The International Telecommunication Union has announced an access to information policy that does not appear to cover “Study Groups,” important committees that draft policies, and that exempts disclosure of “sensitive” information.
These and other elements of the access policy announced Jan. 2 seem consistent with ad hoc practices put in place in recent years that partially eliminated the “pay wall” that had prevented public access to many ITU documents.
Prior to the 2014 reforms, most ITU documents were available only to ITU members, 193 governments and almost 800 dues-paying private-sector entities and academic institutions. Their representatives serve on the many committees through which the ITU makes its decisions regarding the global infrastructure of information and communication technologies. FreedomInfo.org wroteabout ITU’s “semi-transparency,” and a website that circumvented the restrictions, in a January 2014 special report.
In the last several years, many more documents were made accessible to those without a password to the ITU’s TIES database. Newly available were “input documents” or “contributions” – basically the position papers submitted by member governments and others regarding discussions in ITU committees.
The new 20-page policy gives “submitters” of information, ITU member governments and others, some control over what gets disclosed.
Their decisions would have to comport with the access policy, which includes a variety of exemptions typical of access policies by nations and international organizations — to protect such things as personal, proprietary and financial information. The ITU policy also exempts “information related to investigation reports.”
In addition, submitters could exempt “otherwise sensitive” information. The policy does not describe the meaning of “otherwise sensitive.”
It is not apparent that the ITU can or would overrule the disclosure decisions of submitters.
The responsibility for determining whether the exemptions apply is given to those who provide information in Section 3.2 of the policy:
Submitters of information to ITU conferences, assemblies and meetings are solely responsible for identifying if the information, or portion thereof, contains information falling into any of the categories listed above or is otherwise sensitive and therefore marking the document for restricted access. In those cases, submitters are encouraged to provide a redacted version for public access whenever possible.
Freedominfo.org requested further information from the ITU on this and other matters and has been told that answers will be forthcoming.
Study Groups Not Mentioned
The access policy does not seem to apply to the 11 technical “Study Groups” that are critical in the development of future policies. For example, Study Group 20 develops recommendations concerning ”the internet of things,” including whether all Internet-connected devices should have permanent, trackable unique identifiers.
“Annex I to the Policy” lists the ITU meetings and the bodies covered. The list includes Council Working Groups and Advisory Groups, but does not mention Study Groups.
The policy also describes “the types” of information that will be disclosed.
Access will be provided to the reports of the Independent Management Advisory Committee, the External Auditor and the “annual reports” of the Internal Auditor, according to Annex I.
Disclosure of Meeting Documents Uncertain
The ITU’s policy seems not to cover another category of documents deemed highly relevant by ITU watchers – the working documents prepared as committees deliberate.
These materials summarize draft resolutions, often highlighting areas of disagreement and member country positions. These documents have been only available to members with TIES access, although they have been leaked.
One long-time critic of ITU transparency, Eli Dourado, told FreedomInfo.org, “Member States might be able to avoid public scrutiny of their positions by putting them forth in the working groups at the various meetings, not creating a public paper trail.” Dourado is a Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and director of its Technology Policy Program.
No Appeals Process
The policy indicates where to send requests, but otherwise provides few details on the process.
Among other things, there appears to be no provision for appealing denials.
Requests should be submitted in writing to email@example.com and must include the requester’s full name and address. The policy says the ITU “may charge a fee for material and labour costs.”
Although the policy does not give a timeframe for the ITU to answer requests, a FreedomInfo.org request generated a reply from the “ITU Information/document access policy implementation team” promising, “We will reply to your request within 20 working days.”
ITU Aims for More Transparency
“The ITU Council decision provides more information and insight into ITU’s working methods and decision-making procedures to the general public and promotes greater transparency and accountability,” said Houlin Zhao, ITU Secretary-General.
“As of 1 January 2017, input documents, summaries of decisions, reports and other output documents will be available to the public through ITU’s website,” according to the press release about the policy.
“This process will be a standard feature of ITU’s main conferences and meetings in the coming years, including ITU Council Working Groups, ITU Advisory Groups Meetings, the upcoming World Telecommunication Development Conference 2017 and the ITU principle governing body, the quadrennial Plenipotentiary Conference, the next one of which is scheduled for the last quarter in 2018.”
The decision was made by ITU’s governing Council in 2016, the ITU said. Development of the policy came without public consultation.
The Secretariat will report to Council 2017 and Council 2018 on its implementation.