World Summit on the Information Society

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WSIS (World Summit on the Information Society) was a two phase Summit endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly under Resolution 56/183 to address the whole range of relevant issues related to the Information Society, through the development of a common vision and understanding of the Information Society and the adoption of a Declaration and a Plan of Action for Implementation by Governments, International Organizations, civil society and business entities. WSIS was an intergovernmental Summit like all Summits of the UN System. It was not a real multistakeholder event, but it was probably the most inclusive of all UN Summits (with International Organizations, civil society and business entities playing an important role in the preparation and discussion) and went to the limits of what Global Governance (within the UN System) can mean today. The first phase of the Summit was held in Geneva in 2003, and the second in Tunis in 2005; WSIS was the biggest global gathering up to now regarding the Information Society, more than 19,000 individuals (heads of State and Government, diplomats, representatives from International Organizations, from civil society and from business entities) from 174 countries participated in the Tunis event.[1]


The idea of holding a UN Summit on the Information Society had been floating in diplomatic circles already for some time in the late 1990s. UNESCO was thinking about holding such a Summit, but the political situation at UNESCO (in political conflict with the USA) was not conducive for such a proposal. In 1998, Tunisia initiated the idea of conducting a World Summit on the Information Society at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Plenipotentiary Conference of Minneapolis. While the first tunisian draft of the resolution was talking about an information technology Summit (clearly an ITU theme), the final draft adopted by ITU as Resolution 73 of the Minneapolis Plenipotentiary Conference went beyond mere technology and spoke about the Information Society as a whole (which meant a UN Summit going beyond the boundaries of ITU and involving the UN system as a whole). In 1999, the United Nations Secretary General expressed enormous support to the proposed Summit and in early 2002 the UN General Assembly created the framework for the Summit under Resolution 56/183. UN General Assembly Resolution 56/183 adopted the idea of a Summit in two phases. The two phases were a novelty for UN Summits. The main reason was that two countries, Tunisia and Switzerland, offered to hold the Summit, Tunisia as it had initiated the idea of the Summit at the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference of Minneapolis and Switzerland because it is the host country of ITU since 1865. Resolution 56/183 also defined the role of ITU as the lead agency for the Summit in cooperation with all other interested organizations and partners of the UN System. By 2001, ITU started the preparations for holding the WSIS (with 3 PrepComs each for the Geneva and the Tunis phase). The first phase of the Summit was held in Geneva on December 10-12, 2003 and the second phase in Tunis on November 16-18, 2005.[2]

High-Level Summit Organizing Committee

In order to coordinate the efforts of the United Nations family in the preparation, organization and holding of WSIS, a High-Level Summit Organizing Committee (HLSOC) was established under the patronage of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Composed of a Representative of the UN Secretary-General and Executive Heads of the FAO, IAEA, ICAO, ILO, IMO, ITU, UN Regional Economic Commissions, UNCTAD, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNHCHR, UNHCR, UNIDO, UNU, UPU, WFP, WHO, WIPO, WMO, World Bank, WTO, it also included IADB, IOM, OECD, UNFIP, UNITAR, UNV as observers. The Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union served as Chairman of HLSOC.

The WSIS Executive Secretariat

The WSIS Executive Secretariat was run by ITU under the responsibility of the Secretary General of the ITU and Secretary General of the Summit, Mr. Yoshio Utsumi

The Secretariat was headed by

  • Mr. Pierre Gagné, Executive Director of the Geneva Phase of the Summit
  • Mr. Charles Geiger, Executive Director of the Tunis Phase of the Summit

Mr. Alain Clerc and Ms. Louise Lassonde were Heads of the Civil Society Division of the Executive Secretariat for the Geneva Phase of the Summit

Other members of the Executive Secretariat included:

  • Mr. Art Levin, Chief of the ITU Coordination, External Relations and Communication Units
  • Dr. Tim Kelly, Chief of ITU Strategy and Policy Unit
  • Mr. Fernando Lagraña, Executive Manager of ITU TELECOM

First Phase: Geneva 2003

The first phase of the WSIS was held in Geneva in 2003 and was attended by 11,000 people from 175 countries. The main objective of the event was to create and promote commitment and political will among the participants to take action in making the information society accessible for everyone, to allow all to achieve their full potential and promote development and enrich the world's quality of life. This objective was clearly stated in the Declaration of Principle adopted by the participants in the summit.[3] In addition, a Plan of Action was established outlining the specific goals and objectives of the overall Information Society to be achieved by 2015 through international cooperation.[4]

Ambassador David Gross, United States coordinator for Communication and Information Policy, emphasized the "three pillars" of the U.S. government's stand at the WSIS in Geneva, which include: commitment to the private sector and the rule of law must be emphasized in the summit for countries to attract the needed investments for infrastructure; intellectual property protection is needed to inspire ongoing content development and security of the internet; electronic communication, commerce, and privacy should be maintained and people should feel safe from cyber attacks.[5]


One of the main issues that was strongly objected to by the Bush Administration during the WSIS summit in Geneva was the proposal for the United Nations to control the top-level servers that direct traffic to the master data bases for all domain names, wherein the ITU, an organization under the UN, offered to take over the control from the United States. This idea was highly supported by the European Commission.[6]

Second Phase: Tunis 2005

The WSIS Summit in Tunis was attended by more than 19,000 participants from different governments, international organizations, non-government organizations, civil society, business entities and members of the media. During the second phase of the summit, participants repeated their commitment and support for the Geneva Declaration and Action Plan in 2003. The summit in Tunis was focused on the financial strategies to meet the challenges posed by Information Communication and Technology development. Participants in the summit identified areas of ICT development that need larger financial resources, such as: ICT capacity-building programs, communication access and communication access for ICT services and applications in remote rural areas and small island developing states, regional backbone infrastructure, regional networks, network access points, broadband capacity, and many other areas and issues that needed to be resolved. In addition, they also recognized the important roles of both private and public sectors in financing ICT infrastructures and they encouraged multilateral institutions to consider helping and providing additional financial support in regional and large scale ICT Infrastructure projects.[7]

Prior to the opening of WSIS Summit in Tunis, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan pointed out that the main objective is not to take over or control the Internet but to ensure that poor countries will have access and enjoy the full benefits of the internet and the latest developments in information ad communication technologies. The UN Secretary General also shared the findings from the report of the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) wherein internet stakeholders proposed the creation of a "new space of dialogue" that will bring all stake holders to share information, best practices and problems. He also pointed out that no one proposed for the United Nations to take over the control of the Internet from the current technical organization, the ICANN, which manages the activities of the internet in an international and private capacity.[8]


ICANN participated in the WSIS; the internet governing body's stakeholder groups organized a WSIS Working Group in 2004 to increase awareness and understanding regarding the goals and objectives of the summit and the issues that will affect ICANN. The WSIS Working Group was in charge of:[9]

  • Disseminating information among stakeholders and the internet community as a whole regarding the recent developments and upcoming events related to WSIS and ICANN
  • Promoting dialogue and mutual understanding of positions on the WSIS and the issues affecting ICANN
  • Increasing the awareness of the diverse interests, priorities and activities related to the WSIS
  • Enhancing stakeholder participation in the WSIS as it relates to ICANN's activities

The ICANN WSIS Working Group also conducted different workshops related to the event in cities around the world such as Rome, Kuala Lumpur, Cape Town and Mar del Plata.

Dr. Paul Twomey, then President and CEO of ICANN, spoke at the plenary session of the WSIS on December 11, 2003 in Geneva. He stated ICANN's commitment to achieving the goals of the UN Secretary General for the Information Society and the objectives of the WSIS. In his speech, Twomey pointed out that ICANN doesn't stand in the way of governments, instead ICANN promotes equal participation from all sectors to discuss the issues surrounding the Internet. He also emphasized that ICANN is working towards the expansion of the internet with its global, regional governmental, private sector, technical and civil society partners as well as increasing its global presence in a multilingual capacity.[10]

EC Proposal on Internet Governance

During the preparatory meeting in Geneva prior to the WSIS in Tunis, the European Commission (EC) recommended the creation of a new "co-operation model" for Internet governance. The proposal allows the involvement of international governments in developing and establishing public policies related to naming, numbering and addressing-related issues, which include:[11]

  • global allocation system of IP number blocks
  • procedures for changing the root zone file particularly the introduction of new top level domains in the DNS and changes of ccTLD managers
  • development of contingency plans to ensure the continuity of crucial DNS functions
  • establishment of an arbitration and dispute resolution mechanism based on international law
  • rules applicable to DNS system

During the Geneva meeting, EU IT Commissioner Viviane Reding warned that the Internet will not succeed if governments will not be able to agree on a multilateral approach to Internet governance. According to her, it is possible for countries like China, Russia, Brazil, and Arab nations to operate their own versions of the Internet. She said, "We have to have a platform where leaders of the world can express their thoughts about the Internet, If they have the impression that the Internet is dominated by one nation and it does not belong to all the nations then the result could be that the Internet falls apart." The proposal of the EC was supported by some countries like China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, however, a majority of countries were uncomfortable with the proposal and rejected it.[12]

Former Swedish Prime Minister Carld Bildt strongly criticized the recommendation of the EC. He said, "It would be profoundly dangerous to now set up an international mechanism, controlled by governments, to take over the running of the Internet. Not only would this play into the hands of regimes bent on limiting the freedom that the Internet can bring, but it also risks stifling innovation and ultimately endangering the security of the system." According to him, the EC seems to have gone too far in its proposal to set up a mechanism that would limit access to the Internet. He pointed out that "Europeans should be as keen as anyone to preserve the essence of a system that has worked amazingly well."[13]


In 2025, the U.N. General Assembly will conduct a review of the outcomes of the WSIS, called WSIS+20, to assess progress and identify challenges and areas for continued focus. The review in 2015, WSIS+10, resulted in an Outcome Document, which reconfirmed the WSIS Tunis Agenda. The WSIS+20 Review is not an isolated process within the U.N. It will place after several other concurrent processes have concluded, each of which could affect WSIS+20. They include the Global Digital Compact,[14] the Internet Governance Forum, the Leadership Panel, the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG), and the Ad-Hoc Committee (AHC).[15]