Supporting Innovation and Economic Growth Through Telecommunications

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A man in a suit sits in the audience, wearing a translation ear piece, listening to a speech.
U.S. Ambassador to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) conference Robert Strayer makes remarks advancing U.S. interests in empowering innovation and securing the future in global telecommunications.

Supporting Innovation and Economic Growth Through Telecommunications

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is a UN organization responsible for improving telecommunications access and connectivity and harmonizing the use of radiocommunications spectrum. It operates under terms defined in treaty documents and conducts a three-week conference every four years, called a Plenipotentiary, to make high-level decisions about its policy priorities and to elect individuals to its five senior most leadership positions. This year’s Plenipotentiary conference ended in Dubai last Friday. I had the privilege of being appointed by President Trump to serve as the U.S. Ambassador for the conference.  

Almost a year of preparatory work went into ensuring that the United States was well represented at the conference, including having U.S. diplomats participate in regional preparatory meeting around the globe. I participated in the ITU’s Council meeting last year in Geneva as well as regional meetings in Nairobi, Kenya, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Washington, DC. The State Department led weekly preparatory meeting with other U.S. government agencies and many private sector experts. As a result of these efforts, we were able to achieve all of our goals.

The U.S. delegation to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Plenipotentiary Conference celebrates the election of U.S. citizen Doreen Bogdan-Martin (center) to lead ITU’s Development Bureau, where she will focus on global Internet connectivity.

The single most noteworthy accomplishment was the election of Doreen Bogdan-Martin, a U.S. citizen, to lead the Development Bureau of the ITU. She became the first woman to be elected to a senior position at the ITU and the first American to such a position in more than two decades. In her new role, Doreen will be able to initiate transformational change in expanding Internet connectivity to better align the ITU’s activities with other governments and institutions, including the United States. In addition, the United States was also re-elected to another four-year term on the 48-member ITU Council, where we will provide guidance on policy issues to ensure that the ITU's activities, policies, and strategies appropriately respond to today's rapidly changing telecommunications environment. 

The United States achieved all of our policy goals and saw the adoption of our priorities in the ITU’s strategic and financial plans. Going into the conference, we proposed a large number of improvements to the ITU’s transparency and governance, and the ability of member states to control the ITU’s activities. For example, we gained consensus on requirements for the ITU to seek approval of memoranda of understanding by the ITU Council before they are executed, and on maintaining cost controls for the proposed new ITU headquarters. These are important practical management changes.

U.S. Ambassador to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) conference Robert Strayer addresses delegates, calling for improvements to ITU governance and cybersecurity capacity building.

On the policy front, approximately 200 resolutions were debated.  The most significant of these were resolutions related to (1) cybersecurity, (2) Over the Top applications (OTTs), such as applications that are used to make calls and to send text messages, and (3) Artificial Intelligence. On cybersecurity, we advanced U. S. proposals to conceptualize cybersecurity capacity building as a risk-based, iterative process, as well as to ensure that the ITU coordinates with other organizations that engage in cybersecurity policy and capacity building. Our focus on prioritizing practical efforts to enhance cybersecurity capacity building led us to oppose  language that would call for a UN convention or treaty on cybersecurity.

Regarding OTTs, we achieved consensus around the notion that the ITU should foster collaboration between member states and relevant organizations and stakeholders, including the private sector, and ensuring that the ITU is not recreating work done across by others. With Artificial Intelligence, we insisted on language that would ensure that the ITU does not move toward regulation of AI. While we could not gain complete consensus on that point, and no resolution was adopted, it was an important discussion to have.  

These resolutions were crafted to highlight the need for government policies that support investment and competition, which will lead to greater innovation and economic growth. These policies have benefited technology development in our country. As other nations adopt similar policies, their citizens will benefit and their markets will be open to U.S. businesses.  To buttress this perspective, we participated in the drafting of a resolution on innovation and the digital economy as well as one on financial inclusion.

I wish to thank all the members of the U.S. delegation that contributed to the above efforts and made the conference a resounding success.

About the Author: Robert L. Strayer is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Cyber and International Communications and Information Policy in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor’s Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State’s publication on Medium.