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 second in a series of blog posts in which we will break down the major international internet governance moments on our radar for 2014.
U.N. Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation (WGEC)
Background: The U.N. General Assembly established the multistakeholder Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation (WGEC) in 2012 under the auspices of the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD). With members from government, the private sector, civil society, technical and academic communities, and international and international organizations, WGEC is tasked with examining the mandate regarding enhanced cooperation as contained in the Tunis Agenda and making recommendations on how to fully implement this mandate. WGEC held two meetings in 2013 (in May and November), which largely entailed creating a questionnaire for feedback from all stakeholders on viewpoints concerning enhanced cooperation, collecting inputs, and establishing a correspondence group* to map out where there are existing international mechanisms addressing international internet-related public policy issues, identify the status of mechanisms and attempt to identify the gaps in order to ascertain what type of recommendations may be required to be drafted by the WGEC. The WGEC is seen as a possible means for identifying a way forward to reform global internet governance.
The Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation is expected to complete its work in 2014, with its recommendations feeding into the General Assembly’s overall review of WSIS at its 69th session this fall. WGEC will hold its final meeting this week during which it will endeavor to draft recommendations based on the survey responses and the correspondence group’s work. There is rolling document with proposals of draft recommendations by some WGEC members and observers, and the goal for this final meeting is to come to consensus on a way forward. WGEC’s recommendations will be considered by CSTD at its 17th session in May as part of its overall review of WSIS. Finally, the U.N. General Assembly will consider WGEC’s recommendations in its annual discussion of ICT4D and the overall WSIS review.
What’s at stake
Enhanced cooperation is one of the controversial issues in internet governance that was left unresolved at WSIS. A fundamental disagreement at WSIS over the role of governments in international internet policy making (specifically concerning U.S. control over the domain name system) resulted in a compromise (para 69 of the Tunis Agenda) that called for enhanced cooperation to “enable governments, on equal footing, to carry out their roles and responsibilities in international public policy issues pertaining to the Internet, but not in the day-to-day technical and operational matters, that do not impact on international public policy issues.”
While this compromise language helped resolve the issue of technical and operational responsibility, the ambiguity of the term “enhanced cooperation”, which was left undefined, did little to forge common understanding between those who view governments as having a privileged role in internet policy making and those who view governments as one of a number of players in the multistakeholder model. Additionally, the Tunis Agenda did not specify how to put all governments on “equal footing” or how that could be measured. It should not come as a surprise then that there are a number of different readings of the text. We favor a more hollistic read of the Tunis Agenda (specifically taking into account paragraphs 70 and 71) and consider enhanced cooperation to engage states with a wider range of stakeholders.
Fast forward eight years, and WGEC is attempting to take on these issues head on. The group should be commended for adopting a measured approach of collecting feedback from the internet community and mapping out where there are effective processes and where there are gaps. But these exercises revealed stark differences in viewpoints among and between stakeholders.
For example, on the issue of whether enhanced cooperation has been implemented, responses to the working group’s initial questionnaire indicated three different camps, the first saying that it has not been implemented; the second arguing that the implementation of enhanced cooperation has been evolved rather successful in the last eight years and has to be seen mainly as a gradual process.; and the third viewing some progress but recognizing deficiencies, weaknesses, and gaps.
The mapping exercise of the correspondence group similarly revealed divergent views. Some respondents (including Access) indicated that there are multiple institutions addressing many, if not all, internet-related public policy issues. We would argue that there is a need to find more synergies between various insitutions that already exist in order to better address gaps in policy making rather than trying to create something entirely new. Other respondents suggesteed that there are no institutions addressing many internet related public policy and would like to see new bodies established to address gaps in policy making. The draft recommendations also reflect these opposite approaches.
The time has come for some difficult decisions. Members of the working group have until Friday to agree on recommendations, but with such divergent opinions, it is difficult to see if a consensus path will emerge. Should no consensus emerge it is possible that WGEC’s mandate will be extended, however this is a rather unattractive option given the expense of travel to Geneva for WGEC members and the fact that other internet governance processes are depedent on the working group’s conclusions. Another option would be for the WGEC chair to issue a report summarizing the group’s work instead of recommendations, however this option is highly undesirable as it would serve to perpetuate the stalemate over enhanced cooperation. WGEC’s prospects for progress will become more clear by the end of the week.
See Access’ response to the WGEC questionnaire here.
- 24-28 February: Final WGEC meeting (Geneva)
- 12-16 May: Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) annual meeting (Geneva)
- 23 June – 18 July: ECOSOC substantive session (New York)
*Note: Access was a member of the correspondence group.