Beyond WCIT – WSIS+10 and the coming year in Internet governance

A great deal of ink has been spilt in recent weeks outlining threats to Internet governance from changes to a global telecommunications treaty negotiation that just concluded in Dubai at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), including an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal that inelegantly compared government bureaucrats to gorillas.

While important, the focus on WCIT has detracted attention from another set of United Nations deliberations that wrapped this week in New York, with potentially far greater consequences than the haggling of 1,500 delegates in the under-ventilated halls of the Dubai World Trade Center.

Waiting for WSIS

The UN General Assembly’s Second Committee has spent the last month quietly crafting the process that will lead to a ten-year review of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS+10). The last WSIS concluded in 2005 and set the stage for many of the current debates around the role for government in Internet policy, including at WCIT.

The language in the outcome document of WSIS, known as the Tunis Agenda, supports a multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance, but leaves open the avenue and degree to which various stakeholders should exercise their power. As seen from the furor surrounding WCIT and other assemblies that might further empower national governments or inter-governmental bodies, significant disagreement exists about the proper role for governments within the multistakeholder model. WSIS+10 will present a penultimate moment in the rhythms of these debates. However, the UN punted – deciding this week to delay making any decisions over specifics of the review until next year.

Politics and process

This delay comes as debate focuses on which institutions will lead on the WSIS+10 review, a procedural decision with potential far-reaching implications. Some suggest a government-only group; some, a lead role for ITU. Others suggest empowering the UN’s Committee for Science Technology and Development (CSTD) as a coordinator for the various arms of the UN involved in WSIS follow up.

While a decision was delayed, it was agreed that the CSTD will play an important role between now and next fall when the UNGA reconvenes. The Second Committee tasked the CSTD with two things:

  1. To develop a report on the WSIS+10 reviews ongoing within various involved UN agencies like ITU and UNESCO, and
  2. To establish a balanced multi-stakeholder working group on “enhanced cooperation” -- the codeword for the role of governments and other stakeholders, that will consider the mandate from the original Tunis Agenda and consider recommendations to “fully implement this mandate.”

Given the range of G77 support for a more government-led process, this is a win for supporters of the current multi-stakeholder model, as CSTD is one of the few parts of the UN where non-government stakeholders can engage and participate.

The coming year

A number of ancillary meetings and forums lie between the end of the WCIT and WSIS+10 that will further shape the debate over the role for governments.

A slew of ITU meetings will provide governments with ample opportunity to highlight shortcomings in the current governance model and likely make the case for further regulatory tools.

Those meeting include: the World Technology Policy Forum (WTPF) and WSIS Forum in May 2013; next year’s preparatory meetings that will feed into the World Technology Development Conference (WTDC); and the Plenipotentiary in 2014. Other parts of the UN will be important as well, including UNESCO’s WSIS+10 review meeting upcoming in February 2013, and next year’s Internet Governance Forum in Bali.

Proponents of the current Internet governance model will also have their own opportunities to grapple with improvements and implement real changes that address government concerns.

Many governments find it difficult to engage in the current set of decentralized institutions involved in developing policy. In response, some of these primary institutions like ICANN, IETF, and some of the RIRs have improved their outreach and engagement of governments. In addition, focused multi-stakeholder initiatives in cybersecurity, privacy and other areas, present a chance to notch-up successes and demonstrate that voluntary cooperation presents the best way to address problems on the Internet.

Whether WSIS+10 happens as a stocktaking exercise that leaves the current multi-stakeholder system in place or morphs into a summit that might shift the system further towards government control, the path leading up to it runs through a distributed set of meetings and engagements over the next year and beyond. Every stakeholder should be weighing which meetings to monitor and attend to ensure their interests are understood and incorporated.

Polite (Information) Society

As the WCIT post-mortems ensue, all stakeholders should me mindful of not only politics and process in this next stage of debates, but also of protocol. Regardless of the side you choose in the lead-up to WSIS+10 – and there are a few – according each stakeholder a modicum of respect will go a long way in fostering an environment conducive to productive discussions, whether they be at the ITU, ICANN, or anywhere else. Internet governance is not monkey business, and each stakeholder, bureaucrat or otherwise, has an important role to play.