Inside the Information Society: After WSIS – Looking back or looking forward?

David Souter comments each week on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. In his first blog, this week, he writes about the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) – what it achieved and where it should be going.

Let’s start with WSIS

Let’s start with WSIS. The World Summit on the Information Society, held in Geneva and Tunis in 2003 and 2005. Reviewed, after ten years, by the UN’s General Assembly last December. A longstanding preoccupation for APC and many of its members, and many other stakeholders. What, with hindsight, did it do? How, with foresight, should we look towards its next review in 2025?

I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot lately – professionally, writing about them for several international organisations; and privately, evaluating the weeks and months I’ve spent with WSIS and its outcomes over the years. Here’s some of what I have concluded.

What (with hindsight) did WSIS achieve? Last year’s review of WSIS by the UN General Assembly concluded, roughly speaking, thus: There have been very great advances made since WSIS, particularly in connectivity. Far more people have access to basic ICTs, and far more have access to the Internet. But there is much more to be done. Digital divides are not diminishing; in some cases they may be growing. More attention should be paid to the gender digital divide. These challenges require continued action – on connectivity, affordability, content and on capabilities – and should link up with the Sustainable Development Goals that were also agreed last year. The institutional framework that was agreed at WSIS should continue.

So why did WSIS matter?

If I’m asked why WSIS was important, I emphasise four things.

First, it raised awareness of ICTs’ potential for development. In many cases, you can date a detailed interest in that from participation in the Summit. The WSIS vision of ‘a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society’ encapsulated this as aspiration.

Second, it established an institutional framework for dealing with the Information Society within the UN system, including Action Lines, the WSIS Forum and the IGF.

Third, it raised the profile of Internet governance in international politics.

And fourth, it built a degree of consensus around the idea that international ICT policymaking benefits from the involvement of diverse stakeholders, not just governments.

These are overarching points – about the WSIS vision and the processes it put in place – and each raises problems (for discussion on another day). But in practice, I would say, the WSIS vision and its institutional framework matter more today than the targets and action agendas that were agreed ten years ago. The WSIS targets soon fell out of date as technology and markets changed. And most of the action in the Information Society has not taken place within its Action Lines, but as a result of technological innovation, commercial enterprise and people’s appropriation of new technologies for their own purposes.

Looking back or looking forward?

So what next? The General Assembly decided that there should be another ‘high level meeting’ – less than a summit, more than a General Assembly meeting – in 2025. What should it focus on? How should we prepare for it?

There’s a dilemma here. Reviews tend to look backwards, at whether targets which were set were reached, at whether hopes were realised. But the targets and the hopes of 2003/2005 were products of their time.

The UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) emphasised this in its ten-year review of WSIS outcomes. The capabilities of networks and devices now are thirty times what they were ten years ago. Many more people now have access to many more services. Innovations which were barely on the agenda when WSIS met – such as mobile Internet, cloud computing and social media – now dominate many people’s experience of the Internet.

And this process is ongoing. By 2025, network and device capabilities will be 1000 times what they were in 2005. Far more people will use far more devices to access far more services. The ways in which people experience the Internet will differ greatly from today. The Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and algorithmic decision-making will be widespread. The Information Society of 2025 will be very different from the Information Society of 2015 let alone the Information Society that was anticipated in 2005.

The risks

Here, then, lie risk and opportunity. The risk is that a review in 2025 – and our trajectory towards it, starting now – will look backwards at the hopes and targets set ten years ago rather than forwards to the future. There are three problems if that happens.

The first is that we won’t address the impact of changes in the Information Society that have already taken place. This was a problem, some have argued, with the UN’s twenty-year review of the first Earth Summit in 2012.

The second is that it will focus on upsides of the Information Society – the opportunities it represents – but not enough on downsides – the risks it poses in areas such as human rights, employment and criminality.

And the third is that it will be locked into arguments rooted in the past – such as the longstanding dispute over ‘enhanced cooperation’ in Internet governance – rather than addressing issues that will matter more in future – such as the governance of artificial intelligence and the changing economic power structure on the Internet.
The opportunity

The opportunity, of course, is that we can address the problems of the future rather than the past if we choose to do so. But for that to happen will require a fresh approach on the part of every stakeholder.

Participants in the WSIS review know that analysis of what has been happening in the Information Society in intergovernmental meetings has been overwhelmed by geopolitics – and it’s hard to see how this might change. Governments and civil society organisations, meanwhile, focus more on current initiatives (or crises) than on long-term prospects. Businesses at the cutting edge of the Information Society, and the Internet technical community, are much more foresight-oriented, but focused on their own priorities.

Will our approach to the next review of WSIS be stuck in the past or headed for the future? Next week, I’ll take a look at one aspect of that, ‘enhanced cooperation’.  

David Souter is a longstanding associate of APC, and has worked for more than twenty years on the relationship between ICTs and public policy, particularly development, environment, governance (including Internet governance) and rights. David writes a weekly blog for APC, looking at different aspects of the Information Society, development and rights. David’s blog takes a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. It comments on current topics and international meetings, draw attention to new reports and publications, critique their assumptions and suggest alternative perspectives. The views are his own, not APC’s. We hope that they will stimulate discussion, and that others will contribute their ideas in complementary blogs in future. More about David Souter.
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