Over the next few days, Net Politics will countdown the top five developments in cyber policy of 2015. Each policy event will have its own post, explaining what happened, what it all means, and its impact on cyber policy in 2016. In this post, the WSIS+10 process.
Alex Grigsby is the assistant director for the Digital and Cyberspace Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In the very niche world of Internet governance, the ten year review of the World Summit on the Information Society process (WSIS+10) was one of the biggest events to happen in 2015. Over the course of the year, UN member states, civil society actors, academics and private sector representatives reviewed objectives set in 2003 and 2005 to bridge the digital divide and improve access to information and communications technologies (ICTs). UN agencies issued a series of reports with fancy graphs and metrics pointing out bright spots, such as the fast adoption of mobile broadband technologies and the over three billion people connected, and highlighting areas where more needs to be done, such as closing the Internet access gap between men and women.
All of this work and review culminated in an outcome document that UN member states adopted last week. In it, they reiterated their commitment to the goals and objectives they set out ten years ago and noted that, despite improvement, much more needed to be done.
Most of the reviews on the WSIS+10 outcome document are mixed. Access, a digital rights advocacy organization, praised the outcome document’s language on human rights and privacy but criticized it for not including any language on net neutrality. The Internet Society and Byron Holland of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority applauded the fact that the document explicitly recognizes the multistakeholder model of Internet governance, despite the fact that references to the multistakeholder model are often accompanied by text suggesting stakeholders stick to their respective "roles and responsibilities." That language is important as it’s often used as code to kick non-state actors out of discussions where states don’t want their input. There is also a requirement that the UN system conduct yet another study on the meaning of "enhanced cooperation," a term first used back in 2005 as a compromise between those who wanted states to manage the Internet and those wanted the status quo. In a decade, no one has ever figured out what the term means. There have been at least four reports, one working group and countless meetings on the issue. In a seemingly desperate move, the WSIS+10 document calls for the creation of another working group to "develop recommendations on how to further implement enhanced cooperation." I wish the working group members luck in what will almost certainly be another exercise in futility.
Despite my pessimism, the WSIS+10 review process led to two important outcomes. First, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was renewed for another ten years. In spite of criticisms and its flaws, the IGF is still the only UN venue where member states, civil society, and the private sector can debate Internet policy issues, ranging from cybersecurity, improving broadband access in the developing world, surveillance and privacy, intellectual property and copyright, and zero-rating. The IGF sensitizes participants, particularly governments, to the complexity of the issues at play and that government-mandated responses to Internet policy challenges are unlikely to work. That may seem small but it is definitely beneficial if the IGF can help a few countries to craft good Internet policy, or at least prevent bad policy that has cross-border implications.
Second, the WSIS+10 document doesn’t contain anything particularly offensive. The craziest proposals, like breaking up the Internet into national segments or calling for new international law to regulate online activity were thankfully left on the cutting room floor. Much of the cybersecurity language from previous drafts, some of which hinted at a need for new global cybercrime treaties, was paired back to something more reasonable. In fact, some of the unfortunate language that has plagued the WSIS process since 2005 seems to have vanished. According to the New York Times, China tried but failed to include language "that would have made authority for Internet-related public policy issues ’the sovereign right of states.’" That was a reference to the Tunis Agenda that governments like China, Russia and others used to argue for more state control in the management of the Internet. Going into the WSIS review process, many Western governments were concerned that it could lead to the adoption of unsavory language on cybersecurity or Internet governance. The benign and rolled-back nature of the text is reassuring.
An outsider might look at this process and express bafflement that a review of ten years of work led to a commitment to talk more and that success is defined as having a final text that isn’t as bad as feared. Unfortunately, that’s how most international discussions on Internet policy and governance unfold: people agree to keep talking in multilateral venues when most of the actual work of improving access to ICTs occur thanks to the work of private sector actors and civil society groups.
Expect more of the same in 2016.