On the WSIS plenary listserv there has been an ongoing debate between those arguing that only accredited NGO entities should be recognized as the primary actors within civil society at the WSIS and those that contend that individuals must have voice and a vote within our processes. Underlying this is a deeper and increasing tension between the United Nations NGO community and the “internet community” of individual experts and activists.
It’s a fascinating debate, that at the heart is about “What is Civil Society?”
The United Nations basically avoids the question by only recognizing Non-governmental Organizations who have “consultative status” through the Economic and Social Council. The process of accreditation of ECOSOC NGOs is managed by a inter-governmental Committee of NGOs, which at times introduces political motivations for why certain NGOs are denied consultative status (i.e. Taiwanese groups blocked by China.)
Meanwhile other NGOs have come into the UN system via the Department of Public Information, but are seen as having a more limited role as disseminators of information about what is happening at the UN. The division is mostly artificial, with “DPI NGOs” engaging in advocacy and “ECOSOC NGOs” engaging in information-dissemination, and some NGOs having status both with ECOSOC and DPI.
And of course there is the larger NGO world beyond the United Nations.
Thus when you see reference at the UN to “NGOs and civil society organizations” this means “NGOs in consultative status with ECOSOC” and “everyone else.”
Meanwhile, as I understand it, the “internet community” has evolved over the past decade or so to constitute an amorphous mass of dedicated internet rights advocates, technical coordination bodies like the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), private sector consortiums, and various virtual networks of constituencies.
For many internet activists, national governments are seen as only one part, not even a critical part, in the management and administration of internet resources. The private sector and the “internet community” are viewed as much more essential to the proper functioning of the internet, with national governments as potentially endangering its stability and security through efforts to control the flow of data.
So UN government delegates arguing for the need for stronger government “oversight” over the internet is often met with disdain by the activist and technical folks (particularly the Slashdot crowd).
For the United Nations NGO community, we tend to view the “Information Society” as just one more battleground on a long line of bloody conflicts in Vienna, Beijing, Copenhagen and Durban for the basic principles of human rights, gender justice, sustainable development and human security. Our main concern is that we don’t lose ground in language that was hard-fought at the previous UN Summits.
So the cultural divides are tremendous, with even basic assumptions often difficult to agree on. The fact that we even speak to each other at all is remarkable.