Remarks at the Subtel Seminar on Global Challenges in the Digital Era

Ambassador Daniel A. Sepulveda
Deputy Assistant Secretary and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs
Santiago, Chile
November 30, 2016

This is an English translation of remarks that were delivered in Spanish.

Thank you. I am pleased to be here with you today and to have the opportunity to speak to you on the issue of “institutional dilemmas in Internet governance”. In my role at the State Department, one of my main responsibilities is to formulate and coordinate communications and information policy relative to multilateral institutions so this is a topic that has been front-and-center throughout my tenure. Although “multilateral institution” is a broad category, normally it refers to an intergovernmental organization where decision-making authority resides exclusively with government representatives. Multilateral institutions enable international cooperation across a range of topics, and the United States continues to be committed to this work.

While information and communications technologies like radio and satellite telecommunications may have benefited from a leading role by governments and were often well supported by a top-down approach, the Internet does not. Instead, the Internet has flourished because of the bottom-up, consensus-based process that embraces the private sector, civil society, academia, engineers, and governments working together to participate in its development and governance. This “multistakeholder” approach has proven effective in the development, growth, and spread of the Internet and its economic and social benefits around the world. But with the benefits also came a new set of public policy issues and challenges that need to be addressed. The United States believes that having the expertise of those who are most knowledgeable and most keenly affected by policy is necessary in order to achieve the best results. But there are there are still some countries that would rather discuss and decide public policy issues in institutions and settings where governments have the sole or dominant voice.

In this context, I would like to speak about two particular dilemmas (1) the dilemmas that multilateral institutions have to resolve in order to develop successful strategies for dealing with Internet Governance and (2) the dilemmas that Internet Governance has to resolve to develop successful strategies for dealing with multilateral institutions.

Dilemmas that multilateral institutions have to resolve in order to develop successful strategies for dealing with Internet Governance:

I have spent the last four years representing the United States at multilateral institutions that were discussing how to approach Internet issues along with my colleagues from other agencies. I led the U.S. delegation to the International Telecommunication Union’s Plenipotentiary Conference in 2014, led the U.S. negotiating team for the UN General Assembly ten-year review of the World Summit on the Internet Society last year, and served as a Vice-Chair for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development – OECD- Ministerial on the Digital Economy this year. I have also attended and participated in Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean—CEPAL, by its Spanish acronym- events as an observer on internet governance related issues.

At each of these events, the United States was firm in our conviction that when the international community meets to discuss the range of Internet governance issues, those conversations must take place in a multistakeholder manner and allow for nongovernment stakeholders to contribute on equal footing with governments. We also acknowledged the unique role that multilateral institutions play in facilitating the spread of best practices and helping developing countries address legitimate policy and technical concerns. We therefore sought to develop productive agendas appropriate to each organization’s expertise that realize concrete benefits for members.

But not everyone shares our viewpoint. At every event there is a set of governments who claim that the multistakeholder system is broken or insufficient and should be replaced by a more centralized, top-down approach, where governments have more control so seek to expand the role and mandate of certain institutions. Nowhere is this more striking than at the International Telecommunication Union or ITU.

Because of the ITU’s historical influence with telecommunication policy and industry relative to telephone and satellite services, some governments feel strongly that they, through the ITU, should have the same authority and influence over the Internet and its critical infrastructure. The United States, our allies, and the vast majority of the industry, academia, and civil society that works on the internet or on internet related issues disagree for the reasons I have already outlined. The central dilemma for the ITU membership is how to move forward with competing views of the future. If it tries to extend its reach and work to include internet-related standards and policy and risk, it will divide the Union, alienating supporters of multistakeholder internet governance. If it stays within its mandate and foregoes a leading role in internet governance, it does so at the risk of alienating governments who support a top-down, state-led approach.

The consensus solution at the 2014 ITU Plenipotentiary directed the organization to stay within its mandate and focus on continued discussions and deliberations on how the ITU could help connect the world to the Internet and make access to it more inclusive. We rejected calls for the ITU to create alternative numbering schemes for internet communications, for mandating rules or issuing authority over internet communications, for issuing tariffing requirements or recommendations for internet based communications, or for issuing global rules on privacy or cybersecurity for the internet. We also made progress towards finding ways to incorporate stakeholders outside the traditional ITU membership in their proceedings on Internet-related issues. Member States agreed to establish mechanisms to enable multistakeholder input to the government-only Council Working Group on International Internet-related Public Policy issues. This agreement fell short of the United States’ proposal to open the Council Working Group entirely and allow all stakeholders to participate fully. However, it signifies progress and helps to further the view that discussions of Internet-related issues require full stakeholder participation, which is a step in the right direction.

The ITU is a specialized agency of the United Nations focused on global telecommunication networks. The participation of nations is voluntary and the standards it creates do not require private sector adherence. Therefore in order to remain relevant, it must be viewed as legitimate. If the ITU’s mandate begins to duplicate work that is already underway by multistakeholder organizations, it will diminish and damage the institution at the same time that it hurts the effectiveness of governance. At the same time, these same stakeholders, which are vital to the work of the ITU, may no longer see value in continuing their participation in the Union.

But the ITU is not the enemy. The ITU has a very important place in this ecosystem, which we support. We believe that the internet and internet governance creates an opportunity for the ITU and the world’s regulatory authorities to engage the larger multistakeholder community in collaborative efforts to make the internet and its government more inclusive and ensure its benefits are more broadly shared.

Governments no longer build networks nor own them as a general rule. Governments do not create or operate the global services that ride over those networks. And governments should not expect to control those private activities. In short for the ITU, or any other multilateral institution to resolve the dilemmas it faces and construct successful internet governance strategies, they will have to respect, collaborate with, and embrace the industry, academia, and multistakeholder institutions that make the Internet work.

The ITU is not the only UN body grappling with these challenges. UN entities like UNESCO and the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD), which have historically had a stronger relationship to non-governmental organizations, have both adopted models for their meetings and events that recognize the importance of multistakeholder cooperation and therefore allow for more inclusive participation. These organizations have also participated as stakeholders in multistakeholder meetings and events, a practice that the ITU has also begun to adopt. The two other institutions that I am most familiar with, the OECD and CEPAL, are also working to resolve similar dilemmas to the ones facing ITU. Both are more inclusive of a broader array of actors than the ITU and neither are regulatory bodies. We believe their ability to conduct studies, create spaces for deliberation, and issue reports and present ideas can help guide the work of the community as a whole. The OECD Ministerial on the Digital Economy allowed for meaningful multistakeholder participation in preparation of the consensus outcome document and in the event itself. I know that CEPAL is also making a similar effort.

Dilemmas that Internet Governance has to resolve to develop successful strategies for dealing with multilateral institutions:

While multilateral institutions have a responsibility to ensure they are contributing meaningfully to the debate, the multistakeholder ecosystem also must find a way to be more inclusive of government voices. The internet community of industry, academia, and civil society should respect the role and responsibility government has to protect those under its jurisdiction from harm. And the community should accept that governments often need multilateral institutions as appropriate venues to engage in open and collaborative conversations on a range of policy issues relating to the Internet

We know that a wide range of public policy challenges require the efforts and expertise of the full community. That means that the larger community, including governments and multilateral institutions, should participate in and support meaningfully the Internet Governance Forum every year. It also means that the Internet community should be engaged in forums that are addressing development issues relating to information and communication technologies, including many activities relating to the World Summit on the Information Society, like the annual WSIS Forum meeting, and the ITU’s World Telecommunication Development Conference next year in Argentina. And industry, civil society, and academia should send technical experts to the deliberations that take place on standards development at the ITU and the annual conferences that it hosts.

Ignoring multilateral institutions or criticizing their activity will not be a successful strategy for shaping their activities going forward. We must continue to direct multilateral institutions to engage within the context of the broader multistakeholder approach. This will become even more true and important as we enter the age of the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and the industrial use of the internet across sectors.

I am proud of this Administration’s work in both multilateral and multistakeholder institutions dealing with Internet issues. We have sought to build partnership, collaboration, and consensus across the board with every type of stakeholder, and I hope that work will continue on that basis.

This is my third time in Chile as an American Ambassador and likely my last. But I love this country and region. I have family here. And I will be back again as private citizen. I strongly believe that because of mutual interests and cultural ties, any future American Administration will also value and engage the region. I wish you all the best. Thank you.