From the 10th to the 13th of June, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) held the capstone event of its ten year review, the WSIS+10 High Level Event. Two important documents were endorsed at this event, a statement on the implementation of the WSIS Outcomes enshrined in the 2005 Tunis Agenda, and a second document articulating a vision beyond 2015. The documents can be found here. For more information on WSIS and some background, see this post.
To develop the statements endorsed at last month’s High Level Event, the ITU implemented a Multistakeholder Preparatory Platform (MPP). This is the first time that we are aware of that a major UN agency using a truly multistakeholder approach. The MPP has been laudably open to essentially anyone who is willing to do the (somewhat tedious) work of reviewing and inputting into the draft documents. This is the latest sign of the increasing global trend towards multistakeholderism, even in traditionally intergovernmental bodies.
The outcome documents represent the success of the MPP, a promising sign as many diplomats speak of implementing the process elsewhere. That both the outcome documents unequivocally endorsed multistakeholderism reflects how common the idea has become, a development Access welcomes.
The documents themselves are a combination of possible outcomes, with some points supporting rights online and others worryingly granting governments the license to “take appropriate action” to protect “decency online”.
Last minute closed door negotiations abandoned MPP
During most of the review process, the Multistakeholder Preparatory Platform was adhered to well. Participation from civil society was small, but well-facilitated. When the sixth physical meeting of the MPP failed to achieve consensus on the outcome documents, it was agreed that all of the Action Lines should be moved to the Chair’s report.
The major sticking point during negotiations was Action Line C9 on Media. Iran opposed granting the protections afforded to journalists to “media workers,” and clauses calling for the advancement of women in media.
In an attempt to reach consensus nonetheless, the ITU Secretary General and the Chair convened a number of closed-door meetings during which they persuaded Iran, the last country opposing the text, to support a new document. This document proposed by the Chair dropped any remaining contentious clauses and replaced the text of Action Line 9 with the proposal made by UNESCO. The text is one of the best aspects of the final document, and affirms the rights of users, including the equal application of rights both online and offline.
The version of the Vision Beyond 2015 that was finalized by the sixth session of the MPP can be found here. An annotated document with the differences between what the sixth MPP agreed upon and the document that was introduced by the chair following closed-door negotiations can be found here.
While the closed-door diplomacy was seemingly effective in producing consensus outcome documents, it called into question the dedication to a multistakeholder approach professed by WSIS Review organizers. On one hand, it is easy to recognize that diplomacy is difficult, and that the tight deadlines set by summits and meetings may necessitate certain actions be taken. On the other hand, transparency and openness are critical to ensuring the meaningful participation of all stakeholders and secret proceedings undermine the commitment to multistakeholderism which is enshrined in the Tunis Agenda, a document which itself came out of the WSIS process.
The proposals made by the MPP will now go to the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly in fall of this year.
Analysis of final documents
WSIS+10 Statement on the Implementation of WSIS Outcomes
The Statement on the Implementation of WSIS Outcomes is the first of the two documents produced by the WSIS+10 review process, and is intended to review the progress made so far and take note of what worked and what did not.
The WSIS process affirmed several uses of ICTs:
- ICTs as a means to develop, connect and empower
- the promotion of ICTs in developing countries and the benefits thereof
- ICTs to empower minorities, marginalized peoples, vulnerable people, those with disabilities, and other groups that are marginalized
The multistakeholder model, which was one of the defining characteristics of the review process, was also affirmed as an important component of any conversation about ICTs.
Echoing language from Human Rights Council Resolution 20/8, the Statement on the Implementation of WSIS Outcomes affirms that human rights should be protected online as they are offline, language that is useful in internet governance reform debates that at times threaten the realization of fundamental freedoms in the digital sphere.
WSIS+10 Vision for WSIS Beyond 2015
The second of the two documents, the Vision for WSIS Beyond 2015, is intended to serve as the recommendation of the WSIS review process for the future of WSIS.
This is the most controversial of the two documents, as it contains the Action Lines. The Action Lines were set forth by the 2005 WSIS summit in Tunis, and are part of what is known as the Tunis Agenda.
The Vision for Beyond 2015 also covered much of what WSIS sees as its role in the international internet governance debate, and what it deems as priorities for development. Areas that were given priority were the multilingualization of ICTs, the promotion of culturally diversity, and equal access to resources in terms of gender, geographic distribution, socioeconomic status and developmental status.
The most relevant Action Lines related to digital rights are:
C3-Access to information and knowledge
This Action Line endorses the principle that censorship of content, and access to content, should be devoid of discrimination. Not only does this clause oppose censorship, it also endorses net neutrality. By pledging to eliminate discrimination in access to content, this clause affirms that all content should be treated equally, which is a central tenet of net neutrality.
C5-Building confidence and security in the use of Information Communication Technologies
Some of the language in Action Line 5 is worrisome in that it appears to call for the creation of a “safe and secure” internet:
“Ensure special emphasis for protection and empowerment of children online. In this regard, governments and other stakeholders should work together to help all enjoy the benefits of ICTs in a safe and secure environment.”
Worryingly, we have seen the protection of children used as a means to legitimize over broad censorship. Take for example the Clean Feed filter, which was originally intended to block child pornography, but was then expanded to block all manner of “illegal” content.
The highlights of the Action Line are the following:
“B. Affirm that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, and that this is applicable to media on all platforms;
D. Promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists and media workers, and facilitate the implementation of the UN Plan of action on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity.”
Due to persistent disagreement on a number of areas, participants in the WSIS+10 process agreed to steer clear of the most contentious issues so they would have time to deal with the matters at hand: reviewing the WSIS documents and Action Lines. The topics that were avoided were:
- The Tunis phase of WSIS
- Internet Governance
- The Internet Governance Forum
- Enhanced cooperation
That certain topics we avoided altogether demonstrates just how contentious these areas are; Indeed, the preamble explicitly states the above topics are to be avoided.
The outcome of WSIS MPP process further strengthens the multistakeholder model and demonstrates that involved all stakeholders can still lead to outcomes. Several years ago it would have been unthinkable that the ITU, notorious for lacking transparency, would lead a process that so wholeheartedly embracing multistakeholderism. This was undoubtedly the most significant trend to emerge from this process. WSIS proved that a multistakeholder approach works in practice, and gives hope and momentum to the idea that future internet governance processes will also adopt some form of a multistakeholder approach. The next test will come with the Un General Assembly’s consideration of these documents and, perhaps more importantly, the ITU’s Plenipotentiary Meeting in October of this year.