Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/10/20/itu_stodginess/

International Telecom Union drags self out of past

Kicking, screaming, and mistaking IPs for spam

By Kieren McCarthy

Posted in Broadband, 20th October 2010 15:00 GMT

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Those proposals show that the ITU is aware of its problems: its closed nature, its budgeting, its out-of-date and out-of-control procedures.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.

On the plus side

Of course, the worst situations are also the most visible. So it's only fair to highlight areas where the ITU works, and works well.

For one, the organisation has moved quite successfully to an electronic document model — far more successfully than other organisations of the same size. Sure, there are still plenty of physical documents on the tables in the main room, but it's nothing short of extraordinary how smoothly the enormous number of documents produced — including new documents every day and revisions of existing documents — are relayed, linked to, and made accessible through the ITU's website.

Well, unless you don't have login privileges to the website, of course, in which case you're wasting your time.

Also, it is only fair to point out that the Plenipotentiary is the big, arcane monster of the ITU. The organisation runs many other global meetings on many different aspects of its work. They can be a little stuffy, but they're professionally run and bring together a lot of people with a shared focus.

On other aspects at this meeting, the ITU has also managed to tackle difficult subjects and come up with solutions. There was agreement today, for example, to open up the organisation to academia — and at a far lower price than normal: $4,000. There was also an agreement to charge for access to documents on a cost-recovery basis for members, and open up documents to non-members at market price — a crucial development, and one that should help the organisation appear more relevant.

When it comes to finances, the meeting agreed on a raft of 20 sensible measures to cut costs. And it has also passed gender-equality and disability measures, opening the 19th century shutters and letting in the light.

But even so, two worlds currently coexist here: the old men, rooted in the old ways, sitting at the top and doing what they can to maintain the status quo; and the new world, demonstrated by the surprisingly large number of young women at the conference — but almost all of those women sit behind the top table.

It's a generational shift sitting in the same room. And you get the feeling that members of the old guard are clinging to symbols — the arcane procedures, the late-night meetings, the stubborn formality — while their world is gradually eroded by the determined efforts of others.

In that context, Kisrawi and others like him are determinedly demonstrating that they still retain power with their use of interventions, square brackets, and marathon stalling sessions. Unfortunately they are sadly unaware that the result of this effort to display virility is a frankly embarrassing public spectacle.

Steak is for real men!

Speaking of young women: two days ago, sick of the roast beef paninis, buffet splodges, and the 101 different ways that Mexicans can serve beans and bread, I decided to head to the steakhouse — called a Butcher's House for some weird reason — at the Hilton opposite the venue.

It's a bit of a strange layout — more jazz club than restaurant — and the lighting is so low that you have trouble figuring out exactly what it is you are putting in your mouth. But I ordered a beer from the waiter and then started going through emails on my phone, as one does.

I was somewhat surprised a few minutes later to find a half-naked woman wearing what can only be described as a leather fantasy outfit standing next to me opening my beer. Now, I'll be honest, this isn't the first time a half-naked woman has poured me a beer in a dark room in Mexico — but never the Hilton!

It was also lunchtime. Which, frankly, was a little disconcerting.

It seems that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Hilton in Guadalajara is renowned for this unusual kind of waitressing. And if leather isn't your thing, there's another waitress dressed in a red two-piece fluffy cowgirl outfit, serving fajitas.

I would love to say the food was good, but as with everywhere else in this world, the quality of food is inversely proportional to the amount of flesh on display.

Nevertheless, you can't help but wonder that if you took all the old men in the negotiating room out for dinner at the Hilton and left their female second-in-commands behind, we would all be heading home tomorrow morning with a full set of resolutions. ®

This article originally appeared in slightly different form on kierenmccarthy.com.