This weekend, there were not one, but two landmark global agreements: in Paris, negotiators agreed in climate talks to save the planet, and at the United Nations, negotiators in the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) process agreed on ways to save the internet. Or to be more precise, governments reached broad consensus on recognizing the central role of human rights in the future of the internet, even though some states blocked progress, missing the opportunity to promote openness and digital security in the global development agenda.
The final text, based on the compromise reached on Saturday morning, has now been released (PDF), although it’s still being polished. Here’s our take on what it entails with regard to the issues we’ve focused on throughout the WSIS+10 process: human rights, openness, digital security, and Net Neutrality.
What brought us here
WSIS began with a pair of U.N.-sponsored conferences: one held in 2003 in Geneva, and one in 2005 in Tunis. These were aimed at bridging the digital divide, and generally advancing the global discussion about the internet and information and communications technology, or ICTs. Some of the main outcomes of WSIS so far are the Tunis Agenda, which among other things reaffirms the multistakeholder model of internet governance and created the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), and the Geneva Plan of Action, which created action lines for development.
The current two-year review process was aimed at taking stock of and analyzing trends over the last ten years, and integrating the findings into the U.N. development agenda, including the new Global Goals for sustainable development. But civil society and government negotiators alike recognized that the conversations shape other important issues, impacting the larger discussion about control of the internet’s technical and policy decision-making processes, cybersecurity, and the role of human rights online.
The outcomes of the WSIS review
Russia, China, and several others fought hard to clamp down on the inclusive nature of internet governance. But in the end, cooler heads prevailed, especially with the E.U. bloc and civil society who stood up for more open processes. Openness, the guiding principle of the internet as we know it, ensures that policy and technical decisions are made with the input of all stakeholders, including engineers, human rights advocates, and innovators, not simply governments.
Negotiations largely took place between regional blocs. For example, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Cuba, among others, sit in one camp, while the entire E.U. forms another bloc that is closely aligned with the U.S., Canada, Australia, and friends.
The divide between the blocs — and vastly differing perspectives on whether and how to govern the internet — doesn’t appear quite so intractable now, as governments have agreed that human rights are central to our digital future. There is support for privacy and freedom of expression at the heart of the unified statement, which passed without including some of the more combative proposals for new treaties or legal frameworks to govern the internet.
Notably, the agreement cites the Human Rights Council and its landmark consensus finding that human rights apply online just as they do online. In a win for privacy, the outcome document calls for governments to review surveillance powers and practices, including interception and mass surveillance, in order to better uphold human rights. It also takes note of serious threats to the freedom of expression and access to information. And it calls for greater protections for journalists and civil society.
Security and confidence in the use of ICTs
Unfortunately, the input of global civil society is not reflected as strongly with regard to cybersecurity. The document asserts that there is a role for human rights in security, but that’s not sufficient for recognizing the threats that users face from governments and malicious actors.
Access Now works to ensure that users’ rights are not undermined in the name of cybersecurity, promoting a user-up approach that incorporates strong encryption and rapid fixes for vulnerabilities that put users at risk, with an emphasis on improving the entire security ecosystem. Bolstering our work, the recent report by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the freedom of opinion and expression (A/HRC/29/32), David Kaye, found that encryption and anonymity on the internet are necessary for the advancement of human rights. We strongly advocated for the WSIS review to recognize that access to encryption and anonymity tools is essential to the exercise of freedom of expression online, but governments did not respond to our calls.
Internet governance and Net Neutrality
The agreement does not go as far as to name Net Neutrality, a disappointment and missed opportunity to promote a principle that’s become law in nearly 50 countries. A compromise using the coded language of the “open internet” gets the point across, though: no provider should control the free flow of information and decide what content, services, and applications are prioritized.
The new Global Goals for sustainable development will not succeed without increased access to the free, global, open internet. This agreement opens up pathways for future cooperation between development experts and the technical community, under a human rights framework, for the next ten years.
Stakeholders from around the world will attend the High Level event this week, where ministers will officially adopt the agreed outcome document amidst speeches and events meant to influence the agenda and its implementation.
Various forums, including the U.N. Commission on Science and Technology for Development, have the mandate to carry out the WSIS action lines over the next decade. Civil society will continue advocating at these venues for more inclusive and open processes, and steps protecting digital rights.
This week, Access Now will use our speaking time at the High Level event to lay out the challenges that remain for the future of the internet, which more than 1,000 people in our community helped us to define (see our survey here). Stay tuned for information on how to watch our speech live!