27 June 2005. Discussions on how to proceed after the second WSIS summit in November are getting more urgent. There is a danger of this question to be lost due to the dominance of financing and internet governance negotiations in the second phase of WSIS. A recent meeting of the "Group of the Friends of the Chair" (GFC) in Geneva tried to bring some clarity, but a consensus is still far away. Meanwhile, civil society groups are lamenting the fact that they will be locked out of the next GFC meetings.
After WSIS: Integrated approach or separation of forums?
The president of the WSIS preparatory committee for the second phase, Ambassador Janis Karklins, at the GFC meeting on 13 June, suggested splitting the discussions and the processes between "implementation" and "follow-up". "Implementation" according to him refers to actions on the ground that are taken in making the WSIS action plan a reality. "Follow-up" instead is more related to policy debates and politically contested issues that need further consideration after the WSIS is over. It should be divided between Internet Governance and other issues.
The discussion was further complicated by the link between the WSIS and the overall follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals and the Millennium+5 summit in September this year. Sarbuland Khan, the representative of the UN Secretary-General, said that WSIS has to be included in a larger framework taking into account the multi-stakeholder approach, also required in the broader development agenda. Ambassador Karklins also emphasized that the political chapeau makes reference to the Millennium Summit and reiterates the need to keep the ICT into the international agenda until 2015. El Salvador proposed that the follow-up documents to be drafted by the envisaged WSIS implementation teams should be incorporated into the Millennium report for more coherence, Switzerland, the EU and others made similar proposals. The tricky question then is: How to really integrate the two processes beyond the document level?
Follow-up: The Policy Side
The discussion on follow-up to the WSIS mainly circled around the question if the Internet governance aspects of WSIS should be dealt with in a separate forum. The discussion showed that there is no consensus yet on a separation or linkage of these two tracks. Argentina, El Salvador, the Holy See and Turkey spoke up in favour of a separation, while Canada and the USA supported an integrated approach. Luxemburg on behalf of the EU also argued against separating the follow-up tracks for Internet Governance and other issues. The strategies are clear: If Internet governance is part of the general WSIS follow-up mechanism, it will be part of the official UN process that is still dominated by national governments. If, on the other hand, it is separated, then the follow-up mechanism will be much more in line with the integrated multi-stakeholder approach that was already practiced in the WSIS Working Group on Internet Governance, probably with some authority given to it by the UN Secretary-General or the WSIS summit itself.
It is very much unclear so far if any of the other contested issues that dominated WSIS mainly in the first, but also in the second phase are part of further negotiations and discussions at all in the future. It might be the case that they are taken to other forums and dealt with there, as has already been the case with intellectual property issues. They are part of a struggle at the WIPO right now, where Brazil and Argentina have successfully introduced a "development agenda". The development aspects of WSIS will be part of the ITU work, but will also be mainstreamed into the projects of UNDP and other organizations in the foreseeable future.
The danger here is that some WSIS outcomes do not have such a "natural" home in the United Nations system - think of gender issues or privacy. The WSIS process with all its limitations and shortcomings has so far been a good venue for bringing all of the information society-related aspects together for a discussion on a coherent vision. Civil society activists will also face a strategic challenge if they want to integrate and link all the different groups that are active in the different fields, if the process loses its coherence and fragments into small discussions and struggles here and there. It is far from clear if the solidarity that the organizations have build so far in the WSIS process can be maintained under these conditions.
Implementation: The Action Side
Implementation somewhat is the other side of the same coin. Here, it is not about political discussions and decisions on priorities, on values and on how the information society should look like. It is instead about taking agreed positions and transforming them into concrete actions, in order to ensure implementation of the WSIS decisions. Here, the struggle is more about who gets what part of the cake.
This struggle has begun pretty openly at the GFC consultations. Yoshio Utsumi, Secretary General of the ITU, presented a joint UNESCO-ITU proposal on implementation mechanisms. It was along the lines of many previous proposals, where for each action line, a multi-stakeholder team would be created , and the coordinators of the teams would coordinate their activities and report to the UN secretary general. But this specific proposal also suggested that ITU (as the "infrastructure agency") and UNESCO (as the "content agency") would provide the secretariat to support to the work.
Others very much challenged this open attempt to take over the WSIS process. The ILO stressed that all UN agencies have to play a role here. Canada openly wondered whether other UN agencies support the ITU/UNESCO proposal. The EU made an alternative proposal, suggesting that the UN Chief Executive Board for Coordination (CEB) could coordinate the implementation process. This was also in line with a later suggestion by Sarbuland Khan on how to link the WSIS with the process around the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
El Salvador and others underlined the important role of regional bodies, while Canada stated that the UN have only have a small role to play at the regional level, since implementation mostly take place at the national level. Finland also made clear that only action at the national level is key for implementation of WSIS outcomes, as was stated in the WSIS Geneva Action Plan.
Finland also made a very important suggestion. Since follow-up does not only refer to policy dialogue, but also to evaluation, the Finnish government asked for establishing clear criteria and benchmarks to measure the achievement of the WSIS goals identified in the Action Plan. This has long been a demand of civil society groups, as without clear benchmarks all implementation will look like a nice "best practices" show. What is important here is to make sure that benchmarks not only relate to agreed WSIS goals like linking every school and village to the Internet by 2015. What will be much more important for a real human-centred information society will be the development of benchmarks that measure qualitative goals of the WSIS, like freedom of expression or privacy. Without these, the information society of the future will very much look like infrastructure and technology-oriented vision of the beginning of WSIS - a vision many civil society groups spent a great deal of energy on fighting and replacing it with a human-centred vision.
Multi-Stakeholder Approach: Contested Reality
Another debate developed around the multi-stakeholder approach of WSIS. Chairman Karklins said that it should be deepened in the policy debates and the implementation projects. Others were not so happy with this suggestion. El Salvador again stressed that
WSIS remains an intergovernmental process, and civil society should not participate in the decision of public policies, only in recommendation making. Australia also said that civil society and the private sector are needed for implementation, but their role should be limited in the decision-making stages.
The problem here is that a clear definition of multi-stakeholderism is still lacking, and that some governments are trying more or less openly to push back the progress made during the WSIS process. But it also had its defenders here. Renate Bloem from the Conference of NGOs (CONGO) reminded the group that, although the General Assembly draft MDG outcome document includes an excellent reference on ICTs and WSIS, any language on multi-stakeholder approach and on civil society inclusion is still missing. The WSIS process on the other side has done a lot for a more open participation. Divina Frau-Meigs from the civil society education family mentioned that NGOs still face problems related to financial resources, access and procedures to participate in UN meetings, and that it is important not to limit this participation at the local level, but to develop it at the global level as well. Bertrand de la Chapelle from WSIS-online.org called for streamlining the multi-stakeholder approach into all mechanisms at all levels. Canada also asked for more assurances for the strong involvement of civil society and private sector in the follow-up process. Greece mentioned that, even though NGOs can participate in ECOSOC High-Level Segment and roundtables, negotiations come within the ECOSOC Committees, in which NGO participation is more strictly limited by their rules of procedures.
It seems that the WSIS process has brought some progress in terms of openness and participation, but that this is still contested and not yet established practice. There clearly is a need for translating the WSIS achievements into written policies that also apply to other UN and international forums. Otherwise they could get lost, as the UN system has a short institutional memory because of constant re-assignment of staffers and diplomats.
This is already developing in the second phase of WSIS. In spite of what was proposed by President Karklins during the GFC consultation, the WSIS intergovernmental bureau recently decided not to invite civil society observers to attend the next GFC meetings (today - 27 June, 4 July and 11 July 2005). These meetings will be open to representatives of GFC Members and observers from governments only. Civil society groups, when they heard about this a few days ago, quickly started a discussion on the reasons and implications of this decision. It is clear that the Group of Friends of the Chair was the only WSIS body not in line with the multi-stake holder approach, and this has been a matter of constant concern for NGO representatives like CONGO and others. But is has been practice so far to include written input from NGOs and the private sector in these meetings and also to have open consultations with all stakeholders. The fact that governments now decided to lock out civil society is pretty disturbing to some.
One explanation from Ambassador Karklins was that some governments apparently reacted that civil society representatives took too much speaking time and were not focused enough on the agenda. This also might be a cheap excuse for those governments that never really accepted the open multi-stakeholder process of WSIS. And on top of it, it is a bit ironic to lock out the societal actors from discussions that are explicitly focused around implementation. The WSIS in all its official documents has always made clear that there will be no working implementation of the summit outcomes if civil society and the private sector are not involved.