Not All UN Bodies Are Trying to 'Take Over' the Internet: Multistakeholder Governance Shines at UNESCO

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Last December's World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), hosted by the ITU in Dubai, revealed a broad spectrum of views about the future of the Internet. Many commentators have focused on the binary outcome: more than 50 countries, including the U.S. and the EU nations, did not sign the treaty, while Russia and China were vocal proponents of more centralized, government-led control of the Internet. But that's nothing new, and the reality is that most nations, whether they signed the treaty or not, fall somewhere in between.

As the Internet becomes increasingly essential to everyday life in all corners of the globe, governments -- and other stakeholders -- are facing major questions of national and international policy. The answers we reach could have a transformative impact on Internet freedom in the coming years. And the clash at WCIT over what role a treaty-based intergovernmental agency should have in the future development and governance of the Internet has convinced some U.S. policymakers that Internet freedom is under an existential threat from the United Nations.

It is all too easy to paint the UN system with a broad brush, but the UN is simply not monolithic. There are other UN institutions deeply engaged in the Internet governance debate -- UNESCO chief among them -- that stand firmly for preserving Internet freedom and the multi-stakeholder governance model. Last week in Paris, UNESCO convened Internet experts and advocates to start preparing for the 10-year review of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2015, one of two review meetings scheduled for gauging the progress made on action items from the WSIS held in Geneva in 2003 and Tunis in 2005. (The other review meeting will be held by the ITU in 2014.)

UNESCO's WSIS+10 review was open, participatory and transparent, with UNESCO facilitating collaboration throughout the event, demonstrating that international multi-stakeholder events can effectively function as fora for exchanging information, policy ideas and knowledge. With valuable discussion occurring across a range of workshops covering issues such as cyber-security, privacy, multi-stakeholder principles, gender equality and empowerment, the UNESCO event brought experts together in an inclusive and productive environment.

Human rights and the multi-stakeholder model were central to the discussions. Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, called the Internet an instrument of peace, an enabler of human rights and a communications medium that must not be governed by any one stakeholder alone but by all. And, our civil society partner Grace Githaiga from KICTANet in Kenya provided a strong analysis of both challenges and opportunities for the information society, putting some context to the rhetoric around multi-stakeholderism:

[A]n understanding of the human rights environment online calls for an understanding of the technical design of the Internet and how it is shaped by commercial forces as well as looking at the kinds of content it carries, and the controls that apply to such content. As we reflect on WSIS + 10, and as someone who comes from Kenya, I can attest to the fact that the multi-stakeholder model endorsed at WSIS IS doable and has worked for us. It has deepened efforts to expand access and therefore needs to be preserved. There is need for all sectors, all countries to work together to bridge divides, tackle issues, and not allow geopolitical interests to prevail.

The UNESCO meeting produced a final statement that called for an expanded vision of the "information society" and a renewed commitment to information and knowledge for all. It emphasized that multistakeholder processes play an important part in policy development on a whole host of issues in knowledge and information societies. The statement also invited all stakeholders to "acknowledge the importance of and renew their commitment to the Internet Governance Forum (IGF)." The establishment of the IGF was one of the most important outcomes of the WSIS process: it serves as an annual discussion forum for truly multistakeholder dialogue across the whole suite of Internet policy issues, and has spawned national and regional IGFs as stakeholders from nations across the globe realize the benefits of policy development that incorporates the expertise of technical experts, human rights advocates, government, industry and academics.

Critics have challenged the IGF as merely a "talk shop" that produces no concrete outcomes -- while this characterization gives short shrift to the benefit of discussions that occur out of the shadow of a binding negotiated text, there are also on-going efforts to reform the IGF and help it develop into more of a destination for policymakers seeking human-rights-respecting policy solutions. With this statement, UNESCO has clearly indicated its intent to act as a champion of IGF and the multistakeholder model during Internet governance debates in the years to come. This is an effort that all of us should actively support as well.

At the end of the first WSIS+10 review, UNESCO has taken a very firm and important stand endorsing the multistakeholder model, encouraging respect for human rights and calling for the maintaining of an open Internet. We must be vigilant and ensure that recognition of these essential building blocks of the Internet remains at the fore throughout the WSIS review process and related deliberations on Internet governance going forward.