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This piece was originally published in Portuguese on the website of APC member organisation Instituto Nupef.

How did the internet consolidate itself around the world? Or how did and does the world attempt to organise itself to establish basic rules and guarantee universal access? In this speech as a participant in the 76th ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) Community Forum, Carlos A. Afonso, director of Nupef and one of the pioneers of the internet in Brazil, sketches a (summarised) timeline of early global efforts in search of answers to the above questions. As can be seen, it has been a rather uneven path. It started with the first arrangements for the World Summit on the Information Society, the first phase of which will be marking its 20th anniversary at the end of this year.

The ICANN Community Forum was held 11-16 March in Cancún, Mexico. It was organised as a hybrid event, and Carlos Afonso's participation was virtual.

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was the result of a long process at the United Nations. It began in 1998 at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) meeting in Minneapolis, which proposed to the UN to hold of a summit on the so-called “information society”. The idea was well received by UN bodies, and most expressed an interest in being associated with the preparation and holding of the summit. The UN Secretary-General instructed the ITU to take the lead role in the preparations. The ITU decided to carry out the WSIS in two phases: Geneva, December 2003 and Tunis, November 2005.

The UN General Assembly recommended that a preparatory process be organised with the participation of all interested parties, taking particular account of high-level participation from governments. In Resolution 56/183, the General Assembly also encouraged contributions from all relevant UN bodies and other intergovernmental organisations, including international and regional institutions, non-governmental organisations and the private sector. After Geneva, preparatory meetings (“prepcoms”) were held in June 2004 in Hammamet (Tunisia); February 2005 in Geneva; and September 2005, also in Geneva.

WSIS Phase 1: Geneva, 10-12 December 2003

The objective of the first phase was to develop and promote a clear statement of political will and to take concrete steps towards laying the foundations of an “information society for all”, reflecting all the different interests at stake. At the WSIS Geneva Phase, approximately 50 heads of state and vice presidents, 82 ministers and 26 vice ministers and heads of official delegations from 175 countries, as well as high-level representatives of international organisations, the private sector and civil society, provided political support for the WSIS Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action that were adopted on 12 December 2003. It is estimated that around 11,000 participants from 175 countries attended the Summit and related events.

These numbers, despite the unbalanced multi-sectoral process, reveal the general and worldwide interest in the ways and means of the evolving information society.

One of the outcomes of Geneva was the establishment of a Multistakeholder Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) in 2004. One of the WGIG's main challenges was to build consensus around a "working definition of internet governance". The WGIG was composed of 40 members from governments, the private sector and civil society, who were expected to participate on an equal footing and in a personal capacity, and held four meetings in Geneva from November 2004 to June 2005.

In discussions between the two WSIS phases, ICANN and the Internet Society (ISOC) [1] basically opposed the concept of internet governance, preferring to insist on the idea of "coordination" between different non-governmental entities. The ISOC leaflet distributed during the WSIS in Geneva in December 2003 was entitled: "Developing the Internet's Potential through Coordination, Not Governance".

However, as internet issues have grown in complexity and challenges, ISOC has changed its stance and is fully engaged in governance discussions. One of the agreements reached at the WSIS in Geneva was precisely the broader nature of internet “coordination” or governance. Paragraphs 47 to 49 of the Declaration of Principles briefly describe this scope, and paragraph 50 expresses:

"International Internet governance issues should be addressed in a coordinated manner. We ask the Secretary-General of the United Nations to set up a working group on Internet governance, in an open and inclusive process that ensures a mechanism for the full and active participation of governments, the private sector and civil society from both developing and developed countries, involving relevant intergovernmental and international organisations and forums, to investigate and make proposals for action, as appropriate, on the governance of Internet by 2005."

WSIS Phase 2: Tunis (16-18 November 2005)

The intersessional activities from Geneva to Tunis involved a process of monitoring and evaluating progress on feasible actions in the Geneva Plan and a concrete set of results that were to be achieved by the Tunis meeting. Working groups were created to find solutions and reach agreements in the areas of internet governance and funding mechanisms.

In addition, measures were proposed to eliminate the digital divide and accelerate the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals with the help of information and communications technologies (ICTs). The Tunis Commitment document reiterated "unequivocal support for the Geneva Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action adopted in the first phase of the WSIS."

This is the basic story of the process up to and including the Tunis meeting.

Since the 1980s, civil society organisations in several countries and in all regions have been active in the search for new means of communication, initially using means such as electronic bulletin board systems (BBSs) over telephone lines or national packet switching networks. In May 1990, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) was founded – the result of these initial processes that brought together dozens of non-profit organisations motivated by the right to communicate.

In late 2000, in response to the UN proposal to organise the WSIS, the Civil Society Platform for Communication Cooperation and Democratisation launched the Communication Rights in the Information Society Campaign, known as the CRIS Campaign. The campaign followed in the footsteps of the New World Information and Communications Order (NWICO), the MacBride Round Table and the People's Communications Charter (PCC). In all, around 350 organisations around the world participated in these processes in various ways – probably one of the most relevant results of the WSIS process, which ended up disseminating well-formulated notions about internet governance and the importance of participating in discussions on the subject.

One of the main objectives of CRIS was to ensure a strong civil society presence and substantial involvement in the upcoming WSIS negotiations. During most of the period between 2001 and early 2003, CRIS played a key role in planning civil society and social movement engagements, organising strategic civil society mobilisation in preparation for WSIS regional meetings, drafting position papers, creating meeting spaces in Geneva, networking before, during and after preparatory committee meetings in Geneva, preparing ground rules for civil society participation in WSIS, and so on.

At the same time, there was the complicated process of defining ICANN's own roles and governance structure. An attempt to create board members from individuals chosen in each region by internet users failed for several reasons, but the civil society (and academic) presence eventually found a niche in the ICANN structure. In July 2003, the first Non-Commercial Users Constituency (NCUC) charter was discussed and the presence of non-commercial entities within the organisation was established with the NCUC, the Not-for-Profit Operational Concerns Constituency (NPOC) (both later forming the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group, NCSG), as well as the elusive general membership.

There is a whole rich and complex history of the creation of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), as proposed in paragraph 72 of the Tunis Agenda – perhaps one of the most relevant internet-related initiatives led by the UN that spread awareness of the challenges of internet governance. Dozens of “national IGFs” were formed in many countries as a result (over 130), generalising discussions and proposals internationally.

The general internet governance agenda in the IGF has met with strong resistance from the so-called “technical community” aligned with ICANN. Governance of domain names, IP address numbers, and connectivity and transport protocols under ICANN's purview should be handled separately and outside the confines of the IGF, in the opinion of some in the technical community.

Thus, the first IGF (Athens, 2006) failed to include ICANN among the core internet governance issues to be discussed. This barrier was broken at the second IGF (Rio, 2007), thanks to a firm position by the Brazilian government that insisted on the importance of treating the coordination of the logical layers of the network as an essential component of internet governance.


[1] The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is the non-profit organisation created in 1998, headquartered in California, chosen by the US government to coordinate the assignment of domain names and distribution of IP numbers worldwide. The Internet Society (ISOC) is an international not-for-profit organisation, also headquartered in the USA, founded in 1992, with local branches throughout the world to promote the open development, evolution and use of the internet.

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Photo: IGF Plenary (Rio de Janeiro, 2007) by Kim Davies, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence.