Inside the Digital Society: Reviewing a World Summit

It’s fifteen years since the World Summit on the Information Society – and the United Nations is pledged to hold a review of what has happened since the Summit in 2025. But are the outcomes of the Summit still relevant today, after fifteen years of breakneck change in technology and services? How should the UN go about reviewing it?

This week’s blog is the speech I made last week to the UN’s Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) in response to those questions.  It asks four questions:

  • What have we learnt since WSIS?

  • Where do we stand today?

  • What should be our priorities for the review?

  • What does the WSIS vision of a ‘people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society’ mean today and in the future?

Reviewing a World Summit, fifteen years later 

I’m a WSIS veteran. I wasn’t at the ITU Conference in 1998, which launched the concept of a World Summit on the Information Society, but I was at all the global preparatory meetings and the summits in Geneva and Tunis. I’ve been at most of the WSIS Fora and every IGF.  I’ve worked with CSTD, UNESCO, UNCTAD, ITU, DESA and the General Assembly to review outcomes from the Summit. 

So I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about WSIS, its impact and how to improve our understanding of how ICTs are changing the world around us.  

The General Assembly has agreed to hold a 20-year review in 2025. In the next fifteen minutes, I’ll suggest some of the big picture issues that we need to think about.

It’s worth noting that the Sustainable Development Summit in 1992 was followed by ten- and twenty-year reviews. These moved international thinking on from the context, circumstances and challenges of ‘92 and were crucial to developing the SDGs.  

The Information Society has changed even faster than sustainable development. We need a clear understanding of what the Information Society and the WSIS vision mean today in order to move forward in that way. I think we need to ask these questions:

  • What have we learnt since WSIS?

  • Where do we stand today?

  • What should be our priorities for the review?

  • What does the WSIS vision of a ‘people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society’ mean in the age of Facebook and Alibaba, cloud computing, big data and the Internet of Things?  What will it mean in an age of machine learning, algorithmic decision-making and quantum computing?  

So, first, what have we learnt since WSIS?

I’ll begin with digital divides. We’ve learnt that these persist; that they reflect existing inequalities between countries and within societies; and that they may exacerbate those inequalities.

Our goal is to enable access for all to the best available technology. The gains we’ve made since WSIS are impressive. Half the world’s online, to some extent at least.  

That’s much faster growth than electricity or sanitation, but it’s not enough to meet the sustainable development objective that we leave no-one behind. And the goalposts are shifting.  

  • Thirty years ago, some countries’ universal access strategies sought a public payphone within walking distance of every village.  

  • The big deal at WSIS was telecentres, providing public access to telephony and Internet.

  • Today, the aim’s broadband Internet for all, delivered to handheld devices.  

  • 5G’s on the horizon and 6G being talked about.  

Each new upgrade moves digital divides, as well as access, up a notch.

Access is much greater in developed than developing countries.  Women, rural-dwellers and more vulnerable social groups are less likely to have access, and likely to have less or poorer access.  

Growth in access is also slowing, leaving a hardcore of unconnected in a majority of now-connected.

And the impact of divides is crucial.  Access to information empowers the rich and powerful more quickly than the poor and vulnerable.  That means it may exacerbate inequalities in wealth and power. 

What have we learnt about development?  Last year the Secretary-General identified three ways that ICTs have had an impact.

  • First, applications and strategies in specific sectors like health and education.  

  • Second, adoption by businesses and citizens of more efficient ways of doing things, like mobile money.

  • Third, more subtle changes in the ways people relate to one another, to government and business, where and how they live and work.

These have enabled positive developmental gains but, thanks to digital divides, their impact varies. It’s more dynamic in developed countries, urban areas, for wealthier communities and individuals; in services and manufacturing economies than those dependent on commodities.  

We’ve learnt that ICTs don’t guarantee developmental gains. They need enabling frameworks that relate them to development, and policies to benefit the many, not the few.  

Third, we’ve learnt that impacts from the Information Society are complex and unpredictable; that we should be as wise to the threats posed by digitalisation as to its opportunities.

The WSIS documents were optimistic that ICTs would overcome the persistent challenges confronting us. But rapid, radical change poses risks as well: direct and indirect, intended and unintended.  

Information technologies can be used not just for good, but also for harm. As well as informing and empowering us, they can be used to monitor and to control. There are many unintended consequences: some we applaud, some we regret.

We’ve also learnt much more about the links between ICTs and other issues.

Internet pioneers often thought of cyberspace as separate from the physical world. We know now that online and offline worlds are closely, and increasingly, embedded in each other. It’s the interaction between them that’s the crux.

And ICTs are not the only new technologies enabling rapid change.  Other frontier technologies – gene-editing, nanotechnology, renewable energy – are developing apace.  They interact with digitalisation and raise similar and complex ethical questions.

The world today is facing many challenges. Longstanding problems of poverty and inequality. More recent risks like climate change, resource depletion and pollution. Existential threats from global insecurity.  

ICTs are not the answer to these problems: they can help address them or they may make them worse. Understanding which and how is crucial to developing responses.

Now: where are we today?

At WSIS, the Information Society was an aspiration. Today it’s an observed reality – but the context’s changed.  

WSIS discussions focused on the Internet. Now, that’s one enabling platform for a range of digital technologies built round datafication; one part of a much bigger picture. It’s big data and the innovations that exploit it that preoccupy technologists, big businesses and governments.

Increasingly, we talk about a ‘digital society’. The Secretary-General’s high-level panel was on ‘digital cooperation’, not Internet governance. UNCTAD’s changed the title of its flagship study from ‘Information Economy’ to ‘Digital Economy Report’.  

Firms that began by leveraging the Internet – like Google – are now data management corporations active on many technological frontiers. They include seven of the eight most powerful businesses worldwide, in terms of market capital, with enormous reach and scope.

The digital economy is concentrated in two countries – the United States and China. Not exclusively the global North but not widely distributed in either North or South. Europe has just 4 per cent of the sector’s market capital; Africa and Latin America just one per cent between them.

What else?  For many, there’s anxiety.  

If people are to use technology effectively, they need to believe that it will help, not harm, them; to feel they’ll be empowered, not harassed or defrauded; their privacy respected and protected.  

We know how vulnerable technology’s become to system failure and to malice. The term “cybersecurity” covers many issues: risks to digital systems themselves and risks through them to individuals, to businesses and public order. Measuring it’s a part of measuring the WSIS outcomes.

What people fear most is the ‘unknown unknown’: that innovation’s certain but there’s no clarity what it will mean. Will disruptive new technology destroy established ways of doing things and threaten their communities? Or will it make life better for them? Will automation and robotics destroy jobs? 

Another theme’s concerned with rights and ethics.

The WSIS documents stressed human rights, and the General Assembly’s been clear that these apply online and offline equally. But the means by which they’re exercised, enforced and violated differ in scope and scale online from those that we’re familiar with offline.  

The clearest example’s privacy and data management. In the past, personal data had to be explicitly obtained from individuals. Today, they’re gathered by default through people’s online footprints. Gathered in massive quantities, not just by governments but more intensively by corporations. Combined from different sources. And leveraged through algorithms that may have major impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods.

Digitalisation by default is central to the business models of data corporations and to the goals of many governments, not least to improve public services. Issues of data privacy have revitalised debates on regulation, while proposals on ethics for a digital environment are proliferating. Three questions:

  • How do we shape the future without jeopardising either scope for innovation or human welfare? 

  • How do we avoid consequences that are both detrimental and irreversible?  

  • Where does artificial intelligence fit within the vision of a ‘people-centred’ Information Society?

What of governance?  

WSIS’ approach to multistakeholder participation has had widespread resonance. But we’ve found that it’s not easy, or appropriate, to put stakeholders in three or four boxes and think that that’s “job done”.

We’ve struggled to integrate multilateral and multistakeholder forms of governance, to ensure equal engagement by developing countries, and to involve expertise from different sectors.  

Many fora have been dominated by Internet insiders, with little space for different viewpoints or those who feel they’re subjects, not actors, in the digital environment.  

Multistakeholder participation isn’t just a challenge to governments and multilateral fora. Many decisions that have lasting ramifications for the Information Society are made in corporation boardrooms. The Secretary-General insisted last year at the IGF that we should not ‘leave our fate in the digital era to the invisible hand of market forces.’  

There’s been proliferation, too, of late, in international discussion spaces. One recent study identified more than a thousand. Smaller and developing countries, most businesses and civil society organisations find it hard to make their voices heard amidst the babble made by powerful insiders.  

These challenges have been considered by the High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation. There’s clearly need for all stakeholders to consider innovative ways to collaborate and build consensus, and perhaps they should be less conservative about preserving those with which they are familiar and comfortable.

Last, I’ll suggest four priorities for the review.

The usual way to review the outcomes from a summit is to measure progress against targets.

Much of that’s been done for WSIS.  The Summit’s ten-year access targets received their Final Review in 2015. CSTD published comprehensive reviews of WSIS outcomes five and ten years after the Summit. The ITU and General Assembly also undertook ten-year reviews.

There’s an important place for assessing progress against targets, particularly on access and inclusion. But the purpose isn’t academic. A review should be forward- as well as backward-looking.  

The Information Society today is radically different from that fifteen years ago. Connectivity and access are transformed in scope and scale. Technologies and services that weren’t envisaged then are now mainstream. A further wave of new technology and services is on us.  

If we’re to shape a ‘people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented’ Information Society, we need to look not just at where we were but where we are and where we hope to be. We need to address the impact of ICTs. And we need to understand the differences that will result from digital divides.  

Which means we need more evidence. The Information Society is built on data, but the data that we use to measure it are poor. In many countries, even official figures on connectivity are out-of-date or estimates.

  • We need disaggregated data, to understand the differences between regions and countries, adults and children, urban and rural areas, women and men, rich and poor. 

  • Accurate and detailed information about the impact of ICTs on health, education and the digital economy, not numbers based on hope or guesswork.  

  • Understanding of changes in behaviour and social norms, relationships and governance.  

  • We need to look more critically at the data sets we have and relate them to other sources including qualitative indicators such as those in UNESCO’s ROAM framework. 

  • We need to measure threats as well as opportunities.  

And if we’re to have these data to review in 2025, we need to start gathering them now.

Third, digitalisation and its impacts are complex, often unexpected and hard to predict. If it’s to be useful, speculation about them must be based on rigorous analysis of trends and likely new developments, rather than on hope and spin.  

Too much rhetoric at WSIS concerned what ICTs ‘could’ do in ideal circumstances. Perhaps too much today is based on what ‘might’ result if things go wrong.  

Neither hyberbole nor scaremongering is helpful. CSTD has called for serious foresight analysis, exploring trends and scenarios for frontier technologies, considering opportunities and risks, anticipating governance and regulatory options that could achieve desired outcomes.

My final point concerns engagement. 

Multistakeholder participation is not an end in itself. Its purpose is to improve the quality of policy and decision-making by drawing on the expertise of all and responding to their needs.  

But many assessments of the Information Society have been dominated by powerful insiders in government, business and technology.  

Of course, their views are crucial, but a review that’s based on WSIS’ vision should include all viewpoints, from all countries; users as well as leaders in technology; those whose expertise lies in economics and social science, environment, governance, rights, education, social welfare and other areas impacted by technology.  

It should be multisectoral and multidisciplinary – and here I cite again the Secretary-General – as well as multilateral and multistakeholder.

I’ll summarise.

The development of the Information Society has been more rapid and complex than we anticipated at the time of WSIS. A huge amount has happened, some expected, much unexpected.

The challenge of the 2025 review, it seems to me, is to ensure that it does not focus on what has happened so far at the expense of where we are today and where we’re headed. The focus should be, I suggest, on WSIS’ vision of a ‘people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society.’ What does that mean today and in the future?

I’ve said before that I think we should ask three questions in this context:

  • What do we want to preserve?

  • What do we want to promote?

  • What do we want to prevent?

The UN is important here because it includes all nations – developed and developing, those that lead technology and those that don’t. Achieving consensus on a future vision’s difficult but not impossible. It’s what was achieved at WSIS after all, despite the doubts of many. Likewise the SDGs.

As with the SDGs, all UN agencies have parts to play.  CSTD was asked, after WSIS, to facilitate oversight across the UN system. It has unique capacity for this because it draws together expertise in ICTs with other areas of science, technology and innovation.  

That dual mandate was crucial to the contribution which its comprehensive studies in 2010 and 2015 made to the ten-year review of WSIS five years ago. I hope CSTD will continue to play its unique role as we move towards and beyond the twenty-year review.

Next week: reflections on the telephone.

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.
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