Beyond connectivity: building an inclusive U.N. agenda for internet development

In global policy, we need to do more than simply connect people to the internet. We also need to ask: What kind of internet are we connecting people to?

That’s a question at the heart of a process that’s now being finalized at the United Nations, which, together with adoption of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, could have profound implications for the future of the internet. This December marks the end of the two-year review for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) process, and on Monday, October 19th, stakeholders gathered in New York for an interactive summit that represents one of the last few chances for civil society to discuss the WSIS findings and help shape the future of the initiative.

Access Now joined a diverse coalition of groups to submit a unified revision of the “zero draft” — the draft of language that will become the resolution for adoption by the U.N. General Assembly in December.

Quality, not just connectivity

Our joint comments stress the need to emphasize the quality of internet access, not just the number of new connections. When people come online, there should be policies in place that respect human rights and protect their data. We point out that anonymity and encryption play an important role in protecting our privacy and freedom of expression in the digital age, and we note that privacy-enhancing technology is critical for building trust, confidence, and security online.

There is already an explicit support for Net Neutrality in the zero draft, and we assert that it should remain in the final document, along with language to protect full, open, and non-discriminatory access to the internet.

We also make a clear demand for an inclusive, democratic, and transparent dialogue on the respective roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders in achieving the WSIS goals  — because the process won’t mean much without continued involvement by civil society and commitments by key institutions. Any follow-up high level meeting or summit must necessarily be open, inclusive, and transparent. Our support for a summit is contingent on such a process being established.

In addition, Access Now supports adding language to reform the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty system. To facilitate transfer of information in compliance with international law, the MLAT system should be updated and enhanced for the digital age. The system is widely regarded as inefficient, but it could be the basis of rights-respecting transfer of information across jurisdictions.

What’s happened so far

Begun in 2003, the WSIS process originally intended to help “harness the potential of knowledge and technology” for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, a set of targets to address extreme poverty and promote gender equality, education, and environmental sustainability. But the WSIS process soon spread beyond development to include internet governance, explicitly recognizing the importance of including civil society and other stakeholders.

Access Now has tracked WSIS since we participated in the early 2013 review kickoff meeting. In July 2015, we spoke on the floor of the U.N. General Assembly during the informal interactive consultations on WSIS+10. We expressed support for the WSIS goals of creating a “people-centered, inclusive, and development-oriented information society,” and called out unlawful surveillance, internet shutdowns, and zero rating as obstacles to building trust in the internet economy.

Following that meeting in July, civil society organizations and other stakeholders have offered input on the non-paper, an early version of the final document that would come out of this process. Our non-paper input is here (PDF). The process is ongoing, and we joined a coalition of nearly 30 civil society organizations from around the world who met in New York to develop key messages for the zero draft.

You can read our joint civil society statement here. Our coalition welcomes the opportunity to comment on the second draft of the outcome document, as well as to participate in any further stakeholder consultations.

Access Now has also submitted our own separate statement (PDF) on the zero draft.

What’s next

The final document will be discussed and voted on at a special high-level U.N. General Assembly meeting on December 15-16. The final version will demonstrate how civil society and non-governmental stakeholders can shape the outcome of a multistakeholder U.N. process.

The internet belongs to all of us. Our aim in WSIS is to ensure that the development and technology agenda respects human rights. That way, WSIS can deliver on its promise as an open, innovative, and transformative vehicle for “inclusive, people-centered” development and internet governance.