Gaps in cyberspace governance abound, 10 years after UN World Summit

Governance framework continues to lag behind the growth of internet users. All stakeholders will need to be active if a peaceful cyberspace is to be preserved, argues Paul Meyer.

By: /
January 7, 2016
By the end of 2015, 3.2 billion people were expected to be online, a threefold increase from 2005. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

The Internet is such a new phenomenon that 10 years represents a major period in its development. It is also at 10-year intervals that the UN organizes reviews of its conferences to assess what they have accomplished and what remains to be done. 

Last month, on Dec. 15, the UN General Assembly issued an outcome document for its review of implementation of the decisions taken at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). WSIS was the international community’s initial effort at articulating a vision for a society dominated and empowered by information and communications technology (ICT). The summit was held in two phases and locales: Geneva in 2003 and Tunis in 2005 and agreed upon a set of final documents expressing principles and goals for the “information society.” Both WSIS phases brought together what has become known as the “multi-stakeholder” community concerned with the Internet and the computer networks we refer to as cyberspace. The recent meeting in New York therefore represented the views of UN member states on what the last decade of follow-up of WSIS signified for the health of the “information society” and its future direction.

As could be expected for such a complex undertaking, the outcome document revealed a mixed record on implementation. On one hand the growth of the Internet (and other forms of ICT) has been phenomenal. By the end of 2015, 3.2 billion people were expected to be online, a threefold increase from 2005.  Moreover, of these users a majority (2 billion) now resides in developing countries. Mobile (and increasingly smart) phones have had even greater growth from 2 to 7 billion subscriptions with mobile broadband remaining the fastest growing market segment. 

This impressive increase in users eclipses however the slow development of governance frameworks that have failed to keep pace with the spread of the technology.

Too often in the outcome document one encounters a reaffirmation of key elements of the original WSIS decisions (e.g. on internet governance, bridging the digital divide and multi-stakeholder cooperation) without the elaboration of how these aims have been progressed over the last decade or guidance on how they should be developed in future.  For example, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), “a multi-stakeholder platform for discussion of Internet governance issues,” established by the original WSIS, is simply extended under its existing mandate for another 10 years. The prospect of moving from discussion to decision on the challenging policy issues presented by the Internet remains remote and the impression is left of the international community treading water on this crucial factor of global governance of cyberspace.

This governance debate is often depicted, as per recent New York Times reporting, as a function of China pursuing an “Internet sovereignty” agenda to maximize state control over the technology and its contents. This is however an overly simplistic analysis of a problem rooted in the inherent tension between a global technology developed and utilized by the private sector and civil society on the one hand, and an international political and legal system that is state-centric on the other. More creative mechanisms are needed for engagement with non-governmental stakeholders to generate the norms and measures for effective cooperation in cyberspace.

I welcome the attention devoted to human rights in the document, including the reaffirmation of UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council resolutions asserting that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online.”  If this affirmation is ever to be more than just a slogan however it will require strict implementation and robust oversight. Pleas for states to respect the independence of the media and to uphold the right to privacy will ring hollow in the absence of meaningful action to safeguard these rights in practice.

The most disturbing omission in the outcome document was any reference to the need for a peaceful cyberspace, a precondition for realizing the varied goals of WSIS. One searches in vain in the document for any substantive mention of “peace” despite the fact that paragraph 36 of the 2005 WSIS Tunis Commitment explicitly recognized the importance of conflict prevention and the role of ICT in enabling the UN’s peacekeeping and peacemaking functions. When it turns to the subject of security, the recent document refers only to “the leading role for governments in cyber security matters relating to national security,” without any acknowledgment of their responsibility for maintaining global cyber security.

In the absence of cooperative security arrangements it is all too easy to envisage clashes among states as they pursue their “national security” interests with civil society interests becoming only so much collateral damage. Post the WSIS+10 review, other cyber security stakeholders will have to redouble their efforts to ensure that irresponsible state conduct in cyberspace is not allowed to compromise this unique environment. Such state action if left unchecked could well turn the WSIS vision into a nightmare.