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Open Letter to Governments: Protect Human Rights at the ITU

This December in Dubai, the International Telecommunication Union—a UN agency—will decide whether it should have regulatory authority over the Internet. This move could pose grave risks to the exercise of human rights online.

Until now, the ITU has been dedicated to setting technical standards for interoperability of international telecommunications, radio, and satellite systems, in addition to promoting access to ICT.  But some member states have proposed extending the ITU’s mandate to cover Internet-policy matters that could place limitations on online privacy, free expression, access to information and ICT use around the world.

Advocates and experts believe that citizens can have an impact by urging their national governments to support proposals that will protect the open Internet. Given that many of the issues at stake are technically complex, and the ITU process itself is non-transparent and difficult for individuals to follow, civil society groups are working to collect and disseminate resources to help citizens better understand the issue at stake, and to make it easier for citizens to get involved. A recent Global Voices Advocacy post refers readers to a range of information resources on the issue.

Civil society also can influence the process

by signing an open letter calling on governments to reject expansion of ITU regulatory authority to the Internet. Jointly drafted by open Internet advocates from around the world, the letter urges member states and government delegations to protect the exercise of human rights on the Internet when they vote at the upcoming ITU conference.

With signatories from Argentina, Brazil, Cambodia, India, Kenya, Pakistan, Poland, South Africa, Taiwan, Thailand, Tunisia, and the US, among other countries, the letter reads:

As recently reaffirmed by the UN Human Rights Council, governments have a duty to protect human rights when making policy decisions for the Internet. However, while the ITU has extensive expertise in telecommunications policy and regulation, we do not believe that it is the appropriate forum to develop policies and standards that could affect the exercise of human rights on the Internet.

Further, the ITU maintains a relatively closed, non-transparent decision-making process in which only governments are allowed full participation. In contrast, the Internet has flourished under an open, decentralized model of governance, where groups representing business, the technical community, and Internet users as well as governments focus on different issues in a variety of forums. In keeping with the World Summit on Information Society commitments, we believe that such open, inclusive processes are necessary to ensure that policies and technical standards for the global Internet preserve the medium’s decentralized and open nature and protect the human rights of its users.

This letter represents a continued push for transparency in the ITU process and for governments attending international fora to represent the common interest not only of government or industry, but of all those who have a stake in the future of the information society. Civil society organizations and academics from all countries are invited to join this call. To sign the letter or learn more, contact signon@cdt.org. For more background on the ITU, read recent posts on the issue here and here.

1 comment

  • Thank you GlobalVoices Advocacy and Ellery Biddle for your vigilance in bringing this issue to world attention.

    Clearly an important issue, and a well worded open letter.

    I am relieved to see that through your AdVox initiatives so many nations have raised this as a concern at the United Nations. But will their voices be heard? Will their voices be enough?

    Can we afford the risk that the UN Agency ITC might, through a centralised monopoly of control of the internet, as early as Christmas 2012, diminish the exercise of human rights online – now or at any time in the foreseeable or non-forseeable future?

    In the forever fluctuating balance between the rights of citizens and the powers of governments, surely it is always better to endure a little too much liberty than to suffer from far too little.

    James Johnson
    Independent Federal Candidate for Lalor
    (in the) Australian House of Representatives
    Constitutional and Human Rights Advocate
    Solicitor and Barrister of the High Court of Australia

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