The landscape of internet governance has been rapidly evolving in the decade since the conclusion of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis in 2005. The Tunis Agenda for the Information Society not only affirmed the commitment of all involved countries to develop a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented information society, but also proposed a multistakeholder approach to internet governance, a model where management of the internet should involve all stakeholders, including civil society.
Despite the region hosting the summit, Arab governments were latecomers when it came to civil society engagement in internet policy, preferring exclusive government approaches to setting internet policy. For example, on a global level, Arab governments prefer empowering the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – the UN specialised agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs) – to handle internet governance, rather than multistakeholder bodies.
However, as the region also undergoes rapid transformations, the Arab Spring in 2011 brought greater interest in internet policy by civil society as well as increased funding and capacity building to the region, enabling civil society to effectively demand a seat at the table. Therefore, it was no coincidence that in 2012, the first Arab Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was held, the first multistakeholder forum of its kind for the region.
It did not take long, however, for this push for democratisation and civic engagement to be dampened, with the rise of instability and extremist violence in the region, which empowered a counter-revolution and a crackdown on freedoms, taking the region back to pre-2011 levels of unilateral policy making by governments, if not cementing it even further.
This issue paper will attempt to link these regional challenges to civil participation in internet governance and the state of internet rights in the region with civil society advocacy strategies, as well as providing some recommendations. To do so, we decided to focus on Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, which are countries that have a substantial engagement in internet policy both on a global and regional level, and have local specificities that provide an interesting insight on the variety of challenges facing civil society in the region.