Here is a report I wrote for CONGO on Prepcom III that summarizes the main events and developments going toward Tunis in November.
Who should manage the internet? How to coordinate the bridging of the “Digital Divide” across the United Nations system and beyond? Will the extraordinary multi-stakeholder model set by the World Summit on the Information Society continue beyond Tunis in November? These were some of the key questions that governments were to address during the final preparatory committee of the World Summit on the Information Society, held at the Palais des Nations in Geneva from 19-30 September.
Ambassador Janis Karklins of Latvia, President of the WSIS Prepcom, promised at the opening session that this was the “last Prepcom,” that there would be no “Prepcom IIIbis,” and that therefore this was the only time allotted for governments to complete work on the documents to be finally agreed to by Heads of State in Tunis in November. Sadly, his promise proved to be only an optimistic wish that was quickly dashed in the second week of difficult negotiations.
CONGO Support for Civil Society
For much of civil society, the Prepcom began with an all-day orientation session organized by CONGO at the ITU on 18 September. The orientation opened with a general overview of the status of negotiations and preparations with Amb Karklins, Amb. Khan of Pakistan, and Charles Geiger, head of the WSIS executive secretariat. Following this was a quick rundown of the various structures and groupings of civil society, including the CS Bureau, the Content and Themes Group, the Working Group on Working Methods, and the various CS caucuses and working groups.
This orientation session was notable for a two-hour session outlining the various issues surrounding the area of Internet Governance. Several experts from civil society, including Wolfgang Kleinwachter, Bill Drake, Adam Peake, Jeanette Hoffmann, Milton Mueller, and Avri Doria, gave rapid-fire reports and commentary on the internet, its governance and the important issues for civil society to consider. While the speakers expressed frustration that there was not enough time to cover all of the subject matter, many participants felt that it was very helpful to get a quick overview of the key issues being discussed in the coming two weeks.
Also notable was that to aid in orienting civil society groups, CONGO and the UN Non-governmental Liaison Service (NGLS) produced a small orientation kit, giving basic information on the WSIS process, the various civil society structures, and contact points for the various CS groupings. Many NGO participants found this to be a very helpful (and portable) resource.
The CONGO secretariat, particularly Philippe Dam and Alejandra Mendoza, worked tirelessly alongside the official WSIS executive secretariat to organize the logistical and administrative details required for civil society to operate effectively and smoothly during the Prepcom. This included organizing arrangements for some 125 side-events organized by civil society, i.e. finding meeting rooms, printing flyers, and arranging interpretation. Philippe Dam was the intermediary between the WSIS Executive Secretariat and the civil society working groups on the organizing of speaking slots, ensuring that we knew when the speaking times were available and communicating to the executive secretariat the names of the selected speakers.
CONGO President Renata Bloem was a constant and assuring presence at the Prepcom, sharing her expertise in civil society and United Nations practices and history with other participants. Along these lines, Ms. Bloem organized an informative panel discussion on 23 September with Sarbuland Khan, director of DESA/ECOSOC, and Amb. Karklins on the linkages between the recently concluded Millennium+5 General Assembly High Level Segment and the WSIS process. At this panel, I reported on the first ever General Assembly Hearings with Civil Society, which took place from 22-23 June, as well as general civil society reactions to the official outcome document approved by governments at the Millennium+5 segment.
CONGO recently announced that it plans to hold a parallel event in Tunis on “Civil Society Best Practices in Bridging the Digital Divide” on 16 November. Already several CONGO members and other organizations have indicated their interest in participating in our event, which we hope will highlight a number of innovative ICT projects being led by civil society from all around the world and with various constituencies.
Governments Attack the Brackets
At Prepcom III, government delegations faced a daunting pile of “bracketed” text going into the negotiations (brackets representing text that is still not agreed by all delegations). Amb. Karklins was clearly worried about the level of wordsmithing being done in the sub-committees, while delegations complained about the rapid pace of the negotiations.
The official negotiations took place within two sub-committees: Sub-committee A, led by Amb. Khan of Pakistan, on Internet Governance issues and Sub-committee B, led by the spirited South African Ms. Lyndall Shope-Mafole, on “all other issues” in the texts.
Internet Governance negotiations went at a fairly rapid clip in the first week, with civil society making a number of good interventions and suggested amendments under the active leadership of the CS Internet Governance Caucus.
But progress broke down in the second week as it became clear that the US was not going to allow the WSIS to deal with any of the governmental oversight issues pertaining to internet governance. The question is to what degree should the root server system, the global address book of the internet, be overseen by national governments. Right now, the root server system is under the management control of the International Corporation on Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), an American non-profit that itself is given its mandate by the US Department of Commerce. Many other governments, and many civil society groups, would like this management function to be overseen by a more international, multi-stakeholder body.
Meanwhile in Sub-Committee B, the main contentious issues related to what happens after Tunis. That is, once the hoopla has died down, what international mechanisms need to be put in place to ensure that the goals agreed to in Geneva and Tunis don’t remain simply nice but empty aspirations?
Among the options on the table are the creation of some kind of inter-agency coordination body under the auspices of the UN Secretary General. Another possibility is the establishment of a “Commission on the Information Society” similar to other Commissions set up after other UN Summits, such as the Commission on Human Rights and the Commission on Sustainable Development. One innovative idea put forward by the Chilean delegation is to re-tool an existing ECOSOC Commission called the “Commission on Science and Technology for Development” to be the followup and implementing body after WSIS. Another contender is the “Global Alliance for ICT and Development” being supported by the UN ICT Task Force.
Whatever follow-up and implementation body gets set up, civil society has been most concerned that it have a multi-stakeholder, transparent and participatory nature reflecting how the WSIS and the Working Group on Internet Governance has operated over the past four years.
Civil Society Mobilizes
Civil society was very active and vocal at this final Prepcom, with around 170 organizations accredited to participate. Much of our work was centered around following and advocating our own positions within the two government sub-committees. The CS Internet Governance Caucus led activity related to Sub-Committee A, including organizing speaking slots and drafting texts. Meanwhile the newer CS Follow-up and Implementation Working Group facilited by Bertrand de la Chapelle coordinated activity related to Sub-Committee B.
Beyond the official negotiations, the 125-some side-events organized by Civil Society brought attention to the various interests of civil society, from gender concerns to youth empowerment, human rights, freedom of expression and the press, education, ethics and values, and peace.
The Civil Society Bureau energetically brought various concerns of civil society to the WSIS Executive Secretariat and the governmental bureau, particularly pertaining to our participation at the Tunis Summit as well as organizing a press conference for civil society in the second week. Meanwhile the Content and Themes Group of civil society coordinated all matters pertaining to our engagement with the intergovernmental negotiations.
The Working Group on Working Methods, co-facilitated by myself and Ramin Kaweh of NGLS, successfully completed consideration of the main procedural and process matters of civil society. We finalized our deliberations on the CS Bureau, the CS Plenary and the Content and Themes Group, presenting to all of those CS structures our own proposed “guidelines for the working methods” for all of those respective bodies. The CS Bureau and CS Plenary guidelines were adopted as the working documents of those entities, while the Content and Themes guidelines were still the subject of discussion that needs to be carried out at any future meetings of Content and Themes.
It’s the hope of the Working Group on Working Methods that these various guidelines not only help civil society work effectively and democratically within the WSIS process, but that they also are helpful models for any future civil society activity pertaining to the Information Society and for any future United Nations process. CONGO of course has served this “institutional memory” function for civil society for all of its history.
Prepcom III in Suspended Animation
Prepcom III concluded at around 2100 hours on 30 September, with a vague lack of resolution on the main issues and texts. The presumption is that the Prepcom will re-convene for 3 days or so in Tunis just before the Summit. Meanwhile, there will be an “open-ended negotiation group” chaired by the president of the prepcom mandated to negotiate all remaining issues except Internet Governance. This leaves Internet Governance to be concluded right before the Tunis Summit. Presumably all of these negotiations will take place without the participation of civil society, a development that we have already protested alongside the private sector.
Whether or not civil society organizations will welcome the Tunis “political chapeau” and “operational document” agreed in November will depend largely on if these texts include our participation in any new fora or coordinating bodies created. To go backward on the enormous progress in multi-stakeholder policy-making would be an enormous letdown to those of us who have fought hard for our rights to participate and give voice to our various concerns.
In a few weeks we will see what develops.