduction, people began expressing concerns such as the Secretary General may treat the resolution as binding, While the language may raise cause for concern, it is important to note that resolutions of this nature are not binding and countries are free to opt out of them. Opinions vary about the intentions that have driven the inclusion of this resolution, and what it may mean for the future. However commentators like Milton Mueller have scoffed at these concerns, pointing out that the resolution is harmless and may have been a clever political maneuver to resolve the basic conflict haunting the WCIT, and that mere discussion of the Internet in the ITU harms no one.

Some highlights from the plenary session discussions

Egypt and Bulgaria suggested that the resolution refer to paragraph 55 of the Tunis agenda instead of paragraph 35, by inserted the following text “”Recognizing that the existing arrangements for Internet Governance have worked effectively to make the Internet the highly robust, dynamic and geographically diverse medium it is today, with the private sector taking the lead in day-to-day operations and with innovation and value creation at the edges.” The US was also quite insistent on this language (although it did also argue that this was the wrong forum to discuss these issues).

The Chairman was willing to include paragraph 55 in addition to paragraph 35 but Saudi Arabia objected to this inclusion. Finland suggested that the resolution should be removed since it was not supported by all the countries present and was therefore against the spirit of consensus. The Secretary General defended the resolution, suggesting both that it was harmless and that since it was a key component of the compromise, eliminating it would threaten the compromise. South Africa and Nigeria supported this stand.

It was during this debate that the procedural controversy arose. Late into the night, the Chairman said there was a long list of countries that wished to speak and said “I just wanted to have the feel of the room on who will accept the draft resolution”. He proceeded to have countries indicate whether they would accept the draft resolution or not, and then announced that the majority of the countries in the room were in favour of retaining the resolution. The resolution was then retained. Upon Spain’s raising the question, the Chairman clarified that this was not a vote. The next day, other countries raised the same question and the Chairman, while agreeing that the resolution was adopted on the basis of the ‘taking of temperature’ insisted that it was not a vote so much as an effort to see what majority of the countries wanted.

5. Does the human rights language used in the preamble, especially the part about states’ access to the Internet, threaten the Internet in any way?

The preamble says “Member States affirm their commitment to implement these Regulations in a manner that respects and upholds their human rights obligations”, and “These Regulations recognize the right of access of Member States to international telecommunication services”. The text of the preamble can be used as an interpretation aid since it is recognized as providing context to, and detailing the object and purpose of, a treaty. However if the meaning resulting from this appears to be ambiguous, obscure, absurd or unreasonable, then supplementary means such as the preparatory work for the treaty and the circumstances for its conclusion may also be taken into account.

Therefore anyone who is concerned about the impact of the text inserted in the preamble must (a) identify text within the main treaty that could be interpreted in an undesirable manner using the text in the preamble; and (b) consider preparatory work for the treaty and see whether it supports this worrying interpretation. For example, if there were concerns about countries choosing to interpret the term ‘human rights’ as subordinating political rights to economic rights, it would be important to take note of the Secretary General’s emphasis on the UDHR being applicable to all member states.

Initially, only the first insertion about ‘human rights obligations’ was part of the draft treaty. The second insertion, recognizing states’ rights followed after the discussion about human rights language. Some states argued that it was inconsistent to place human rights obligations on states towards their citizens, but to leave out their cross-border obligations. It was immediately after this text was voted into the draft, that the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries refused to sign the ITRs. This particular insertion is phrased as a right of states rather than that of individuals or citizens, which does not align with the language of international human rights. While it may not be strictly accurate to say that human rights have traditionally been individual centric (since collective rights are also recognized in certain contexts), it is certainly very unusual to treat the rights of states or governments as human rights.

Some highlights from the plenary session discussions

The United States of America and the Netherlands wanted to include language to state explicitly that states’ international human rights obligations are not altered in anyway. This was to clarify that the inclusion of human rights language was not setting the ITU up as a forum in which human rights obligations are debated. Malaysia objected to the use of human rights language in the preamble right at the outset, on the grounds that the ITRs are the wrong place for this, and that the right place is the ITU Constitution. It even pointed to the fact that jurisprudence is ever-evolving, to suggest that the meaning of human rights obligations might change over time. These were the two major perspectives offered towards the beginning of the discussion.

The Chairman underlined the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is already applicable to all UN countries. He argued that reflection of these principles in the ITRs would help build universal public faith in the conference.

The first traces of the states’ access rights can be seen in Cuba’s intervention at the ninth plenary – Cuba argued that limiting states’ access to public information networks amounted to infringement of human rights. At the fourteenth plenary, Nigeria proposed on behalf of the African group that the following text be added to the preamble “And recognize the right of access of all Member States to international telecommunication networks and services." Countries like China which had been ambivalent about the human rights language in the preamble, were happy with this move away from an individual-centric understanding of human rights, to one that sees states as representative of people.

The United States was express in its dissent, and said “human rights obligations go to the individual”. Sweden was also not happy with the proposal and argued that it moved away from well-established human rights language that affirmed existing commitments to drafting new human rights language.

It was an amended version of the African group proposal that finally found its way into the preamble. It was supported by many countries such as China, Nigeria and Sudan, who took the position that group rights are included within human rights, and that governments represent their citizens and therefore have rights on their behalf. This position was strenuously disputed by states like the USA, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Canada.

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