Reflections on the 2014 ITU Plenipotentiary – A Series of Blogs – #1

It has been just over two months since the ITU’s 2014 19th quad annual plenipotentiary (PP14) meeting concluded in Busan, South Korea. Now that the dust has settled, delegations have recovered from three weeks away from home, and countless debriefs and panels have discussed and debated the outcomes, we want to take a step back and revisit the substance of what was agreed and consider the implications for the next four years.

First, it is important to reflect on the purpose of a Plenipotentiary conference and how the meetings are conducted. The purpose of a PP is to negotiate the treaties that govern the ITU (Constitution and Convention) and to direct the program of work and budget through Decisions and Resolutions. This work is conducted over the course of three weeks through numerous committees, ad hoc working groups and smaller drafting groups. The meeting functions like a small bureaucracy where issues are discussed at the working level and then sent “up the chain” for approval at more senior/political levels.

Second, it is important to understand how the ITU, and government delegations, define a successful meeting. The ITU prides itself on being a consensus driven organization and not having to call for formal “votes” to make decisions. In this context, consensus is defined as the lack of objection by a member state.   This nuance is important when you consider that success is defined by the absence of a vocal objection from a party able to vote. Consensus in this context does not necessarily mean agreement, only an unwillingness to raise issues or further debate an issue in a given meeting. In the case of Busan, the meeting did not require a formal vote on any issue and thus can be considered successful.

Third, it is important to understand who participates in Plenipotentiary conferences. Member states of the ITU, or representatives thereof, are the only organizations able to formally contribute to the process, including making contributions in the preparatory process and intervening during the meetings. Sector members of the ITU – usually private sector companies or industry organizations – are permitted to participate in an observatory capacity. There were many observers of note at the meeting in Busan including the Regional Internet Registries from the United States and Europe (ARIN and RIPE respectively), the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers as well as private companies representing their interests independent of a country delegation.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the PP is a political meeting where elections are held for all governing aspects of the ITU. The elections in Busan were very important as they included a change in Secretary General and Deputy Secretary General as well as to the Director of the ITU Standardization sector (ITU-T).

The PP14 meeting in Busan did not produce the sensational headlines that the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) did only two years earlier. While the overall tone coming out of the meeting was more muted, it would be a mistake to overlook the intense discussions and negotiations that took place on a range of issues. The subtleties in some of the changes between Busan and the previous Plenipotentiary in Guadalajara may seem trivial, it is useful to look at some of the developments

In this series of blog postings, we will try to unpack the following important topics and analyze the outcomes in the context of the broader technology policy environment.

  1. Overall scope, role and budget of the ITU
  2. Standards, Conformance and interoperability issues
  3. Internet issues
  4. Cybersecurity issues

While the next Plenipotentiary seems far away (4 years), it will be here before we know it, especially given the important and challenging topics on the global agenda before Dubai in 2018.