WSIS+10: Taking stock and driving the global internet policy agenda forward

Last week, a review marking ten years since the UN World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) kicked off in Paris at UNESCO. WSIS was a pair of UN-sponsored conferences held in 2003 in Geneva and 2005 in Tunis, aimed at bridging the digital divide and generally advancing the global discussion about the internet and ICTs. Some of the main outcomes of WSIS were the Tunis Agenda, which among other things reaffirmed 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 goal of this first review meeting was to take stock and analyze trends over the last ten years to inform the overall WSIS review process. Outcomes from the Paris meeting will feed directly into the subsequent review meetings and into the 2015 overall review by the UN General Assembly. Ultimately, the goal is to integrate findings into the UN Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) review process and into a possible post-2015 sustainable development framework.

WSIS+10 was also an important opportunity for those who work to advance digital rights (in governments, civil society, and the private sector) to convene and strategize on advancing the goal of an open and inclusive internet through which human rights are protected and thrive.

What the WSIS+10 meeting revealed

While the WSIS+10 meeting was light on quantitative analysis measuring progress over the last decade, it facilitated constructive conversations that will help inform the digital rights agenda moving forward.

As a number of speeches, panels, and discussions conveyed, the IGF has grown from an idea into a credible institution. But in order for the valuable conversations that take place at IGF to become sustainable, progress must be made on a number of fronts. For example, links between IGF and decision-making institutions must deepen, which can convince more governments of its importance, and increase financial contributions.

It also revealed the extent of disagreement and controversy around the concept of “enhanced cooperation.” According to the Tunis Agenda, enhanced cooperation is meant “to enable governments, on an equal footing, to carry out their roles and responsibilities, in international public policy issues pertaining to the Internet.” The Tunis Agenda called for the creation of a process towards this enhanced cooperation involving all stakeholders; there is fierce debate over whether this process is already underway, through the IGF and other institutions, or whether it has yet to commence at all.

The deadlock over enhanced cooperation has inspired a number of alternative frameworks for internet policy making, such India’s proposed UN Committee for Internet-Related Policies (CIRP). CIRP would have created:

  • an intergovernmental body of 50 UN Member States meeting annually for two weeks in Geneva to develop and establish international public policies;
  • coordinate and oversee the bodies responsible for technical and operational functioning of the internet, including global standards setting;
  • facilitate negotiation of treaties, conventions and agreements on internet-related public policies;
  • address developmental issues related to the internet;
  • promote the promotion and protection of all human rights;
  • undertake arbitration and dispute resolution, where necessary; and
  • crisis management in relation to the Internet.

Although CIRP provided for the participation of all relevant stakeholders by establishing four Advisory Groups, one each for civil society, the private sector, intergovernmental and international organizations, and the technical and academic community, it still sparked considerable backlash who feared the new body would lead to increased governmental control of the internet and would restrict the free and dynamic nature of the internet. India eventually backed away from the proposal and is “moving instead towards enhanced dialogue”.

While CIRP may be defeated for now, we’re seeing a number of governments, including Algeria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan, arguing in the lead up to the UN World Telecommunications Policy Forum (WTPF) that governments have not been permitted to play a significant enough role in internet-related public policy, and point to “enhanced cooperation” as a mechanism through which to enlarge their role. Other governments and stakeholders, such as the U.S., UK, and the Internet Society, counter this view and emphasize the need to recognize the ongoing roles of all stakeholders in internet governance. The WTPF does not lead to any binding outcome, but it can help to drive a particular agenda forward.

Therefore, it is critical that the newly established UN Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation facilitate a common understanding and plan forward for enhanced cooperation, lest some actors will continue to challenge the multistakeholder framework for internet governance, which may have severe consequences for the exercise of human rights online.

How Access was involved

Access participated in the WSIS+10 meeting with the overarching goal of working with the global community to advance users’ rights online. More specifically, we used the large and diverse gathering to contribute to conversations on deepening international commitment to the multistakeholder model of internet governance, strengthening the IGF, supporting new and diverse voices in this space, and moving forward initiatives that would advance human rights online, such as the potential for a universal declaration of principles for the internet.

Access also participated in a workshop titled “Public and industry regulatory initiatives in the field of intellectual property enforcement”. Our remarks addressed the problematic issues around the framing of so-called “self-regulatory” initiatives intended to enforce intellectual property (such as the US’ new 6 strikes approach).

We argued that internet service providers are often put into the role of judge, jury, and executioner over online content. Such “self-regulatory” arrangements when it comes to intellectual property enforcement are, in fact, not “self-regulation.” Rather, it provides an opportunity for the content industry to push their narrow and self-serving interests onto the ISPs. This can undermine user rights in the process, particularly freedom of expression, access to information, and privacy.

We also contributed to UNESCO’s planning for World Press Freedom Day, which this year will focus on online safety, among other themes, as well as to discussions on advancing the work of the Freedom Online Coalition.

What was the outcome?

As the first meeting in a two year review process, the WSIS+10 meeting was significant more for setting the tone for the review, than for an outcome in itself. In the post-WCIT environment, in which there was fierce, even vitriolic, debate over the the UN’s role in internet governance, UNESCO did an admirable job of neutralizing the atmosphere and conducting an amiable meeting.

It concluded with the announcement of a final statement, which largely reaffirmed decade-old commitments made at the original WSIS meetings. The statement contains positive rights-oriented language, acknowledges the importance of the IGF and multistakeholderism, and renews attention on the goal of universal and affordable access to the internet and ICTs, among other things.

The next phase of the WSIS review will be a high-level review event in 2014 hosted by International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which together with the Paris meeting will feed into the WSIS and MDG reviews by the UN General Assembly in 2015.

Access will continue to push for a rights-centric internet governance framework and the creation of more opportunities for a diversity of voices to be heard in these debates through our participation in fora like WSIS+10, the IGF, and the WTPF.

Access Senior Policy Analyst Raegan MacDonald contributed to this post.