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Twenty years ago, some of us old-timers were beginning to gear up for what became the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

We’d only recently begun to use the term “ICTs”. We’d barely glimpsed the foothills of what ICTs have turned into since. But WSIS came to dominate the lives of many of us over the following five years, through countless preparatory meetings and the two vast summits held in Geneva, 2003 and Tunis, 2005.

UN agencies conducted a ten-year review of WSIS outcomes in 2014/2015, at the end of which the General Assembly agreed to hold another ‘high level meeting’ to ‘take stock of progress’ and ‘identify… areas of continued focus and challenges’ in 2025.

That’s five years away. Why worry about it now?, you ask. A reminder of the past, some thoughts about the present, and a reason why we ought to be preparing for that rethink now.

What WSIS was (and wasn’t)

International summits are fraught affairs. While they’re happening, there’s intense wrangling over ‘principles’, ‘ideas’ but, above all, texts. Enormous effort goes into finding tiny nuances of language that enable compromise, consensus and (often) creative ambiguity to cover up the differences dividing governments.

In the case of WSIS, it’s oft forgotten, both editions of the summit teetered on the brink of failure because such compromise was very hard to reach.

Once summits are over, they’re remembered differently. “The international community joined together,” it’s recalled, to pursue “a common goal for all humanity”, expressed in the outcome documents that were eventually agreed. Yesterday’s hard-fought drafting compromise gains, overnight, the authoritative status of religious text or national constitution.

There’s something powerfully positive in this. Global agreement was reached at WSIS, in spite of differences, and this has been used to powerful effect, as it has, for instance, with sustainable development. 

“We, the representatives of the peoples of the world … declare our common desire and commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society,…’ begins the Declaration of Principles agreed in Geneva, 2003. That’s powerfully resonant. It’s important to remember, though, two things:

  • The Declaration and the outcome documents were compromises, reached after mighty disagreement, and open to different interpretation. The underlying disagreements were intense and didn’t go away.

  • And those documents were agreed at a particular point in time. That really matters where the digital society’s concerned because technology has changed so fast. However right the compromise agreed in 2003/2005, it’s not what we’d agree today in very different circumstances.

What WSIS agreed…

WSIS is often cited in international meetings as the foundation of global policy towards the digital society. And yet, when I ask students what they know of it, the answer’s (next to) nothing.

A reminder, then, of what its outcome documents include. I’ll come back to its contemporary resonance.

in Geneva…

First, there’s that ‘common desire and commitment’ that I’ve spelt out above. That’s WSIS' equivalent of the ‘equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’ that the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls the ‘foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’ Or the definition of ‘sustainable development’ as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

The Geneva summit set some targets for the growth of connectivity for the period to 2015. Those targets were reviewed that year and have expired. They weren’t replaced, apart from a general goal of universal connectivity.

And it established a wide-ranging (but not comprehensive) Plan of Action with a set of ‘action lines’ concerned with different aspects of digitalisation (infrastructure, regulation, cybersecurity etc.) and development (health, education, business etc.).

and in Tunis…

The Tunis summit dealt with issues which had almost wrecked Geneva. One was ‘financing mechanisms’, where it adopted a compromise that was largely agreed before delegations headed out.

Mostly the Tunis summit argued about internet governance, reaching a compromise that included multistakeholder principles, the introduction of an Internet Governance Forum (IGF) (which has proved largely successful) and a process towards ‘enhanced cooperation’ (which has proved anything but).

It also set up mechanisms for monitoring and review: a formal process through the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD), a UN inter-agency grouping without powers or funding (UNGIS), an annual review of action lines which has morphed into a ‘WSIS Forum’.

There were important sub-themes in all this: themes that remain important now and in which WSIS can claim to have reshaped agendas. Inclusion and equality (though WSIS delegates expected more equality, not inequality, to result from digital expansion). Environment, development and rights. Cybersecurity. The multistakeholder principle adopted at WSIS has also become widespread in ICT decision-making fora.

and what it didn’t

What WSIS didn’t talk about was, mostly, things it couldn’t, because they didn’t then exist. No technology’s evolved more quickly than ICTs. Few things have done so much so quickly to reshape economies, societies and cultures.

Moore’s Law (based on experience for decades) suggests that the capabilities of digital technologies today are more than a thousand times what they were when WSIS ended.

We’ve gone from narrowband to broadband, modem-speed downloads to streaming videos and teleconferencing, PCs to smartphones, the limits of small hard drives to the superabundant storage of the cloud, few users of the internet to half the world online.

Social media were in their infancy when WSIS ended (Facebook began in Harvard only in 2003). Data corporations were still recovering from the bubble, not the dominant forces in global business that they are today. The internet of things was just beginning to be anticipated by the ITU. Artificial intelligence (as we now think of it) was mostly science-fiction. Algorithms were simple tools not powerful decision-makers. Few had heard of machine-learning, fewer still quantum computing.

The implications of these changes for how we understand WSIS were spelt out in CSTD’s ten-year review five years ago. That emphasised the continued relevance of WSIS’ ‘people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented’ vision – and the need to reinterpret it continually for changing technologies, economies, societies. (Disclosure: I was principal consultant for that CSTD report.)

What to review

In short, the digital society we have today and anticipate tomorrow is not the information society that was talked about at WSIS. And thereby lies a problem for review. Four things are important if a review’s to be effective.

It’s important, certainly, to know where we have come from: to identify what’s gone well (‘progress’ in WSIS terms) and what has not (‘challenges’ ditto). The pace of expansion in access has been greater than for any past technology – but inclusion and equality are still problems, with inequalities arising not just in digital access and usage but also because of it.

It’s important to understand where we are today, and what the trends are: not just in connectivity and access, but also in usage and impact; not just in things we like but also things we don’t; not just what we’ve sought to achieve, expected or aspired to, but also what we’d rather have avoided, never expected and don’t want now we’ve got it. The impact of information and misinformation; of mobile money and of online fraud.

It’s important, third, to focus on where we're heading, in technology and in the impact of technology on our economies, societies and cultures. Opportunities and risks, of course. But also: not just short term impacts but long-term effects in areas like environment (climate change, pollution), society (where we live and work), other technologies (space science, biomedicine), rights (equality, surveillance), geopolitics (the concentration of technological and economic power), conflict (both offence and defence).

And, lastly, it’s important to be clear on where we want to go. Elsewhere, in UN fora and this blog, I’ve offered up three goals: promoting what we want, preserving what we value, preventing what we fear. (Yes, there’ll be differences of view on what is what, but we should all know what we think, as individuals and in societies.)

And the logic of this is? To focus in review more on the WSIS vision – the ‘people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented’ theme which is constant and forward-looking and, as expressed at Geneva, explicitly refers to sustainable development, gender equality and human rights – than on the WSIS targetswhich date from an age that was very different from what it is today.

To focus on the technology of today and tomorrow, not of yesterday; on the coming digital society rather than the information society we thought we wanted back in that day.

How to review

The UN system’s geared to review things in a way that works geopolitically: refining texts until a compromise is reached that suits enough or all contesting parties. Expert analysis contributes, through agencies like ITU, UNESCO, CSTD and the Regional Commissions, but ultimately outcomes stem from compromises between blocs and countries that wield power within the UN system.

That’s how things are in general, and how they’ll be when WSIS is reviewed in 2025, whatever formal arrangements are made for that review. (The General Assembly agreed on a ‘high-level meeting’ in 2015 because it could not agree on something more specific.)

So the question’s what feeds into that review and when. No space here for detail, so I’ll end with a disappointment, a fear and a pair of recommendations (with caveat).

The disappointment

My disappointment is that nothing’s started yet. The ten-year review in 2015 was preceded by a thorough five-year review by CSTD, which identified key trends and set the scene. There’s no progress yet towards how the twenty-year review might be conducted, and no preparatory evidence-gathering is underway. If WSIS+20 is to be more substantive than WSIS+10, it needs more substantive analysis, beginning now, and reaching far more widely than it did before. Some governments, however, are reluctant to see a new, substantive process overseen by the UN.

The fear

It takes years of dialogue to build consensus. Without detailed, objective investigation and research, I fear two things will dominate the process, resulting in a text that is rhetorical rather than substantive. Geopolitics today are more contested than five years ago and may be more so in 2025. Those with political and commercial vested interests will be quick to fill a vacuum. The mix is not a healthy one.

The recommendations

There are substantial analyses being undertaken in some parts of the UN system and other international organisations. UNCTAD’s Information/Digital Economy Reports are examples of thorough thinking; serious analyses are being published by some Regional Commissions; the ITU and other agencies have been trying to inject impact assessment into ICT statistics. The World Bank’s Digital Dividends report four years ago had proper depth.

These can be built on. More are needed. And there’s scope too for independent research institutes and civil society organisations to contribute (as, we can be sure, data corporations and big consultancies intend to do). If they’re to be effective, though, they need to start to do so now, rather than struggling to catch up during the final countdown. Where are your plans, research institutes and CSOs?

The caveat

My caveat is that, to be useful, research, findings and proposals need to address the ‘challenges’ and the complexity of digital societies as well as opportunities.

To consider maximising potential impacts on welfare and public services as well as markets; mitigating the intersection between social and digital inequalities; contributing to environmental sustainability and reducing the environmental harms that result from ICTs themselves; the benefits of information access and the risks of propaganda; the changing context for human rights; the relationship between human and autonomous decision-making at the dawning of AI.

If they do that, analysing first and advocating second, there’s a chance that some, at least, in WSIS+20 could discuss what should be done to build a better digital society rather than what could be done to make society more digital.

Image: "Knowledge Café: WSIS+10: From Vision to Implementation. WSIS Action Lines Driving Development beyond 2015". By ITU/R.Farrell via Flickr.

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.