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Sailing Backwards: WSIS 10+ Avoids Entering Uncharted Territory

Early August 2014 the UN General Assembly agreed on the procedures how to review the results of the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) from 2005. According to the draft resolution, the WSIS 10+ event will be a high level intergovernmental meeting in New York in December 2015. This meeting will adopt an “intergovernmental agreed outcome document” which will give guidance for the next ten years. The outcome document will be negotiated by governments in an “intergovernmental negotiation process”. Non-governmental stakeholders from the private sector, civil society and technical community will be invited for “informal interactive consultation” in a parallel process.

Wait a minute? What are “informal interactive consultations” in a parallel process? Does it mean, that non-governmental stakeholders can give input in a “non-negotiation room” which then can be ignored by governments sitting in a separated “negotiation room”? Do we have 2014 or 1984? Didn’t we discuss for more than ten years the benefits of a multistakeholder approach for managing the challenges of the information age? Didn’t the recent development of the Internet confirm that the decentralized Internet Governance Ecosystem does not need a central intergovernmental decision making authority but an open and transparent bottom up policy development processes which include all stakeholders on equal footing in their respective roles?

In 2005 the Tunis Agenda opened the door for an innovative governance model. Heads of States agreed that the governance of the Internet, the backbone of the information society, should be based on shared decision making among governments, civil society and the private sector. Ten years later, governments in the UN want obviously to remove non-governmental stakeholders from the negotiation table. Who fears civil society? Will the UN sail backwards?

Learning Lessons from the Past

In the 1990s UN world summits became rather popular to discuss global issues. There were UN summits for Environment (Rio de Janeiro 1992), Human Rights (Vienna 1993) and Women (Beijing 1995). Such UN summits were for governments only. Civil society organizations which wanted to raise their voice were not allowed to sit in the conference room. In Rio they had a tent village outside the conference building. In Beijng civil society was moved into another part of the city. And in Vienna civil society was banned into the basement of the conference building in the UN City but strictly separated from the governmental space. Governments had their own entrance door and their isolated discussions in the 1st floor, protected by controlled gates which could be passed only with a governmental badge.

The rise of civil society as an element in global policy making proved what Alvin Toffler outlined in his book “Powershift”, published in 1990. He wrote: “We live at a moment when the entire structure of power that held the world together is now disintegrating.” This powershift, he argued “does not merely transfer power, it transforms it.” (Alvin Toffler, Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century; Bantam Books, 1990, p. 3/4) Joseph Nye from Harvard’s JFK School of Government described this later that “the possible diffusion of activities away from central governments goes vertically to other levels of government and horizontally to market and private non-market actors, the so-called third sector”.

With other words the emergence of a global civil society as a political factor reflected the transformation of the global political system at the eve of the new millennium. And it was very natural that civil society did not only comment (or protest) global policies, it wanted also to participate in policy development and decision making.

At the end of the 1990s civil society disagreement with isolated governmental discussions of global issues peaked in street protest at the annual Worldbank, G8 and WTO meetings. During the 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle, US president Bill Clinton was late for the final dinner because the building was blocked by civil society protesters. When Clinton gave his dinner speech, he asked the question whether the protesters have something to say and if the answer would be yes, they should make their argument inside and not outside the conference rooms.

This signaled a new approach. In July 2000 the G8 had its annual meeting in Okinawa and discussed for the first time issues related to the information society, and in particular the challenge of the digital divide. The response was the formation of a so-called “Digital Opportunity Task Force” (DOT Force). The innovation here was that this group was not an intergovernmental group but included also representatives from the private sector and civil society. The “Okinawa Declaration” stated, inter alia: “Information and Communications Technology ... affects the way government interacts with civil society”. And it concluded “An effective partnership among stakeholders, including through joint policy co-operation, is also key to the sound development of a truly global information society”.

The Start of WSIS

This “multistakeholder approach” was mirrored later in the composition of the UN ICT Task Force (UNICTTF). The UNICTTF helped to define the mandate for the WSIS in the UN resolution 56/183 (December 21, 2001). In para. 5 of this resolution, private sector and civil society were expressis verbis invited to participate in the WSIS. This was new. This was a courageous step forward into uncharted territory.

However it was unclear how this participation should be implemented. UNESCO organized an expert meeting in Paris in April 2002, just six weeks before WSIS started. This meeting adopted a Recommendation No. 3 which said: “Civil Society actors should in substantive agenda development, debate and drafting modalities, be treated as peers and equals to nation-states and private sector organizations/corporations”. For some UN member states, this was too much. They negotiated a full week during WSIS’s PrepCom 1 in June 2002 the Rules of Procedure and turned down Article 52, which covered the participation of civil society. The compromise was to leave it to the chair of the various meetings to handle civil society participation.

This triggered protest when civil society groups were removed from the conference room after the official speeches in the opening ceremony in Geneva. Civil society groups were asking for access right to meetings of working groups, for speaking rights and for reasonable participation in policy development and decision taking. Turmoil was growing. In this situation the president of WSIS 1, Adama Sammassekou, called to move from turmoil to trust and offered a policy of an open door. He invited civil society to make written contributions to the negotiation process by keeping the final drafting of language in the hands of the intergovernmental committee. Civil society agreed but expected that their input will have also impact.

A critical moment arrived, when the 96 proposals made by the civil society groups to the draft of the Geneva Declaration were not reflected in the document. Civil society groups called this ignorance “governmental arrogance” and some groups wanted to leave the summit and to go back to street protests. The compromise which was reached was a special procedure which allowed civil society to make their points without being formally part of the negotiation process. Civil Society drafted its own Declaration and handed it over in a formal act in the final plenary to the president of the summit who accepted and recognized the document.

After the Geneva Summit the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan told the UN Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG), that not only technology but also policy needs innovation. “In managing, promoting and protecting [the internet’s] presence in our lives, we need to be no less creative than those who invented it” he said and added: “Clearly, there is a need for governance, but that does not necessarily mean that it has to be done in the traditional way, for something that is so very different.” Entering uncharted territory calls for unusual solutions, it needs creativity and innovation.

Tunis 2005 took the next step. Although civil society organizations had no negotiation rights in the final night session when the Tunis Agenda was formulated, they remained in the negotiation room until the last moment and could speak via their national delegations. And it is worth to remember that key parts of the WGIG report, which made its way unchanged into the Tunis Agenda as the Internet Governance definition and the Internet Governance Forum, were written by WGIG members from civil society.

No Single Model

Over the years the multistakeholder model was further advanced, mainly through the IGF but also in other groups as OECD (which established with CISAC a special civil society committee), the Council of Europe, ICANN and others. Even the ITU opened its doors a little bit when it prepared the final documents for the 5th World Telecommunication Policy Forum (WTPF) in Geneva, May 2013.

What has emerged is not a single multistakeholder governance model but a multistakeholder approach which has produced various forms of governance, related to the specifics of the issue. The key criteria is the involvement of the four main stakeholders groups (governments, private sector, civil society, technical community) on equal footing in their specific roles. It is like a carriage with four horses moving forward together in the same direction as a “Roman Quadriga” does. This “Internet Governance Quadriga” model worked quite well in the recent NetMundial conference which added another experience.

However the issue remains controversial. When the UNCSTD formed the IGF Improvement Working Group in 2009 it invited only governments to join. A wave of protests by non-governmental stakeholders and some governments led to the opening of the working group for 15 representatives from civil society, private sector and the technical community. During the first meeting of this group in Montreux it was unclear whether the non-governmental working group members will be treated equally. Thanks to the engagement of the chair there was no differential treatment. The spirit of the group was very good and it produced a reasonable report with more than 50 recommendations. When the UNCSTD established the Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation (WGEC) it followed this example. The fact that WGEC could not achieve a consensus on a set of non-binding recommendations was due to the disagreement among governments.

Moving Forward?

With this recent history one can ask the question what the governments of the UN member states expect when they exclude non-governmental stakeholders from the drafting of the outcome document for WSIS 10+?

Is it too late to make corrections? To change rules of procedure for the UN General Assembly is certainly unrealistic. However, there is obviously some space for a flexible interpretation and to adjust the proposed process to the realities of the 2010s. One could imagine that the president of the UN General Assembly—who is now obliged to “organize informal interactive consultations with all relevant WSIS stakeholders—establishes a multistakeholder drafting team (similar to the UNCSTD Working Groups) which could publish a call for proposals. One could learn from the weaknesses of the drafting process under NetMundial and to make the drafting of a WSIS 10+ outcome document more open and transparent. Such a pre-negotiated text could go in its final phase to the proposed intergovernmental process which would not reopen the discussion but check whether the proposed text meets the WSIS criteria.

Is there enough time? The NetMundial declaration was drafted within three months. From now until December 2015 we have 15 months. It is not a question of time. It is a question of political will.

Do governments want to stumble forward into the unexplored space of the innovative multistakeholder policy making or do they want to sail backwards? When Columbus discovered America, half way on the Atlantic Ocean there was a rebellion. A number of his sailors wanted to return. Columbus stayed on course and landed in what was called later “the new world”. The forthcoming IGF in Istanbul is an ideal place to discuss the future journey of how the information society should be governed.

By Wolfgang Kleinwächter, Professor Emeritus at the University of Aarhus

He is a member of the Global Commission on Stability in Cyberspace, was a member of the ICANN Board (2013 – 2015) and served as Special Ambassador for the Net Mundial Initiative (2014 – 2016).

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Thanks Wolfgang for a really informative account Paul Wilson  –  Aug 20, 2014 4:26 AM

Thanks Wolfgang for a really informative account of events by which the multistakeholder course has been charted. Certainly a great reference for those who want to join the dots and fill gaps in the history.

You remind us of the role that Civil Society has played in helping to open up intergovernmental processes, by hook and by crook, since way back in the Earth Summit of 92.  This needs to be be appreciated by all communities in today’s diverse multistakeholder environment, because we certainly would not have come so far without those sustained efforts over many years.

But as you point out, the effort needs to continue; and I do hope we can be optimistic that without changing the rules of the UNGA, we can expect a full multistakeholder approach to the development of the WSIS+10 outcomes.  Of course we can’t rely on optimism alone, so I’m glad that you have raised these questions at this time, and I hope that the answers will reassure us that the global joint effort of Internet Cooperation is still on course!

Thanks again,

Paul Wilson.

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