Will WSIS’s true legacy reflect connected, and unprotected? Shawn Powers, and assistant professor at Georgia State University, discusses the WSIS+10 High Level Event and why its outcomes are troubling for freedom of expression.
The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) will celebrate its 10-year anniversary in 2015. The original summits—held in Geneva in 2003 and in Tunis in 2005—were the result of UN General Assembly Resolution 56/183, which summoned the international community to “marshal the global consensus and commitment required to promote the urgently needed access of all countries to information, knowledge and communication technologies for development.” Together, the two meetings brought together over 30,000 participants, including numerous heads of state and globally representative civil society actors from 175 countries. The stakeholders produced the Geneva Plan of Action (2003) and the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society (2005) pledging, among other things, to promote “the use of ICT-based products, networks, services and applications, and to help countries overcome the digital divide.”
The WSIS summits spearheaded the concept of multistakeholderism and served as the first time an intergovernmental organization allowed non-state actors, including civil society groups and academics, to contribute directly to the decision-making processes (for additional detail, see Marc Raboy and Normand Landry’s Civil Society, Communication and Global Governance). These non-state actors lobbied to expand the scope of the WSIS output documents, including language promoting individual rights, free speech, and privacy online. They also successfully pushed for language promising a multistakeholder approach to internet governance. Belief that internet governance was on an irreversible trajectory towards inclusiveness and distributed decision-making abounded. In the wake of these meetings, ICANN Board Member Wolfgang Kleinwächter, for example, proclaimed, “After Geneva 2003 it will be difficult to sail back to the old top down power policy of the Industrial Age.” The current hubbub over internet governance, including debates between advocates of multistakeholderism and those for information sovereignty, are the direct result of these WSIS processes and outcomes.
Last week I attended the WSIS+10 High Level Event (HLE) held at the ITU headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The event’s primary purpose was to (I) measure the progress made in implementing the WSIS outcomes over the past 10 years, and (II) provide a vision of what the information society should look like beyond 2015. Along these lines, delegates were asked to codify two outcome documents in advance of the meeting, the Statement on the Implementation of WSIS Outcomes and the Vision for WSIS Beyond 2015, both of which will serve as the foundation for the 2015 UN General Assembly’s review of the WSIS implementation.
Photos: ITU and WSIS+10 images projected throughout the conference center
These outcome documents were drafted and debated via a multistakeholder preparatory platform (MPP) that went through six phases of multistakeholder dialogue prior to finalizing the documents the hours before the start of the WSIS+10 HLE. Finalizing these documents, however, proved complicated, to say the least. Last minute deliberations were scheduled for the day before the event in order to try and hammer out a consensus on a few contentious issues. This last ditch effort failed, with Iran leading a coalition against the inclusion of language proposed by UNESCO reinforcing the centrality of freedom of expression and access to information in the post-2015 vision for the information society. This is to say, at the beginning of the WSIS+10 HLE, this language (referred to as C9), along with the rest of the document’s action lines (chapter C), was removed from the proposed Vision document because, after robust debate among stakeholders, there was no consensus.
But then, after a day and a half of pre-fabbed speeches touting the various accomplishments achieved over the past decade (without time for a single question from the audience!), the ITU Secretary General announced that there had been a breakthrough in the negotiations. Mind you, discussion of the output documents had officially ended, and there had been no hint of a possibility of behind the scenes negotiations to salvage them. Had such a possibility been made public, it would have raised questions about the legitimacy of inserting closed-door diplomatic tactics at the end of a 12-month, multi-staged, consultative and inclusive multistakeholder decision-making process. Without explaining how the breakthrough had occurred, or who was involved, Secretary Touré asked the delegates to review a new draft of the WSIS+10 Vision document before approving it later in the afternoon. (Samantha Dickinson breaks down the differences between documents here.)
Touré’s decision to intervene and try and save the WSIS+10 review process was a calculated gamble. He knew that failure to include guarantees for freedom of expression in the post 2015 vision document would reflect poorly on his organization, furthering the impression that the ITU was dominated by non-democratic governments eager for more control over international communication flows. After WCIT, and the media maelstrom that followed, such an outcome could have left the ITU delegitimized, perhaps permanently so.
Photo: ITU Secretary General Hamadoun I. Touré and UN Liason Gary Fowlie presiding over a WSIS+10 panel
Touré also knew that the outcome of his back-door tactics, while deviating from the multistakeholder process, put Western governments and civil society actors in a difficult position. While they collectively champion multistakeholderism as the way forward, they are also the primary advocates for greater protections of freedom of expression. As the head of a global civil society organization working on online freedom explained to me, “we’re all furious–absolutely incensed–but no one is willing to say anything for fear of be seen as coming out against freedom of expression.”
Sure enough, when the time came to discuss the new documents, there was only one comment from the floor. Mohsen Naziri Asl, Iran’s permanent Ambassador to the UN, remarked, “Although Iran is not comfortable with the language of the text…for the sake of compromise, I would like to show our flexibility in this regard. I am confident that the document will be improved in other related forums.” Immediately following Asl’s comment, event chair, Egyptian Minister of Communications & Information Technology, Atef Helmy asked delegates to approve the documents via applause, and then decided that the relatively dull ovation that followed was sufficient evidence of consensus.
With that, Helmy declared the deliberations complete and the WSIS+10 HLE a success. Speeches from statesman and UN bureaucrats followed, flamboyantly trumpeting this tremendous mutistakeholder achievement. For example, Janis Karklins, HLE vice-chair and former president of the preparatory committee of the Tunis Phase of the WSIS, proclaimed:
Congratulations to all of us for reaching the consensual agreement on two outcome documents. The distinctive feature of the WSIS process is in its multistakeholder character. […] Not only in implementation—working together, delivering on promises and decisions of the WSIS—but also multistakeholder engagement in defining next steps, what needs to be done, how it needs to be done and how obstacles may be overcome. It just proves that multistakeholder engagement works. It works on all levels. And we should not be afraid of it. It has proven its ability to produce results on occasion of the first review event, which was organized in February 2013, that resulted with a consensual final statement. It’s proven itself today, when the decision was made by consensus in multistakeholder engagement.
While Karklins and others carried on, civil society representatives exchanged snarky tweets, packed up their things, and left. What governments and intergovernmental organizations asserted as a multistakeholder success, everyone else deemed an obvious sham. Similar to what happened at NETmundial, the WSIS+10 HLE highlighted how vulnerable multistakeholder processes are to manipulation by traditional geo-strategic interests. Despite the pageantry of inclusive and participatory politics, state interests drive, perhaps even dictate, the actual outcomes of these multistakeholder negotiations.
Some may argue that this is simply part of the process of opening up institutions deeply rooted in a traditional, state-centric international system. I disagree. Multistakeholderism has a significant and pronounced downside–it often provides a cover of legitimacy to institutions and actors operating without sufficient transparency or accountability. For example, the discourse of multistakeholderism was applied to ICANN post-hoc in an effort to shore its credibility. This year alone, the two major multistakeholder events–NetMundial and WSIS+10 HLE–resulted in outcomes driven primarily by state actors, leaving civil society groups frustrated and discouraged.
Worse, the media freedom clause re-inserted into the WSIS Vision document at the 11th hour is hardly a guarantee of the fundamental right to share and access information. Section C9 reads: “The right of freedom of expression, as described in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is essential for media’s role in information and knowledge societies.” This is a far cry from the 2005 Tunis Commitment for the Information Society, which called upon governments to uphold “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so that people everywhere can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge.”
As we move forward with debates about the future of internet governance, surveillance and internet freedom, it is important to ground these discussions in a simple, yet under-emphasized fact: Despite the widespread proliferation of ICTs and growing awareness and appreciation of the centrality of communication flows to our modern existence, freedom of expression is on the decline around the world. What does it mean that, regardless of the robust inclusion of civil society groups in the preparatory processes, the 2015 WSIS Vision for the Information Society includes a weaker defense of fundamental rights to communication and information access than its 2005 predecessor? This question should be front and center in any and all discussions about the future of the Information Society. No matter how many mobile phones or broadband subscriptions the WSIS agenda facilitates, if such connectivity isn’t protected by basic, fundamental rights to anonymous expression, privacy, and political speech, we risk moving backwards, away from open and democratic societies. Sadly, if last week is any indication of how the information society will finally come to fruition, WSIS’s true legacy will be: connected, and unprotected.
Shawn Powers is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University. His research specializes in international political communication with particular attention to the geopolitics of information and technology policy. His book, The Real Cyberwar: A Political Economy of Internet Freedom is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press in early 2015. Dr. Powers is also an associate director at the Center for International Media Education and serves on the Board of Advisors for the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.