Hello from Dubai where the WCIT – World Conference on International Telecommunications #WCIT12 – under the auspice of the United Nations agency the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) - is set to get underway. But obviously there is already a buzz around the World Trade Centre in Dubai , where the conference takes place, as there are already plenty of meetings before hand where people are trying to suss each other out, win them over to their camp or look for compromises. There is obviously a lot of jockeying for positions going on. It is interesting to walk through the corridors here and listen to what is going on.
Despite the many sensational press articles that have preceded this conference, the mood is very optimistic. Those who are attending the conference are all very well informed and are standing above the conspiracy theories that many uninformed members of the press have been pumping out. All delegates here (over 1900 at the time of writing) have a good understanding of the issues. That is not to say that there are no controversies, there certainly are – and there is nothing wrong with that – but in principle they should not lead to a breakdown of the conference as some people outside the conference might hope. Obviously nothing is certain if you bring the governments of 193 countries together, but the mood is rather optimistic. I am confident that this conference will prove those doomsayers wrong, but let’s waits till the end to see if I am right and I will of course let you be the judge of that.
If the communications industry can’t get the world together what hope is there for the other sectors of the global community?
To start of let’s debunk some of the issues, this conference is:
- not about a take over of the Internet by the UN, ITU or anyone else;
- not about an undermining of the freedom of speech; and
- not about content control or any of those governance issues.
The conference is about international telecommunications regulations that underpin the global communication system as it has been in operation since 1865. There are very few people, if any, who would argue that the international telecoms network that the world has built up together over those 150 years is not extremely useful for our societies and economies and that it is not worthwhile to keep this international network continuing along these lines and that is basically what the conference is all about.
Over all those years decisions made have also been based on consensus and the Secretary General of the ITU, the UN body in charge of organising the conference is adamant that also this time decision making will take place on that basis.
This is the first time ever that an ITU event has received such a lot of international public attention and that shows how important telecommunications has become as critical infrastructure for the rapidly growing digital economy. This attention has taken the ITU by surprise and it realised that it was not all that well prepared for such interest and scrutiny and one of the criticism regarding a lack of transparency is certainly something that this organisation will have to address rather urgently because it is highly unlikely that the public interest in the work of this organisation will stop after the conference.
The conspiracy theories and doomsday scenarios also need to be seen in the context of what is at stake here for those involved in the debate:
- The Internet economy is now a trillion dollar plus industry and for a lot of companies billions of dollars are at stake.
- The telcos are seeing their traditional income eroded and have enormous problems transforming themselves to be better positioned in the market
- Countries start to understand that this is no longer just a telecoms issue but that this national infrastructure is critical for its social and economic development.
- Telecommunications facilitates the Internet which in turns facilitates the democratisation processes in all sectors of the society, including politics and government.
And all of these players are jockeying for position, putting forward proposals and criticising proposals from others. Which is all fine as that is what an international organisation such as the ITU is all about. Some vested interests however go overboard and use scaremongering tactics to further their case and when that occurs it is important to look from which direction this is coming in order to judge its validity. Those vested interests involved are using this to spread FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt)
What I personally hope is that the ITU uses this golden opportunity to facilitate an ongoing debate on the issues that the public has indicated as important but which are not necessarily part of the ITU itself. They obviously will not make any decisions on these issues but they can be a catalyst in the formation of a multi-stakeholder group that will follow up on those issues.
The goodwill that I sense here at the start of the conference is something we should harness and carry forward when all the delegates have gone home. It is essential that there will be a multi-stakeholder follow up in order to avoid a continuation of the ill-informed debate that preceded the conference.
From a very pleasant 25C degree Dubai.
Nevertheless WCIT-12 can be the catalyst and the facilitator to kick-start the process.
Paul Budde will participate in WCIT-12 and will report back to readers on its progress.
Paul Budde is the Managing Director of Paul Budde Communication Pty Limited, trading as BuddeComm (www.budde.com.au) an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organization. BuddeComm has 15 senior analysts and a large international network of researchers and telecoms experts.