Civil Society and the Preparations for the WSIS 2003: Did Input Lead to Influence?
  by Charlotte Dany
  25 April 2004. Civil society is shaping its contours for the second round of the United Nations (UN) World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis 2005. Yet, before moving on to the next summit it seems to be appropriate to look back to the lessons learned from the preparatory process of WSIS 2003. An analysis of the influence that civil society actors had on the preparations of WSIS 2003 helps to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of the strategies employed by these actors. Why did civil society fail in many cases to have a significant influence on the negotiations? In the following paragraphs the results of a master thesis (German Magister) on the influence of civil society actors on the WSIS process 2003 are presented.

The Multi-Stakeholder Approach

The starting point of my thesis was the so called 'multi-stakeholder approach' that the official organizers propagated for the WSIS process. For the first time representatives of civil society and the business sector were supposed to be fully included already in the preparatory process of an international UN world summit. Still, frustration was articulated from the civil society sector about the implementation of that normative demand for inclusiveness as to the real possibility to influence the negotiations.

The influence of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) - the term is used here synonymously with civil society - on the WSIS preparatory conferences (PrepComs) is analysed with regard to three categories: participation, inclusion and influence on the content of crucial documents. The following questions will be answered accordingly: Were all stakeholders able to participate effectively in the PrepComs? Beyond participation: Were the interests of civil society considered in the preparatory process and evenly included in discussions and the debate? Was civil society capable to influence the content of both central documents, the Draft Action Plan and the Draft Declaration?

The analysis focuses on the third Preparatory Conference (PrepCom3) that was held in Geneva in September 2003. However, the later PrepComs 3a and 3b were included for further illustration when necessary.


Participation in a policy process means the active participation of certain actors in that process. Active participation can be reached by securing access to all official documents, to the negotiation process and by participation rights (e.g. right to observe or vote). Participation is a requirement to influence the policy agenda.

Was civil society able to actively participate in the preparatory conferences of WSIS 2003?

Formal opportunities vs. de facto obstacles for effective participation

Despite the fact that for the first time participation of NGOs and other observers was allowed in the PrepComs, their possibilities to participate actively were de facto hindered.

In more detail, the participation of NGOs was obstructed through excluding them from some negotiations and hampering their participation rights. On top of that, time pressure and language barriers were obstacles for effective participation. Single states were able to object to certain aspects of the participation of NGOs in the negotiations. They were rejected either from accrediting or from practising their participation rights, e.g. their right to observe or speak in the negotiations. On PrepCom3, NGOs were expelled from many working groups at the request from Chile and Brazil. Their right to speak in the plenary was often ineffective, since it was reduced to a short time-period per day, so that no substantive discussions between NGOs and state officials could take place. The formulation of a crucial draft document, the so called 'non-paper', is another example for the de facto-exclusion of civil society. NGOs were not included in the formulation process and in addition hindered from an adequate reaction to it. The 'non-paper' was drafted in informal bilateral meetings between the President of the preparatory conferences with single state officials. Time pressure and language barriers made it almost impossible for civil society to adequately respond to the document.

Other preconditions for active participation are access to information and sufficient financial and personal resources. Civil society did mainly use the internet to get relevant information on the preparatory process. Additionally, mailing lists and websites were used to communicate and organize the civil society participation. This fact implied that those who do not have access to the internet or do not own a personal computer could not actively participate as civil society representatives in the WSIS negotiations. The last set of preconditions for active participation illustrates the direct effects of the digital divide on actors of the WSIS process.

Participation of NGOs from developing countries

Particularly NGOs from developing countries lack sufficient human, financial and technical resources. That is one reason why it is presupposed that representatives from developing countries were facing more obstacles to effectively take part in the preparations of WSIS 2003 than other NGOs or state officials. But it is especially their participation that is highly relevant since their societies are on the one hand experiencing the most disadvantages of the information society but are on the other hand to profit most from its advantages.
Civil society, which is supposedly representing the whole world population, therefore was to proof its claims for equal participation.

Nevertheless, a closer investigation of participation numbers delivers an unambiguous result: civil society in the preparatory process for WSIS 2003 was highly eurocentric. Most representatives came from or represented interests from Europe (41%), followed by Sub-Saharan Africa (17%), North America (12%), Latin America (7%), Asia (2%) and North Africa/Middle East (3%). Taking gross national income as a development indicator, more than half of the civil society representatives were representing industrialized countries (55%), 20% developing countries and 14% least developed countries. Even Sub-Saharan Africa's relatively high numbers can mainly be explained by participants from South Africa, which is the country with the highest income per capita in Africa.

The dominance of European civil society becomes even more visible, if one takes the location of the main bureau as an indicator. Alone 35% of the civil society representatives were sent to the PrepComs from Switzerland. In total three thirds were working in industrialized countries and only one third came from developing countries. However, these results are barely surprising, taking into account that many international NGOs have a Secretariat in Switzerland (because of the United Nations) or other European countries from where they can easily send their staff to Geneva.

Inclusion in the negotiations

Inclusion is imperative for a fair negotiation process. Negotiations are inclusive not only when all actors are formally participating, but also when all interests (concerns and arguments) are included. Even in the case when all relevant stakeholders participate in a negotiation process, inclusion is not automatically given. And vice versa, even if not all stakeholders are physically present, all interests may be represented.

The inclusiveness of international negotiations can be measured by analysing whether existing conflicts of interests were overcome, respectively whether certain interests were systematically privileged or disadvantaged. These criteria are examined taking the conflict between industrialized and developing countries about intellectual property rights in the WSIS negotiations as a case.

Were the interests of civil society included in the discussion over intellectual property vs. freedom of information?

The conflict about intellectual property and freedom of information

Intellectual property rights guarantee authors, inventors and publishers limited monopolies through patents, copyrights and trademarks to secure their income. The effect is supposed to be creativity and innovation. Freedom of information however is a human right that guarantees free access to and exchange of knowledge and information.

The conflict between those rights is central and illustrates the divergence between economic and social interests that can also be transferred to other conflicts - like the ones about communication as a human right and free software. To put it in simple terms, in the debate over intellectual property industrialised countries and the business sector are facing developing countries and NGOs. Industrialized countries and business actors are representing mainly economic interests, in that they support the existing international regimes on intellectual property rights. Those have developed over time from rights to protect public wealth and minorities to protecting the copyright industry which is mainly located in industrialised countries. That is the reason why industrialised countries and the business sector are supporting the existing rules on intellectual property as well as an extension of rights on certain aspects of the internet.

Developing countries and civil society actors are for the most part supporting restrictions on the use and extension of intellectual property rights and wish to see them as complementary to development goals. In their perspective, information and knowledge should be made accessible to the public without restrictions. They demand freedom of information and support free software and the idea of communication rights. Among the group of developing countries there are those with more or less authoritarian regimes expected to be more cautious about an expanded freedom of information or even openly opposed to it because of domestic politics. The outcome of this discussion in the WSIS preparatory process was a declaration that clearly supported economic interests but plainly ignored the positions of some developing countries and civil society. The 'non-paper' is based on existing regimes of intellectual property rights. The business sector strongly supported the document, whereas civil society tried to change the respective paragraphs in the document in order to include their views as well as - as they claimed - the interests of the broader world-wide public on the idea of freedom of information.

The suggestions, concerns and arguments of the civil society actors were not reflected in the WSIS draft documents until PrepCom3. The documents were representing mainly economic interests and confirmed the status quo of the international rules on intellectual property rights. Therefore the opportunity was missed to help overcome the digital divide by adjusting intellectual property rights to the changing technical environment. The WSIS was, at least in the case of intellectual property, not inclusive because not all interests were equally taken into account. An open discourse was hindered by strong economic and industrialised country interests.

Influence on the content of the Declaration and the Plan of Action

Besides taking part in the negotiations and getting equal attention for their arguments, NGOs should be able to change the policy outcome.

Whether the participation of civil society on the PrepComs and their input in the discussions changed the subject matter of the Action Plan or the Declaration is examined in a content analysis. Within the content analysis, quantitative and qualitative changes in the Declaration and the Action plan from the Intersessional Meeting (Paris, July 2003) until PrepCom3 (Geneva, September 2003) were explored.

Did the input of NGOs lead to an impact on the policy outcome?

Insignificant and declining influence on the documents

Most of the propositions by NGO representatives were not reflected in the documents. In the Declaration of Principles from PrepCom3 60% of the paragraphs did not contain any NGO input. In 26% of the paragraphs changes over time could be assigned to NGO input. In most of the cases however, those changes were made to single words only. In the Action Plan, mere 4 out of 28 paragraphs (14%) contained propositions on the content which came from civil society participants, but in three cases it was again simply about taking over single words. 

Accordingly the number of occurrences of the most important NGO priorities (according to a list of priorities of the Content and Themes-Working Group from August 2003) was for both documents declining. In both, the Declaration and the Action Plan this trend was most prominently illustrated by the priority issue-areas 'Human Rights' and 'Gender'.

However, a change of priorities towards economic subjects could not be discovered either. Central subjects of the business sector were also mentioned fewer in the later version of the documents compared to earlier ones. Therefore, there is no strong indication that the turning away from civil society topics was caused by a swing towards economic subjects.

A more reasonable explanation for the declining NGO-influence can be found in the general shortening of both documents. Nearly one third of both the Declaration and the Action Plan have not survived the review process in the period from the Intersessional Meeting to PrepCom3.

The influence of NGO input was even less significant on the Action Plan than on the Declaration. This can tentatively be explained by the difference in practical importance between the two documents: the drafting of an Action Plan is comparatively more sensible because there is presumably less consensus between governments on concrete measures than there is on drafting a Declaration which is mainly a statement of political will. Another reason for the weak influence on the Action Plan is the necessity to present at least one document that was already finally decided upon before the actual event of the World Summit. The Action Plan was therefore, as more difficult to agree upon, left aside for most of the preparatory process and stakeholders concentrated on the Declaration. It was though changed a lot at the last preparatory meeting (PrepCom3). Finally one has to add that the propositions of the civil society on the Action Plan were less consistent than the ones produced for the Declaration.

As a consequence of their insignificant influence civil society representatives announced in a press release on 14 November 2003 their retreat from the drafting process of the official documents and announces the formulation of an alternative Declaration.


In conclusion the results of the analysis on participation, inclusion and influence on drafting the official documents support a critical judgement on the realisation and implementation of the multi-stakeholder approach in the preparatory process of WSIS. It is true that civil society as well as other observers were for the first time included in the formal preparations of an UN World Summit, but de facto NGO-representatives faced many obstacles to participate. The discussion about intellectual property vs. freedom of information illustrated that the negotiation process was not fully inclusive. A strengthening of freedom of information - as it was claimed by civil society - was not reflected in the documents, whereas the support of existing regimes to protect intellectual property - as it was claimed by the business sector and many industrialised countries - was fully taken into account. Finally, the NGO-influence on the content of both the Action Plan and the Declaration was by at large insignificant and declining over time.

Based on these results some propositions can be generated with regard to the preparations of the civil society actors for WSIS 2005. The main reasons for the weak influence of civil society on WSIS 2003 were strong governmental and economic interests. Those led to barriers of participation and a lack of inclusion of civil society actors in the PrepComs. For the second round in Tunis 2005 co-operation within civil society but also with certain state or business representatives should be advanced, its depth and extend depending on the respective subject. Where there are common interests, partners should be identified and invited to actively participate in civil society preparations. Cooperation with NGOs in developing countries is as well imperative and can enhance influence. On the one hand, it could help Southern NGOs to effectively participate in international negotiations. On the other hand, Northern NGOs would have the opportunity to exert a certain influence on the governments those NGOs in the South they cooperate with. The expertise of civil society regarding the information society is well established. On WSIS 2003 civil society managed to start networking. Civil society should base its strategies on those strengths and use them to form up for the second phase of WSIS in order to enhance their influence.

The Author

Charlotte Dany has studied Communication Science, Political Science and Modern History at the Free University of Berlin. Her Master thesis (German Magister): "Challenging Global Governance: The Digital Divide and the UN World Summit on the Information Society" was submitted to Prof. Dr. Hans-Jürgen Weiß at the Department of Communication Science of the Free University of Berlin on 18 December 2003.
Download the full thesis (German, pdf)

Contact: charlottedany(at)


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