WSIS and Civil Society: Ten Years On

What is the role of civil society groups in the development of ICT policy and how has that role changed in the ten years since the first World Summit on the Information Society?

These questions were at the heart of the discussion at this morning’s APC workshop entitled Civil Society and WSIS+10, held at the WSIS 2013 Forum in Geneva. The workshop also acted as an opportunity for the APC’s Alan Finlay to discuss the initial results of APC’s research regarding activists’ perceptions of progress on ICT issues since 2003.

On balance, the tone of the panelists’ representations was cautiously positive.

Renate Bloem of CIVICUS (The World Alliance for Citizen Participation) indicated that the multi-stakeholder approach has been foundational in WSIS since its institution. Inclusion of civil society groups, she added, was essential because it was extra-governmental organizations which had the necessary internet expertise in WSIS’ earliest days. Bloem further indicated that she and other activists have been disappointed to see that this level of civil society inclusion has not been replicated in other treaty processes like the UN’s 2015 Development Goals or the recent Rio Summit on Sustainable Development.

William Drake of the University of Zurich took issue with those who would criticize WSIS for its lack of a binding treaty instrument. He indicated that WSIS’ product was its process and that a key to that process has been the opportunities for cross-pollination between and among government, the private sector and civil society groups; interactions which could never have otherwise occurred. WSIS, Drake indicated, was an opportunity to force government people to sit beside “civil society people with nose rings” while forcing those same civil society activists to wear a tie and learn how to present themselves.

While David Souter of ICT Development Associates and the London School of Economics agreed with the overall tone of optimism, he raised questions about how civil society groups organized around ICT policy forums. Is there room, he wondered, for a caucusing of civil society groups and forwarding of a united “civil society view” on issues? Furthermore, Souter warned about treating texts like the WSIS declarations as “holy writ” rather than “political compromises” which reflect the time in which they were drafted.

APC’s Women’s Rights Programme Manager Jac sm Kee indicated that much of the internet policy effort has been limited to issues regarding women’s access to ICTs and that, consequently, there hasn’t been much in the way of ICT-driven improvement to women’s self-determination. This has been paired with limited participation in ICT policy by traditional women’s rights groups. “The lack of participation,” Kee suggested, “is spurred by two issues: the complexity of the ICT vocabulary/ecosystem and the perceived disconnect between ICT policy issues and key women’s rights issues like violence, poverty and health.” Our job as activists, Kee concluded, is to simplify the issues, to make them easier to understand and to move online engagement beyond the suggestion that participants can “wake up at 2 am and make a comment.”

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