Who Remembers WSIS?


[Originally posted in the Media Power Monitor blog – updated version.]


A decade ago, the United Nations organized the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), a series of meetings to discuss the global role of the ITCs. The hopes were high for the beginning of true collaborations for development and democracy. WSIS created principles as well as set up action items and goals, ranging from ICT access to online ethics. Now, ten years later, the UN needs to review what has been accomplished. Last Fall, non-governmental stakeholders (NGOs) have had their second round of the so-called WSIS+10 informal consultations in New York, to point out biggest challenges and call for global action.

Cellphones may not only look very different than in 2005, but mobile devices of today can also provide easy, inexpensive Internet access, as well as offer journalistic, educational, health, and banking services, both in the Global North and South. Social media have opened up powerful avenues for social and political organizing. However, the NGO consultations last October pointed out inequities that trace right back into mass media era. We still struggle with the old school difficulties in providing access, governing the media and communication platforms, and ensuring human rights.

In terms of access, the question is not only about the so-called digital divide, that is, lack of access to the Interned and media technologies. The power to access ICTs has also a socio-cultural dimension that some call Digital Exclusion. This means that women and other marginalized groups are disregarded, or even abused, as technology users. This is clearly not only a problem of non-Western countries. Just think of, for instance, #Gamergate and other trolling activities against women in ICTs.

Additional on-going challenge is: Who gets to govern the Internet? WSIS was the first truly international gathering where nation-states, UN organizations, as well as non-governmental organizations, private sector, civil society, and media came together on this issue. It gave birth to the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) that has sought to operate in the same, multi-stakeholder, spirit. Yet many NGOs feel they are not given equal chances in the IGF process to have their say as the private sector, let alone the nation-states. Alone funding to participate in these meetings is an obstacle. Another problem is the lack of accurate, comparable, trustworthy indicators and data from nations. This hinders transparency of global governance. And the list of problems goes on.

The most urgent calls for action in the WSIS+10 consultations, however, comes from non-profits working with the issue of communications and human rights. Freedom of expression is threatened every day, everywhere: In some countries bloggers get jailed for their opinions; in others, academic get fired because of their Tweets. Mass surveillance is a reality. And our rights may be threatened in new ways because of ICTs. That is why many NGOs call for broadening of what we consider human rights. For instance, it is not enough that we have an opportunity and a platform to speak our mind. Do we have the competence, the digital literacy, to do so?

The lessons from WSIS and its aftermath are sobering: The same tools that can support political organizing for the Arab Spring can also disseminate the propaganda for ISIS, equally effectively. And the very same disparities that exist offline, and were pertinent in the mass media era, replicate themselves in the field of ICTs.

But it is good recognize that WSIS instituted the principle of inviting different stakeholders to discuss ICTs at a global level. As imperfect as those processes may be, they are now common practice. That alone could be called a shift in power. The more the civil society insists on that practice, and demands it to be improved, the more influence we all will have in these conversations.

The NGO consultations also highlighted the role of the organized civil society as watchdogs, of nations and of the UN. For example, a group of organizations and individuals recently pointed out major flaws in a badly researched but potentially impactful UN report on cyber violence against women, and the report was pulled, with apologies.

And, if nothing else, the WSIS+10 discussions remind us that Digital Exclusion, Internet Governance, and human rights are truly global issues that potentially impact us all. When the UN General Assembly met in December 2015 to discuss the next steps of WSIS+10,  its draft resolution recognized issues from human rights to ICT4D — as well as the necessity of the media and communication technologies for the new Sustainable Development Goals (Agenda 2030). If even some of the recommendations are adopted, it is already a step of a more holistic global understanding of what and information society means.