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International Telecom Union drags self out of past

Kicking, screaming, and mistaking IPs for spam

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ITU There's plenty wrong with the International Telecommunication Union, but formal proposals here at its quadrennial Plenipotentiary congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, prove that many attendees want to fix the creaky United Nations' agency.

Those proposals show that the ITU is aware of its problems: its closed nature, its budgeting, its out-of-date and out-of-control procedures. However, there remains a tug-of-war between the past and the future among Plenipot attendees.

Much of the ITU is stuck in the past, but at the same time, its staff and many of its members are living in the immediate present, sitting at the cutting edge of technology. So why is there such a huge cultural disparity?

An answer of sorts comes in the person of Nabil Kisrawi, Syria's permanent representative to the ITU. Kisrawi worked for the ITU between 1979 and 1992, and since then — nearly 20 years — he has been one of its constant features.

Kisrawi has an encyclopedic knowledge of the organisation and its procedures. Younger delegates speak admiringly about how he helped them to understand the complexities of the ITU when they joined.

He is also admired for his ability to follow events in multiple rooms and turn up at the right moment to speak to the room — which he does with no more than a notepad and a bundle of the latest papers. And he is, I am told, a pleasant and friendly person to converse with.

Unfortunately, on the basis of every intervention I have seen Kisrawi make in the past week — and there have been hundreds of them — he is also the most obstructive, unhelpful, out-of-touch, and stubborn government representative I have ever come across. And that is some achievement.

For days, Kisrawi has been blocking efforts by dozens of other governments to put forward resolutions that will help bring the ITU in line with current Internet realities. And in its place he has proposed — and constantly defended — a series of alternative proposals, put forward by himself, that bear no relation to reality.

Go-go dancer

On one level it is extremely funny. When the clear conclusion of a study group on IP addressing (that the system works well) was raised, Kisrawi complained that the group had failed in its objective — to find problems with the system — and asked for a new study group.

He equates IP addresses with spam — which is sort of like blaming the sea for rain. He has insisted on receiving data that cannot exist, and is furious about the fact that IDNs do not exist when, well, they do. It has become so ludicrous that if he announced he was a Brazilian go-go-dancer, no one would bat an eyelid.

But at the same time, it is precisely this extreme stubbornness — where anything at all will be said in order to prevent others from moving forward — that is at the heart of the ITU's inability to modernise itself.

It only takes one or two individuals to dig in their heels to create a situation in which no one can move forward. And the rules that allow this self-defeating process cannot be changed unless everyone agrees. It's the reason why the meeting goes on for three weeks; it is also the reason why the ITU has a seemingly endless number of procedures that aren't needed and make everything go pointlessly slow.

I explained yesterday how it takes three days for 200 people to vote on five positions. Today I found out why it takes two days for the meeting to simply approve what it has spent two weeks agreeing to: because every resolution goes through a three-stage process, each stage given a different colour (I forget the actual colours). Apparently it is very bad form to ask for anything but cosmetic changes as the traffic lights change, but nevertheless through the system it goes — every single resolution.

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