Nick Ashton-Hart is the Executive Director of the Internet & Digital Ecosystem Alliance (IDEA). He has been the senior permanent representative of the Internet sector to the UN and its agencies and member-states in Geneva for more than eight years. Find him on twitter @nashtonhart.
Unless you are obliged to follow the intergovernmental calendar of meetings in Geneva, you are probably not aware that a UN body called the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) met last week. The CSTD meets annually to monitor the implementation of targets set in 2003 and 2005 by the World Summit for the Information Society (WSIS). Last week’s meeting was particularly important because it partly defined what the UN General Assembly will consider when heads of state meet in December 2015 to review the last ten years of the WSIS process and decide the next steps.
In its beginnings, the WSIS process was aimed at identifying ways to use technology to improve people’s lives. It was widely believed at the time that debates about Internet Governance would consume only a small fraction of WSIS-related follow-up activity. Sadly it has turned out to be the other way around, with development-related discussions sidelined—and at times even taken hostage—by a zero-sum debate underlying two very different views of state sovereignty and the role of the state in regulating the online environment.
That tension was clearly on display last week where the first half of the CSTD meeting was spent on sometimes dry, and at other times simply spectacular, presentations and discussions of the myriad ways science and technology improves, indeed transforms, lives worldwide. The last half was spent negotiating the text of a resolution to be forwarded to the more senior bodies of the UN in New York.
Last week’s disagreements focused on how to define the debate in the December 2015 review. The WSIS review process is complicated by the fact that this year is also a review of the Millennium Development Goals (“MDGs”), a much higher-profile process that has defined and prioritized the international development objectives for UN and the international organizations that channel tens of billions each year in development aid. This review will rewrite the MDGs into the Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”); the SDGs in turn will directly impact decisions on hundreds of billions of dollars of development assistance during the next decade.
By contrast, the WSIS review does not have an obvious price tag or significant effect on funding for international development, and this naturally makes it less of a political priority in New York. According to the World Bank, spending on telecommunications that involved the private sector in 2014 alone exceeded US$248 billion. But because WSIS and the MDGs were not linked ten years ago, spending on narrowing the digital divide is not connected to more mainstream development activities. In other words, when mainstream development processes related to the MDGs result in a village getting its first school, there’s no thought given to ensure it gets Internet access, usable tech hardware and services for students and teachers, and training for the teacher to make the most of it all.
Nevertheless, there is hope. Countries across the ideological divide on the role of the state in regulating online activity are increasingly committed to linking the post-2015 WSIS process to the implementation of the broader SDGs, thereby sending a political signal that ICT-related development efforts should be fully connected to more bricks-and-mortar development. If that link is made, the entire multilateral development system has a chance to make a quantum leap forward in leveraging technology to improve outcomes because their political masters will have told them to.
There’s also hope in the fact that every year more countries at the CSTD grow tired of wrangling over Internet governance, with fewer willing to prioritize the politics of governance of the net over development-focused substance for its users. At the informal negotiations last week, only three countries were really pushing for recognition that states should take all the important decisions related to the Internet—with a couple of dozen on the other side. Even two years ago, the numbers were much more balanced.
Even so, the CSTD concluded by adopting a text that was almost entirely a copy of the previous year’s resolution with only minor housekeeping edits. A copy and paste approach may sound like failure but it is much better than a complete breakdown—something that was a real risk during the informal negotiations. That would have sent a very troubling signal irrespective of what view you take of the disputes involved.
Nobody should think that the remainder of the WSIS review process will be easy or necessarily end well. Much of the remaining work is explicitly intergovernmental rather than multistakeholder and a few UN agencies are jockeying for administrative control of WSIS-related activities post-2015. There’s still a lot of time for things to go pear shaped before December. Expect the unexpected.