Creating spaces for civil society in the World Summit on the Information Society
Willie Currie - ICT Policy Manager, Association for Progressive Communications (APC), South Africa.

Prior to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), UN Summits were largely closed spaces for inter-governmental debate and negotiation on issues of global public policy such as sustainable development or the position of women. Civil society summits ran in parallel to those of governments and usually at some distance. So during the UN Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in 2002, governments met in the elite business zone of Sandton, while civil society met in the black township of Soweto.

In WSIS, there was a certain recognition that the Information Society involved policy issues in which governments were one stakeholder alongside the private sector and civil society. The history of the internet as a grand collaboration between technical communities, the private sector, civil society organizations and governments meant that governments needed the participation of all stakeholders in the process of deliberation at WSIS. Hence the WSIS process began as an invited space (1) in which all stakeholders were involved until the point of negotiations, which remained the prerogative of governments. The private sector and civil society were nevertheless able to make statements to the plenary meetings of governments, while they were negotiating the text for the outcomes of the Geneva and Tunis Summits.

In addition to this, the atypical Summit format as a two year process starting in Geneva in 2003 and ending in Tunis in 2005 also created a space in which civil society could mobilize. A range of civil society organizations and academic institutions took up the issue of internet governance, which used as their focal point the internet governance caucus that was affiliated to the civil society process within WSIS. And the point of disagreement between governments on internet governance gave civil society an opportunity to engage more actively in the process. The key shift was in the establishment of the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) as a multi-stakeholder body, in which all stakeholders had representation. This created an open space in which all stakeholders had representation and had a significant effect on the outcome of the internet governance debate in WSIS. Within WGIG, private sector and civil society participants were on a par with government participants.

The WGIG report (2) made four sets of recommendations – on the need for a forum to discuss broad public policy issues related to the internet, on oversight models for internet governance, on measures to promote development and access to the internet and on capacity building for developing countries to participate more effectively in internet governance. With the exception of the issue of oversight models, civil society participation was decisive in the other three issues. And the issue of a forum became the key point of consensus in the Tunis summit. So the decision in Tunis to establish an Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was a result of civil society initiation of the idea within WGIG and a factor of the multi-stakeholder process that enabled stakeholders to interact. It is worth recalling that the idea of a forum was opposed by the US Government and the private sector during the second phase of WSIS until it was clear that it had broad support.

After WSIS, the IGF will constitute a global public policy space of a new kind that is open to all stakeholders. This is as it should be and civil society organizations through the internet governance caucus played a leading role in creating this open space for deliberation on the complexity of internet governance. They will take the process of creating this open space forward in the Internet Governance Forum when it meets in Athens in 2006.

In the aftermath of Tunis, a critique of the civil society participation has emerged (3) which constructs the main value of WSIS as one of networking in a closed network of the privileged, that in a self-serving way has perpetuated its existence by advocating for an Internet Governance Forum and has lost touch with the grassroots and the issue of bridging the digital divide. While this critique has some merit, it is too partial a view and dismisses the real gains that have been made by civil society participation. Remove civil society from WSIS and there would be no IGF, no new global policy space for considering broad public policy issues affecting the internet, including access to the internet and the digital divide.

Discussion of the issues of WSIS has not only taken place in Geneva or Tunis, but also at regional and national levels. At the Accra PrepCom in February 2005, the most energetic participants were a contingent of youth, who had traveled from Nigeria to participate. Sangonet ran a series of workshops on WSIS issues in South Africa that provided input into WSIS. Even ICANN engaged in an extended roadshow around the world to put its case to practitioners and publics in various developing countries, including South Africa and Argentina. These activities involved a broad range of people in the WSIS process.

One of the reasons that the issue of the digital divide did not receive adequate attention in Tunis relates to the fate of the Task Force on Financial Mechanisms (TFFM). The TFFM was convened as an invited space by UNDP and could not be transformed into an open space by civil society as was the case with the WGIG. This affected its outcomes which were more limited. Nevertheless, the TFFM report (4) and the section on financing in the Tunis Agenda (5) provide enough hooks to be developed creatively by civil society activists in the post-WSIS phase. These include references to the uses of public finance, the promotion of community and local government networks, a renewed mandate to Universal Access Funds, a welcome for the Digital Solidarity Fund and a recognition that existing financial mechanisms have proved inadequate with regard to regional connectivity, broadband and rural connectivity in the developing world. The combination of these factors may serve to support the introduction of open access models and community networking in the developing world – precisely to bridge the digital divide.

Gurstein’s critique of civil society participation assumes too easily that civil society activists engaging the WSIS process agreed with Ambassador Khan – chair of the WSIS subcommittee where the Internet governance discussion took place - that they represented everyone else. This was simply not the case, however flattering Ambassador Khan’s remarks. Gurstein’s assumption that everyone in civil society was only there to network is similarly false and denies that civil society groups meeting in the civil society plenary and caucuses had sufficient strategic sense to understand the power dynamics involved in engaging with governments, the private sector and international organizations at WSIS. The interventions of civil society activists made a material difference to the outcomes of WSIS in the text of the Tunis Agenda. Those civil society activists, who tried hard to support independent Tunisian NGOs against the human rights violations of the Tunisian regime and were harassed and chased by the police at the Goethe Centre in Tunis on 15 November 2005, were not there just to network in a closed loop. For a few days, they helped open a space of freedom in Tunis.


(1) See, for example, Power, Knowledge and Political Spaces in the Framing of Poverty Policy Karen Brock, Andrea Cornwall and John Gaventa - 2001

(2) Report from the Working Group on Internet Governance

(3) Gurstein, Michael : RE: Networking the Networked/Closing the Loop: Some Notes on WSIS II, 26 November 2005

(4) Report of the TFFM for ICT for Development

(5) Paragraphs 21, 23b, 23c, 23d, 23l, 26c and 28 of the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society, 2005

See also:

--> Briefing Papers towards Tunis

--> All WSIS Papers research papers

--> Download the book "Information Society for the South: Vision or Hallucination" in PDF format

World Summit on the Information Society II - November 2005
The second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), a global event aimed to improve access by all countries to information, and communication technologies (ICTs) to promote development, will take place in Tunis from 16 to 18 November 2005.

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