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In the ninth installment of the FOC Working Group 1 (WG1) blog series, guest author Deborah Brown from the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) reflects on the ongoing negotiations at the UN General Assembly to decide on the outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The blog explains the history of the process and the major issues on the table at the moment, while particularly focusing on the role civil society plays in the process.

The FOC WG 1 blog series aims to explore in depth the existence, relevance, and status of various spaces where cybersecurity issues are being discussed and share this information with the broader community. To read previous blog posts in the series, follow this link .

Last month, representatives of 47 organisations from 24 countries gathered in New York to coordinate input into the World Summit on Information Society Review (WSIS+10) process. The overarching goal of this effort was to influence the outcome of a two-day high-level meeting of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in December, which has the potential to shape international debates (and national policy) concerning the governance and use of the internet and ICTs in the coming years.

The WSIS+10 review outcome document is meant to take note of progress made, remaining gaps, and challenges for continued attention in the implementation of the outcomes of the 2003 and 2005 WSIS summits – the Geneva Declaration and Plan of Action, and the Tunis Agenda. Collectively, these documents set out a coordinated international action plan for harnessing the use of ICTs for development with the aim of fostering the establishment of an inclusive information society. Earlier in 2003 the Geneva Plan of Action identified 11 Action Lines and 10 Targets. These targets largely focused on bringing connectivity and access, including public access, to various groups, including marginalised communities, as well as institutions, for example schools, hospitals and libraries. These two documents also brokered a delicate consensus on how the internet should be governed, and proposed a path forward for how to achieve more democratic and inclusive internet governance with outcomes such as the Internet Governance Forum (IGF).

WSIS’ relevance for online freedoms

Almost a decade before the UN Human Rights Council adopted its first resolution on the internet and human rights, the Geneva Declaration reaffirmed the “universality, indivisibility, interdependence, and interrelation of all human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to development”, in the context of the information society, and asserted that democracy, sustainable development, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as good governance at all levels are interdependent, and mutually reinforcing”.

Ten-years later, the discourse on internet rights has matured quite a bit, with recognition both of the importance of the internet in enhancing the exercise of human rights and how technologies are being used to violate rights, especially in the context of big data. Issues relating to how the internet is governed become ever more important as access to the internet starts to play a critical role not just for freedom of expression, assembly, and association, but for a range of economic, social, and cultural rights, for participation in public life, and for gender equality.

The global ICT landscape has also changed significantly in the last ten years, with substantial progress in the development of infrastructure, increased capacity and the continued emergence of new technologies. Yet the digital divide persists, both between and within countries, in some cases deepening inequalities in society. The post-2015 WSIS targets should therefore go beyond access and infrastructure, and take a holistic approach to achieve meaningful, sustainable access. This includes access, capacity development, useful content, appropriate technology, relevant applications, and an enabling cultural, economic and political environment.

Assessment of the WSIS+10 draft outcome text from a human rights perspective

The WSIS+10 outcome document will address a number of issues that are relevant for online freedoms – human rights, internet governance, security and trust, and access to ICTs. However, unlike the Geneva Declaration in its day, the current draft is not ambitious in terms of outlining a forward-looking vision for the protection and promotion of human rights in the information society. Instead, the current draft reflects a trend of a growing securitisation of internet governance debates in recent years.

Given the progress made at the normative level in understanding how human rights apply in the information society, and where new threats and challenges lie, one would expect the Review to come up with a more progressive vision for the WSIS beyond 2015. This could mean that some of the following issues are recognised and addressed in its outcome:

  • That any restrictions to human rights online must be in accordance with international human rights law
  • The role that anonymity and encryption can play as enablers of privacy protection and freedom of expression
  • The importance of the internet for a range of economic, social, and cultural rights
  • The role of the private sector in both facilitating and violating human rights online, and the responsibility of companies to respect human rights and provide remedies to individuals whose rights have been violated
  • The importance of access to the internet and ICTs for the realisation of human rights, and the importance of a rights-based approach to access, which meets real and expressed needs, takes broader social and economic divides into account, acknowledges that there are barriers beyond the technical ones, and put the human dimension at the centre.

In addition to these gaps, the current draft outcome document fails to take collaborative security as the aim of measures to strengthen the confidence and security of ICTs. Approaches to addressing security in ICTs should be truly people-centred, and underpinned by the promotion and protection of human rights. Instead, the draft currently advances a national security and cyberterrorism framing, that is government-led and promotes practices like information-sharing, which can be incompatible with human rights. Importantly, this framing can be used to silence critical voices, those who do not fit into political, cultural, social norms, and other at risk users. Moreover, the responsibility to ensure a secure and trusted cyber space is an obligation to be shared by all stakeholders. In an interconnected world, no one actor alone can address security issues that arise with the use of ICTs. There is a need for the involvement of all stakeholders in efforts to build trust, confidence and security in the use of ICTs, through open, inclusive and transparent processes, as instrumental to achieving the WSIS vision. Trust should be about trust of users in the technology that they are using. Pitting human rights against security is a false dichotomy.

Furthermore, how the internet is governed impacts freedoms online. In addressing governance issues, the draft outcome should embrace more open, inclusive, transparent and democratic approaches, with meaningful participation of all stakeholders. In addition to opening up the process itself, participation requires transparent and accountable funding mechanisms.

These are some of the points raised in APC’s comments and the joint-civil society submission on the zero draft submitted in October. The subsequent draft saw some improvements, including a standalone section on human rights, and improved language on gender equality, bloggers and journalists, surveillance, and recognized that the internet is a global resource that should be governed in the public interest. However the language on human rights and security remains largely the same, and signals an approach inconsistent with open, inclusive processes grounded in human rights norms. Worryingly, the latest draft frames the growing threats of technology-related violence against women as a cyber-security issue rather than a human rights one. On internet governance, there are more references to “multilateral, democratic, and transparent”, replacing references to “open and inclusive”, and calls for a government-led process to address enhanced cooperation.

Value of engaging in WSIS to advance freedom online

Overall, the ability of civil society to meaningfully influence the overall WSIS+10 review process has been rather limited. This stems from the fact that the Tunis Agenda mandated the General Assembly with conducting the review, and generally speaking, the rules and procedures of the General Assembly provide for only a limited role for non-governmental stakeholders. Certainly less so than the earlier stages of the WSIS+10 review conducted by UNESCO, ITU, and CSTD, as well as the WSIS summits themselves, which were pioneering for their time in the way that involved other stakeholders.

Opportunities for civil society input up until now have been through written comments on the various drafts and two one-day stakeholder consultations. Perhaps these opportunities are not yet common practice for General Assembly meetings, and should be welcomed; but holding consultations for non-governmental stakeholders separate from government consultations, and ultimately closed government negotiations, does not embody multistakeholderism as established by the Tunis Agenda and put into practice by stakeholders since the WSIS. Although there have been some efforts to involve non-governmental in the discussion, much more could have been achieved if the process were longer, more open, and not confined by the rules and procedures of the General Assembly.

The last leg of the process will consist of informal consultations for textual negotiations among governments over four days in November, culminating with the High-Level event in December. Written comments on the current draft by non-governmental stakeholders are being solicited through the end of the informal consultations, after which no formal avenue for input is anticipated. We can expect that the final outcome will be largely agreed on by governments before the High-Level Event in December.

A way forward

None of this should come as a surprise. The modalities outlined in UNGA resolution 68/302 made it clear that the outcome of the WSIS+10 overall review would be an intergovernmentally negotiated text, with input from other stakeholders. But it is worth reflecting on why this is the case, and how the limitations of this process relate to the shortcomings of the draft outcome text.

From the beginning of the review process, there was intense debate over whether to hold a review summit in 2015. The compromise was to have this High Level Meeting in the context of the General Assembly, which allowed for limited stakeholder input. The scope and political weight of the document is a reflection of these factors, among others.

Moving beyond 2015, the ability of civil society to influence the WSIS debate will very much depend on whether the next stage determined at the High Level Meeting in December is to hold a summit, a high-level meeting, or something else, and what the modalities for the follow-up process are, as well as the availability of resources to support civil society’s engagement in the process. The civil society coordination meeting in New York which culminated in a joint submission to the process and well-informed participation by civil society representatives present is an excellent example of how to make the debate more inclusive.

Any follow on activity to WSIS should fully embrace and build on the principles of openness, inclusivity, transparency and democratic approaches, with meaningful participation of all stakeholders. This is especially important given the emphasis on security issues, which often shifts discussions into the realm of states and away from the typically more diverse and inclusive internet governance ecosystem. This typically has the effect of removing civil society from the discussion, which is why it is all the more important for civil society to stay firm and push for a human rights agenda The irony is that after the IGF, the overall WSIS+10 review becomes an intergovernmental negotiation process. We will need governments who support freedom online to push for open and inclusive modalities.