Spotlight on Internet Governance 2014: Part One WSIS Review



In many ways the disclosures on mass government surveillance made by Edward Snowden defined the global debate on internet governance in 2013. Looking ahead in 2014, Snowden’s revelations continue to shape the internet governance landscape, adding significance to already planned events and creating new ones.

2014 was already set to be a critical year, with some key meetings planned having the potential to push the needle on much needed reform of global internet governance. But in the aftermath of Snowden’s revelations, it looks like 2014 could be the year for change. The rising political pressure, heightened public awareness and activism, and a new global meeting on the future of internet governance, could inject urgency to resolving some of the power disparities and policy gaps that have plagued the global internet framework for years.

Specifically, we are looking at 2014 as an opportunity to advance a positive reform agenda that: preserves the interoperable/global nature of the internet; is secure and facilitates the exercise of human rights, for all users without discrimination or regard for where they happen to connect; is inclusive in decision-making so that policies reflect the public interest.

This is the first in a series of blog posts in which we will break down the major international internet governance moments on our radar for 2014.

World Summit on Information Society Review (WSIS+10)

Background: The World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) was a pair of U.N.-sponsored conferences held in 2003 in Geneva and 2005 in Tunis, aimed at bridging the digital divide and advancing the global discussion about internet governance. Some of the main outcomes of WSIS were the Tunis Agenda and the Geneva Plan of Action, which among other things acknowledged the importance of all stakeholders in harnessing benefits of ICTs and the internet, and established the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) as well as action lines for development. The Tunis Agenda also called for a 10-year review of WSIS (WSIS+10), to be lead by the U.N. General Assembly. The review process formally kicked off in early 2013 with UNESCO’s first WSIS review meeting in Paris. More information on the UNESCO Paris meeting is available here

This year will see important milestones for the 10-year review of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS+10), in particular a High Level Event, hosted by the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) portion of the review with the High Level Event later this year* and a resolution at the U.N. General Assembly, anticipated in late March, determining what form the review will take place- head of state level or something less high level.

*NB: the initial dates of the WSIS+10 High-Level Event have been postponed. The meeting is still expected to take place in Sharm el-Sheikh in 2014 and new dates will be announced shortly.

WSIS+10 High Level Event (Sharm el-Sheikh, late 2014)
The aim of the High Level Event is “to review the progress made in the implementation of the WSIS outcomes” and “to take stock of achievements in the last 10 years based on reports of WSIS Stakeholders”. The event will also consider “developing proposals on a new vision beyond 2015, potentially including new targets”. While some details about the High Level Event are unclear– when exactly it will take place, for example– it’s clear two documents will be endorsed at the meeting: the WSIS+10 Statement on the Implementation of WSIS Outcomes and the WSIS+10 Vision for WSIS Beyond 2015.

These documents are being developed now through the WSIS+10 multistakeholder preparatory platform (see below).

Multistakeholder Preparatory Platform
The ITU-facilitated multistakeholder preparatory platform (MPP), which was launched in 2013, is tasked with preparing the above-mentioned statements for the High Level Event. The MPP has been laudably open to essentially anyone who is willing to the (somewhat tedious) work of reviewing and inputting into the draft documents. Access has been participating in the process (our submissions can be viewed here).

Unfortunately, despite the fact that the MPP processes has been open, the level of engagement has been somewhat limited. For example at the most recent meeting in December, very few governments from the developing world participated actively, and as a result debates centered around a narrow set of issues that the active governments (in this case Cuba, Iran, Japan, the U.S., and Sweden) tend to disagree on: human rights, multistakeholderism, cybersecurity, and the need for international regulatory framework.

This is not to say that these are unimportant issues. Only that it is disappointing that this open space for reviewing WSIS, which endorsed “a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society”, being used as a venue for politiking rather than bottom up inclusive deliberations. Lack of progress at the last meeting has meant that the April meeting, which was supposed to be the High Level Event will now be an extra drafting session, and the High Level Event will be delayed until the end of the year. Extra meetings and changing dates makes it more difficult for civil society groups engaging in the process to attend.

UNGA negotiations
As noted above, the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) is responsible for the overall review of WSIS and it was expected to adopt a resolution on the matter in its annual discussion of Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) this fall. However, Member States were unable to agree to the modalities by the close of the year and instead agreed to hold consultations over the next three months. Earlier drafts of the resolution revealed strong disagreement on what shape the review should take: a new world summit, potentially at the head of state level, which carries strong political implications, versus a meeting, perhaps on the side of the opening of the General Assembly or attached to the Post-2015 development agenda process, more symbolic in nature.

The President of the General Assembly has appointed two co-facilitators, Finland and Tunisia, to chart a way forward and arrive at consensus on a new resolution spelling out what the overall review will look like by the end of March 2014. Over 20 members of global civil society have endorsed a letter to the co-facilitators requesting an opportunity to input into the consultations, as well as a mechanism to input into the review itself, and outlining a vision for the overall WSIS review that renews and revives commitment to the Geneva principles, is rooted in the international human rights framework, and builds on the achievements and addresses the challenges experienced in the 10 years since WSIS.

See Samantha Dickenson’s breakdown of the UNGA resolution that was adopted in December 2013 here and our analysis of the initial draft text here.

Post-2015 development agenda
The post-2015 development agenda is meant to review the progress made in achieving the Millennium Development Goals and foster consensus around and commitment to a sustainable development framework. The natural synergies between the ICT4D agenda embedded in the WSIS review and the review of the MDGs happening in parallel in other parts of the U.N., has led to calls for linking the two processes in some form.

Additionally, a broad coalition of almost 200 civil society groups is calling for access to information and independent media essential to be integrated into the post-2015 framework. In particular, they are calling on governments to establish a specific goal to “ensure good governance and effective institutions” and to include as components of this goal a clause to “ensure people enjoy freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest and access to independent media and information” and to “guarantee the public’s right to information and access to government data”

There will be some major milestones this year in the post-2015 development agenda process. These include a major report from the U.N. Secretary-General that will synthesize outputs from a number of threads, including the open working groups, thematic, country, and online consultations, the High-Level Political Forum, climate change negotiations, among others. While not explicitly mandated, the WSIS+10 process could inform the Secretary-General’s synergy report, which will be the basis for member-state negotiations around the post-2015 agenda. A high level event called “Contributions of South-South, Triangular Cooperation, and ICT for Development to the post-2015 Development Agenda” may provide opportunities to find synergies and synchronicities between the overall WSIS review and the post-2015 development agenda.

What’s at stake
The WSIS review raises a number of consequential questions to the global internet governance debate. First there are the fundamental questions that were never resolved at WSIS almost 10 years ago, which relate to the role of governments in the multistakeholder model, in which non-state actors playing in some cases a leading role, which is at odds with the traditional government-centric approach that is the norm at the U.N. The compromise that was reached was the creation of the IGF and a commitment to operationalize “enhanced cooperation”, but almost 10 years later, there has been little progress on enhanced cooperation and the IGF is struggling to prove its worth among some actors.

Thus, recognizing that the Tunis Agenda was the product of a particular political moment, is there room and political will to improve it today? In particular, can the language defining the roles and responsibilities for various stakeholders, which has been so instrumental in advancing the multistakeholder approach to internet governance, be improved so that does not limit various stakeholders to prescribed roles now that they are at the table? Additionally, is the review an opportunity to resolve the long deadlocked issue of enhanced cooperation (more on this later in this series)? And could the IGF emerge as a strengthened institution as a result of the review process? Or in the shadow of the Snowden revelations, will the fear that reopening the Tunis Agenda result in something worse prevail?

Second, a crucial part of the WSIS review is about assessing the Tunis Agenda’s development goals, known as Action Lines, the extent to which they have been implemented, and how to frame the Action Lines in the post-2015 period. In this context, there are a number of questions that arise. For example: do the Action Lines constitute a sound framework for development? If not, should they be revised, or is the post-2015 framework a more appropriate venue for addressing ICT4D issues? Were the communities that the Action Lines are supposed to empower sufficiently consulted in the review? and to what extent is it desirable/possible to link the WSIS+10 review with the post-2015 framework?

Third, there are of course the valid, if mundane, questions relating to process itself. For example: Will the overall review be a major political meeting at the head of state level, or something less prominent? Will the preparatory process for the overall review be conducted in an open and inclusive manner, embracing the spirit of the Tunis Agenda? Or will civil society and others be repeating the same battles they fought in the original WSIS, to get a seat at the table, a voice in the deliberations, and the opportunity to shape the outcomes?

Already, as could be expected, divisions are emerging. There are actors that are relatively accepting of the status quo and fear that opening the Tunis Agenda could reopen old debates and result in a worse outcome; there are others that have long preferred a multilateral approach to internet governance and will use the Snowden revelations to characterize the multistakeholder model as a failure and excuse to create new multilateral institutions to shift the balance of power away from the U.S. and the technical community, which have lost the trust of users globally; and there are others yet, perhaps the majority, that fall somewhere in between, and are trying to address the very real imbalances in the status quo, both in terms of ability to influence policy and access the internet. In the highly politicized post-Snowden environment, it is unclear which grouping has the upper hand.

Key dates:

  • 17- 18 February: Third physical meeting of the MPP (Geneva)
  • End of March: UNGA resolution with modalities for overall WSIS review
  • 14-18 April: Fourth physical meeting of the MPP (location TBD)
  • 20-21 May: Post-2015 High Level Event- Contributions of South-South, Triangular Cooperation, and ICT for Development to the post-2015 Development Agenda (New York)
  • Late 2014: Final Brief on the WSIS+10 High-Level Event / Outcomes of the open consultation published (date TBD, Geneva)
  • October-November: U.N. General Assembly’s Second Committee annual discussions on ICT4D/WSIS review
  • Late 2014 WSIS+10 High-Level Event (date TBD, Sharm el-Sheikh)