12 October to 6 November 1998, Minneapolis, United States: a point in time that cannot be forgotten. The ITU Plenipotentiary conference (PP-98) took place, recognizing perhaps for the first time points that impacted the future of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) diplomacy.
The conference acknowledged the need to have the private sector as part of the union membership, together with the “associates category” for some of its study groups. Furthermore, the resolution calling for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) first emerged, introducing ITU’s role in the “evolution of Internet as a means of global communication.”
The scene prior to this was an intense discussion on digital evolution. Governments were starting to understand how ICTs could help solve many issues and contribute to economic growth. The “divide” that was once prevailing between the north and the south economically, or between the developing and developed world, quickly started to shift to a “digital divide,” not only between different countries and regions, but among one country and its own boundaries and cities.
In 2001, the ITU Council approved the WSIS Summit in two phases (2003 in Geneva and 2005 in Tunisia). Later, the UN General Assembly approved the Summit and requested that it look into the implementation of the United Nations Millennium Declaration and how ICTs could facilitate achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. It also emphasized the multistakeholder approach to engage everyone, including the technical community, civil society, and the private sector, in addition to governments. The resolution gave ITU the leading managerial role to organize the event in cooperation with other UN bodies as well as other international organizations.
All the terms mentioned in those few paragraphs were new to the diplomatic fronts. When the preparatory process started in 2002, the term “multistakeholder,” whenever mentioned, brought huge concerns to the different groups. Government officials were divided into two categories: the politicians and diplomats from one side, and ICT experts from the other side. Diplomats were devastated to have participation from civil society and the private sector on equal footing and fought fiercely to lessen or narrow their role. ICT experts were trying to mediate the views within their own country between what they believed right for the community, what matched international trends, and what their politicians wanted. The foundation grounds were different; diplomats originated from sectors such as G77 and China, “like minded groups,” BRICS, and others. While the ICT experts, at least in some countries, wanted to guarantee the best policy and legal environment to their societies – and for that they wanted to follow the industrial world in their success stories. Many challenges and concerns were raised from the other side of the table as each constituency struggled to make their voice loud and well heard; human rights dimensions were introduced by civil society, politicizing the discussion in a very clear way.
This scene got more intense towards the end of the preparatory meetings of phase one of the summit. The 2003 summit failed to agree on two very important issues. The first was the future of Internet Governance and, as a rescue notion, the working group on Internet Governance (WGIG) was created to discuss how to move forward. The second failure related to the establishment of the “Digital Solidarity Fund” and a task force on Financing Mechanisms (TFFM) considering ICT infrastructure finance was established.
One final important point is that the WSIS was handled by the ITU, which is a technical agency within the UN family. This itself caused friction on the UN fronts, as the term “information society” brought a diversified range of issues, such as cultural, human rights, ethical, media, and openness, that fall within the mandate of other UN agencies (UNESCO, UNDP, UNIDO, ECOSOC). This friction has continued as the ITU has been accused more and more of trying to assume a more authoritative role on the issues of information society on top of Internet public policy issues.
The WSIS+10 review phase, was another important milestone in the sequence. The UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) was mandated to look after the implementation of the output documents of the two phases of the summit.
To this end, ECOSOC, at its substantive session of 2006, reviewed the mandate, agenda, and composition of the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) taking into account the multistakeholder approach.
Being personally involved in the process of the review, as the vice chair of the ITU WSIS+10 High-Level Event held in 2014, I can confidently say that it was tough. The lack of trust among participants prevailed and shadowed every other aspect. The simple term “WSIS review” during the early discussion of how and what event should be held in the first place, brought only bad memories to ALL participants: governments, private sector, academia, UN agencies, civil society, etc. The reasons I think are obvious given the history.
It is also due to the fact that after the WSIS, countries and stakeholders became more aware of the international impact and, more importantly, “their rights” and how to voice and defend their views.
Thus, the so-mentioned high level ITU event was at risk for failure, given that the Egyptian administration (initially a proposed host for the event before it moved to Geneva) took on the responsibility of coming up with “compromised text” incorporating all views in a balanced way. The preparatory process was painful and tiring, the event itself was full of last minute surprises yet it was concluded successfully after long hours of negotiating before the event started and a high level of tension and backdoor politics during the event.
The output document of this event in my opinion provides a very balanced, delicate, and very critical text that set the foundation for ICT policy in the following era as a “continuous referral” during the different meetings that followed.
The year 2012 saw yet another milestone while reviewing the ITRs during WCIT – the very starting point of a real change in dynamics and somehow a clear failure on the multilateral front. Internet, applications, cyber security, and over the top services were among the main characteristics of the era from the technology side. Governments and their incumbents with their persistent monopolies at the time were fighting over voice versus data, or in better words, fighting to regulate what was originally established as a free, open, and robust medium to interact: the Internet.
The Arab Spring was overshadowing the scene in the Middle East. The balance of leading power was changing, and many unheard voices started to level up. The issue of cyber terrorism and the misuse of social media and related cybersecurity were key among the substantial motives of the Arab group position during WCIT. They did not want to compromise and it was not until very late in the event that backdoor politics pushed to conclude what was an unsuccessful event, with about 45 countries not signing the treaty.
Parallel to the above, the UN governmental experts groups had been established in order to create a platform for mediation and find common ground between the different opinions prevailing.
Unfortunately, what happened was the contrary, raising signals that the blocs of stakeholders was stiffening instead of relaxing. Simply, what happened during the last UNGGE (2016/2017) is rather alarming: the negotiation failed. These signs of failure had started back in 2012/2013 when the group could not even settle on the “statement that international law is applicable to cyberspace.” The following GGE in 2014/2015 made very modest progress on international law, reflecting huge differences in views. The final language of that round’s report noted the “inherent right of a state to take measures consistent with international law and the UN Charter without expressly mentioning the right to self-defense or Article 51 of the Charter.” In the last GGE, they continued to discuss the same unresolved issues, but it was not possible to achieve any kind of compromise.
Where Does This Leave Us?
This maturity in the level of debate we have been witnessing lately has its own results. We see more emerging and developing countries with rather loud voices around the UN platforms where they feel strong, equal, and confident. Now, very easily, we can expect a negotiation on a certain topic to fail simply because the partners involved are not ready nor willing to compromise what they believe they should have. It is a way of pressuring the other side of the table to get what they want. It is becoming more and more a risky situation.
There are quite a number of technical areas where I personally believe there is a lack of comprehensive understanding by involved parties, especially from developing countries. They seem to be stuck in the past and cannot follow what is going on the ground. Hence there is a remarkable gap between the policy aspect exercised by governments and the practice and usage of technology by the citizens themselves. This is a race that any emerging market is observing now.
Many unresolved international legal debates are still open, where the viewpoints seem to be diverging rather than converging, especially in areas such as cybersecurity. This is coupled with increased interest from countries – especially the developing – to participate in groups similar to GGE or any other international fora where they can feel their strength and power in negotiating what they assume right. From the other side, the developed world is rather reluctant with almost no appetite for being engaged in such discussions.
Back to the Future
“The beginnings and ends of shadow lie between the light and darkness and may be infinitely diminished and infinitely increased.” — Leonardo da Vinci
The ITU-PP18 coming in Dubai next month is reflected in that quote. We are heading to Dubai with all the past shadows accompanying us. Whether or not we will be actually seeing the light remains to be seen. Nevertheless, analyzing the past is always good to remember from where the problem originates. Perhaps then we can find innovative solutions.