At WSIS Forum, Divisions Arise Over Future Of Internet Governance

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The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum 2012 was hailed as a success at its closing ceremony today by the secretary general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Yet sharp debates about the reluctance of the UN to hire an executive secretary for the Internet Governance Forum, the reluctance of the ITU to allow the global public to see and contribute to the coming International Telecommunication Regulations (ITR), and the need for a new UN platform for enhanced cooperation clearly illustrated that the global internet governance ship is cruising through rough seas.

The WSIS Forum was held from 14-18 May.

Since 2006, the ITU annually convenes the so-called WSIS forum to check on progress made along the lines set out by the 2005 WSIS and on the contribution of information technology to the UN Millennium Development Goals. This year, the ITU said it gathered 35 ministers, deputy ministers, ambassadors and CEOs to talk about issues like a global cybersecurity treaty that could, according to a Iranian delegate, even include sections on intellectual property protection, the effect of broadband access on national GDP growth (see broadband report here), or on the role of girls in information and communication technology (ICT).

A WSIS stocktaking report lists “1,000 innovative ICT-oriented projects covering the period 2010-2012,” according to the ITU (press release on stocktaking is here).

WSIS Forum Competes with Internet Governance Forum

With the WSIS Forum 2012 sessions made a little more interactive and workshops being prepared by non-governmental organisations, the event somehow seemed to follow ideas developed at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the dialogue platform on all things internet established by governments as a result of the WSIS in the Tunis Agenda.

There is clear competition between the WSIS Forum and the IGF, Wolfgang Kleinwächter, an internet governance expert at the University of Aarhus, told Intellectual Property Watch. “It’s a similar competition as in ITU versus ICANN,” Kleinwächter said, referring to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the internet domain system technical oversight body.

Russian delegates several times proposed to combine both fora, he reported, yet the two still are distinct. “WSIS Forum is top-down, IGF is bottom up,” he said. The IGF has grown a lot over the years and received 128 workshop proposals for the upcoming meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan, according to the IGF secretariat.

What makes competing difficult for the IGF, though, is the lack of funding. Other than the WSIS Forum that is supported through the ITU, UN Economic Social and Educational Organisation (UNESCO) and the UN Conference on Trade and Sustainable Development (UNCTAD) – and from their regular membership purses – the IGF relies on a donor fund. The fund is so famished that the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) announced during a consultation on the IGF during the WSIS Forum Week that it would not fill the position of the IGF secretariat’s executive chair and had informed the 90 applicants for the position it would do so.

Bertrand de la Chapelle, program director at the French International Diplomatic Academy and former French Special Envoy for the Information Society, called this development “extremely troublesome” as observers were faced with the choice of wilful bad intentions or inefficiency of the UN bureaucracy as a reason for the failure.

While de la Chapelle proposed considering the IGF community to take up selection of a chair themselves in some form, a representative of UN DESA said there were ongoing talks with donors, yet legal issues prevented accepting funding from a company like Google so far.

Thomas Schneider from the Swiss telecom regulator noted that while there was “extremely broad support of the IGF” by stakeholders including many governments, “when it comes to actively contributing to the funding of these processes, the situation is slightly different.” Switzerland for years was the second largest financial contributor to the IGF’s US$1.5 million annual budget, according to Schneider.

Enhancing Enhanced Government

Schneider was speaking at an open consultation meeting of the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) on “enhanced cooperation,” another gathering attached to the WSIS Forum 2012. Enhanced cooperation had been the sister process to the IGF passed by the WSIS in Tunis, but governments up to now have not been able to agree on what enhanced cooperation really means.

Schneider explained: “There are the ones that claim that enhanced cooperation has still not started yet, as they understand this to be an intergovernmental process or body, maybe with some participation of non-governmental stakeholders. Others claim that enhanced cooperation has already started years ago and is running at full speed as they see it as literally an “enhanced cooperation’ of governments and other stakeholders in existing fora like ICANN, ITU, UNESCO, IETF, ISOC, etc.” IETF refers to the Internet Engineering Task Force, and ISOC is the Internet Society.

Lack of convergence and – as some said at the CSTD meeting in Geneva on 18 May – lack of real dialogue has resulted in proposals for yet another body, with ideas ranging from India’s idea to establish a 50-member “United Nations Committee for Internet-Related Policies” (CIRP) to develop public policy for the internet and oversee bodies like ICANN, to a more lightweight “Standing Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation,” attached to the CSTD, which even the British delegate said could be considered.

The US delegate recommended to rather focus on the protection of “the free flow of information online,” “transparency, fair process and accountability” of internet governance processes, and to jointly “find practical solutions to the unique challenges facing developing nations.”

Additional internet governance mechanisms were also rather bluntly rejected by the US-based Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA).

When asking if the proposal for a new CSTD working group on enhanced cooperation was likely to lead to “practical benefits for real people,” and would provide significant added value in development terms, CCIA said “it does not look like this working group would pass these tests.” CCIA underlined the continuous trend and success of the continuous opening up of the UN system to non-governmental actors, the technical community and civil society, applauding ECOSOC work so far, and bashing the WSIS Forum host ITU by saying that the ITU’s political processes including the WCIT preparatory process had “fallen far behind the rest of the UN system in this respect.”

The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) is the conference scheduled to pass the new International Telecommunications Regulations in December in Dubai (IPW, Internet Governance, 30 April 2012).

NGOs Call for Transparency in ITR Review

The call of more openness in the WCIT process culminated at the end of the WSIS Forum week in an open letter signed by 31 civil society organisations from around the globe who asked the ITU secretary general, the responsible ITU Council Working Group and the member states of ITU to allow access to preparatory materials for the WCIT in order to enable civil society to contribute to the ITR review (open letter is here [pdf], Spanish version is here [pdf]).

In the ITU, proposals from member states, but also compilations of proposals covering scope, basic provisions on international communication, accounting principles, but also more fine-grained things on traffic routing, illicit use and cybersecurity are only available for ITU member states and paying sector members.

Even if internet governance issues were out of scope as ITU officials did not get tired of underlining, the ITR certainly would touch Internet communication, observers agree. Therefore they could not be addressed in traditional negotiation style, according to ISOC Vice President Markus Kummer. Like in the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement negotiations, Kummer warned, the internet community will not accept exclusion. An EU official, speaking in his personal capacity, acknowledged that without openness a lot of time and energy would be lost in arguing about what was in fact in the documents.

Kummer tried in vain to get an answer as to whether sector members like the ISOC, as well as member states, could share the documents they have paid for. In their open letter, the civil society organisations also took their governments to task, urging them to “open public processes at the national level to solicit input on proposed amendments” to the ITRs from all stakeholders. So far there are no reports about such public processes, despite open government being another prominent topic at the WSIS Forum.

Yet between all the WCIT, enhanced cooperation and IGF procedural issues, some of the rather interesting issues internet policy experts are agonizing about, risk to get lost. Marilia Maciel from the Center For Technology and Society at Fundação Getulio Vargas in Brazil spoke about the danger of privatisation of internet regulation with large platforms unilaterally deciding on what users have to accept.

In addition, regional or plurilateral negotiations deciding on IP enforcement or privacy standards for people inside and outside of the respective territories and the continued politicization of internet governance were huge concerns to internet users.

Therefore, according to Maciel, there was a need for some mechanism for enhanced cooperation and stakeholders had to accept that it was high time “to face the question about what the roles of the different stakeholder groups” should be in the future.

Monika Ermert may be reached at

Creative Commons License"At WSIS Forum, Divisions Arise Over Future Of Internet Governance" by Intellectual Property Watch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


  1. Monika Ermert says

    thank you very much for the feedback. I understand from the discussions that there are variants about what kind of new mechanism is needed, to what existing body it should be attached to and what the scope of the work should be. Please keep me posted!


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