Post-2015 WSIS Agenda Must Be Forward-Looking, Multistakeholder and Development Focused

Written by Matthew Shears

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) review process is in its final stages.  The multistakeholder component of the review came to a close in early November and the process is now in the hands of governments alone. The final outcomes document (latest draft here) will be agreed at a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week.  The outcomes document (CDT’s most recent comments can be found here) reviews the past ten years of the WSIS, including progress on how ICTs have influenced development, the performance of the Internet Governance Forum, and the degree to which Internet governance and policy have changed.

Unfortunately, it appears that the contributions of non-government stakeholders – civil society, business, the technical community, and academia, among others – are being whittled away by governments. The co-facilitators of the review, the Ambassadors to the UN from Lithuania and the United Arab Emirates, have made considerable efforts to draft an outcome document that is forward-looking, reflects the views of a diverse set of stakeholders, and captures the challenges as well as the opportunities that the global community faces in the near future. Yet we are being let down by governments insisting on language that dates from 2003 and 2005 on issues such as the roles and responsibilities of government and non-government stakeholders, and whether Internet governance is multilateral (between governments) or multistakeholder. Effectively, it is the ambition of some governments to turn back the clock on the role of stakeholders in the management and the governance of the Internet.

Effectively, it is the ambition of some governments to turn back the clock on the role of stakeholders in the management and the governance of the Internet.

This is unfortunate and detrimental to the evolution of the Internet and its ability to positively contribute to economic development going forward. The grouping of non-government stakeholders has evolved since 2003, their roles and responsibilities morphing and merging, and their involvement in policy and governance increasing. Governance models are also evolving, becoming more open and accountable, changing the ways policy is developed, deliberated, and decided –– and broadening the definition and nature of policy itself. To insist on talking about Internet policy-making and governance as multilateral is far removed from the reality of today’s open and participatory processes and governance structures that incorporate, and indeed are led by, a diversity of typically non-governmental stakeholders.

The assertion of a multilateral approach to Internet governance is not supported by the vast majority of non-governmental stakeholders.  Nor is it supported by the large number of governments. Stakeholders have spoken loudly that the future of governance and policy in the Internet space is multistakeholder, not multilateral.  The co-facilitators heard this first hand when they travelled to the Internet Governance Forum in Brazil in November.  They also heard from stakeholders on the importance of extending the mandate of the IGF, and substantively linking the WSIS post-2015 to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These same messages were also the focus of a multistakeholder statement released at the end of the IGF, signed by over 130 organizations comprising advocacy groups (including CDT), major companies and business associations, technical organizations, and others, as well as over 190 individuals from around the globe.

While the policy and governance of the Internet has changed since 2003, the original goal of the WSIS in the Geneva Principles remains as relevant today as it was twelve years ago:

We, the representatives of the peoples of the world …  declare our common desire and commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life, premised on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This goal remains a compelling guide for the overall WSIS process – there is no doubt that the WSIS post-2015 should be bold, playing a major enabling role in achieving the targets of the SDGs. Realizing the goal of a “… a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society …” and the concomitant benefits to economic and social development will be a significant contribution to achieving the SDGs. However, a WSIS post-2015 that sees an increase in intergovernmental approaches to Internet policy and governance – and diminishes the role of non-governmental stakeholders – threatens that goal. Such a result would undermine not only the invaluable role of non-governmental stakeholders going forward, but also the role the WSIS could have in credibly contributing to achieving the SDG targets.

However, a WSIS post-2015 that sees an increase in intergovernmental approaches to Internet policy and governance – and diminishes the role of non-governmental stakeholders – threatens that goal.

A forward-looking, multistakeholder, and development-focused WSIS agenda is needed. To outline and, importantly, implement a development-oriented post-2015 agenda will require all stakeholders coming together to build on the vast experience the community has creating social wellbeing and economic opportunity and growth. And we will need to look to existing processes and fora, such as the IGFs and the WSIS Forum, as well as new projects and partnerships across stakeholders to provide the experience-sharing spaces and the catalyzers of growth and change this ambitious agenda will depend on. With the SDGs we have a unique opportunity to harness the potential of ICTs and the Internet for development and human dignity – let us make the most of it.

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