UN puts off decision on overall review of WSIS for a few more months

On 14 November 2013, at the 35th meeting of the Second Committee, on behalf of the G77 States, Fiji presented a draft update to the annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution that bears the title, “Information and communications technologies for development”.

Every year, it seems that the first draft of this resolution causes a bit of a stir amongst the Member States who weren’t involved in the drafting. This first draft is then followed by lots of informal consultations between Member States and, finally, a new compromise draft that deletes or modifies some of the proposed updates and adds some new text that, in essence, is a counterbalance to the particular views of the original drafters.

This, of course, is what happened to this year’s “Information and communications technologies for development” (ICT4D) resolution. The version that Fiji presented, A/C.2/68/L.40, was particularly contentious, however, because of the looming deadline of the 10th anniversary of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS+10). Just as many folks go into a panic when they hear the in-laws are coming to stay, the ever-nearing arrival date of WSIS+10 in 2015 has caused pretty much everyone–Member States and other stakeholders in Internet governance, in particular–to spend a lot of time discussing what should change, how much should change, and who’s going to pay for it all.

The G77 version of the ICT4D resolution was problematic for many Member States primarily because it suggested having a full-scale review summit, complete with a series of preparatory meetings. Russia had already proposed this at the 16th Session of the CSTD in June 2013. At that time, CSTD Member States hadn’t supported the idea because a) it was clear it would cost the UN and Member States a lot of money that they didn’t want to spend, and b) the whole issue of ICTs for development may potentially become part of the high-level Summit in September 2015 that will mark the next phase of Millennium Development Goals.

After a month of informal consultations, the Vice-Chair of Second Committee verbally presented a compromise draft, A/C.2/68/L.73, on 11 December 2013. That verbal proposal was adopted by consensus.

Below is a brief overview of the main differences between the November (not adopted) and December (adopted) versions of the ICT4D resolution.

What’s new in the adopted ICT4D resolution?

1. UNGA Second Committee decides not to decide…. yet

The most significant change between the G77 and the adopted ICT4D resolution was the removal of text that would launch a full-scale WSIS Review Summit, complete with a preparatory process that would begin in January. Instead, the consensus resolution defers the decision on what to with WSIS+10 until the first quarter next year-by the end of March 2014 at the absolute latest.

2. “Open intergovernmental consultations” will be used to develop the modalities of 2015 WSIS+10 review

I have no idea what “open intergovernmental consultations” means. Does it mean that instead of “informal consultations” that happen in small rooms, the “open consultations” will be publicly webcast? Does it mean that non-government observers may be allowed to observe in the room itself? I suspect the phrase will have as many interpretations as the Tunis Agenda’s “enhanced cooperation” text. However, given these open consultations have a maximum lifespan of three months,  decisions about the modalities of the “open intergovernmental consultations” which will develop the modalities of the WSIS+10 2015 event need to be made public as quickly as possible.

What is very clear, though, is that the process will be intergovernmental and not involve other stakeholders. (Perhaps the word “open” was added to appease the many non-government stakeholders in the WSIS process who aren’t being consulted: the process, although multilateral, is to be open and transparent, at least.)

3. The Brazil meeting on global Internet governance

The resolution “welcomes” the meeting. Short and sweet.

4. There are countries lined up to hold the next three IGFs

The resolution “welcomes” the offers by Turkey, Brazil and Mexico to hold the next three IGFs. Mexico, of course, will only have its offer taken up if the IGF’s mandate is renewed past 2015.

5. Recognition that non-government stakeholders play an important role in ICTs

This is worth quoting in full:

Further stresses the important role played by private sector, civil society and technical communities in information and communications technologies

Surprisingly, although the Tunis Agenda recognizes the important role all stakeholders have to play in ICTs, the UNGA ICT4D resolutions never seem to have explicitly included a similar statement. They have included statements about the role of non-government stakeholders in the international management of the Internet, however. But for the first time here in this consensus resolution, the academic and technical communities make an appearance in that Internet management paragraph.

6. References to more recent UN events and resolutions were added

Of particular interest to the Internet governance crowd are the following additions:

What didn’t make it into the adopted ICT4D resolution?

1. ITU Council 2001 Resolution 1179 is out

ITU’s 2001 Council Resolution 1179 endorsed having a two-phase WSIS in 2003 and 2005. The removal of the reference to this old ITU resolution is probably a response to two things:

  • There have been concerns expressed that the original G77 draft contained too many references to ITU’s involvement in WSIS and not enough acknowledgement of the other UN partners in WSIS.
  • The resolution is so old and obscure that it doesn’t really have any relevance to the UN-wide process that will decide the way forward in 2015 and beyond.

2. The glowing description about the WSIS Forum was deleted

ITU’s media department might be disappointed that this description of ITU’s multistakeholder poster child was removed:

[The WSIS Forum has] become a key forum for multi-stakeholder debate on pertinent issues related to the World Summit process, and noting further that the Forum’s inclusiveness, openness and thematic focus have strengthened responsiveness to stakeholders and contributed to increased physical and remote participation

3. Financing by the private sector is out

This whole paragraph was removed:

Recognizing that, in addition to financing by the public sector, financing of information and communications technologies infrastructure by the private sector is playing an important role in many countries

This is an interesting deletion. Usually, it’s the non-G77 countries such as the USA and European countries that like references to the important role of the private sector. Perhaps it was deleted because it could be interpreted as encouraging governments to start applying ICT infrastructure taxes or other financial requirements to private sector entities within their borders. Perhaps it was deleted because the issue of finance is always a difficult one and in the interests of getting the resolution adopted before the end of the year, it was expedient to remove such obvious speed bumps.

4. No “new and additional” resources for the implementation of WSIS outcomes

Instead, UN funds and programs and specialized agencies are to allocate “adequate” resources to WSIS implementation. Here, we see the usual division between the developing States who wrote the draft in November wanting access to UN funds to help them implement WSIS in their countries while the better-resourced UN donor countries don’t want to put more money in the pot. “Adequate” is a compromise. Developing countries can interpret it as meaning “more resources” while developed countries can interpret as “we don’t have to increase our contributions to the UN”.