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15 years of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)

Published on 10 September 2020
Updated on 04 May 2024
WSIS 2020

This year, we celebrate the 15th anniversary of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). For this occasion, as part of the WSIS Forum 2020, a series of high-level discussions are being held between 7–10 September 2020.

Understanding the digital landscape

Back in 2005, when WSIS participants met in Tunis (Tunisia), Facebook was in its early days, Twitter and YouTube were about to be launched, and most other social media companies didn’t even exist.

Fifteen years later, the world is very different, and digital technology is shaping our personal/economic/political reality, and underpinning critical infrastructure upon which modern societies depend on.

After a quick glance at the tables below, one cannot but notice the astonishing growth in Internet users at the regional, and, ultimately, the global level. The leadership of tech companies in today’s financial market also makes for an eye-catching change.

Table 1: Number of Internet users


Internet users in 2005

Internet users in 2020

Percentage increase

North America












Latin America and the Caribbean












Middle East








Source: Internet World Statistics, 2020.[1]

Table 2: Market capitalisation in billion USD





General Electrics (382,233)

Apple Inc. (1,576,000)


Exxon Mobil (380,567)

Microsoft (1,551,000)


Microsoft (262,975)

Amazon.com (1,432,590)


Citygroup (234,437)

Alphabet Inc. (979,700)


BP (221,365)

Facebook  (675,690)


Walmart (212,209)

Tencent (620,920)


Royal Dutch Shell (210,630)

Alibaba Group (579,740)


Johnson & Johnson (199,711)

Berkshire Hathaway (432,570)


Pfitzer (195,945)

Visa (412,710)


Bank of America (178,765)

Johnson & Johnson (370,590)

Source: Wikipedia [2]

As we can see, the digital landscape has transformed completely, yet digital governance remains almost the same as 15 years ago when WSIS met for the first time in Tunisia.

As such, it does not reflect the growing risks and higher political stakes that digital growth has brought about. 

When the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres established the UN High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation in 2018, he recognised the need for the upgrade and update of digital governance. After receiving the Panel’s report titled ‘The Age of Digital Interdependence’ (June 2019), which mapped out some of the pressing challenges and opportunities of digital governance, the secretary general conducted extensive consultations with governmental, private sector, and civil society stakeholders on the Panel’s recommendations for a way forward, which resulted in the Roadmap for Digital Cooperation issued in June 2020. The key part of this process is the proposal for a new digital governance architecture centered around the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) which has been referred to as the IGF Plus. 

The Panel and Roadmap opted for an evolutionary approach, building on the experience and expertise of the IGF which was established by WSIS. A deeper understanding of how the current institutions, processes, and concepts came into being is required in order to grasp this evolutionary approach.

The aim of this paper is, therefore, to shed more light on the evolution of WSIS, beginning with its origins, via an analysis of its achievements, and concluding with reflections on what we can learn from the WSIS experience in regard to future digital developments.

1. 1998: WSIS and the axial year for digital policy

The conceptual basis of today’s digital governance was set in 1998 at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Plenipotentiary Conference held in Minneapolis. It was here that the decision to start preparations for WSIS was made, and the establishment of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in Los Angeles agreed. In just a few weeks, international and tech communities outlined the digital governance architecture which we will revisit below.

The ‘1998 compromise’ was built around two key elements. The first pertains to ITU’s efforts to step away from its previous attempts for leadership in the governance of domain names. Instead, it opted to organise the first global summit on the information society (as per the ‘lingo’ of the time). It was the last major summit in a series of summits covering the environment (Rio, 1992), human rights (Vienna, 1993), family (Cairo, 1994), women (Beijing, 1995), and human settlement (Istanbul, 1996). The second part of the ‘1998 compromise’ was the establishment of ICANN which became a central part in managing Internet domains, a key element in the infrastructure of the Internet.

The trade-off made in 1988 was also successful in bringing about some healthy tension between two approaches in dealing with digital issues: a multilateral one, represented by the WSIS process; and a multistakeholder one, represented by ICANN. As we will see, it also created a lot of cross-fertilisation, strengthened both processes, and triggered governance innovation. WSIS and the IGF, for their part, involved businesses, civil society, and other stakeholders, while ICANN increased the role of governments via the Government Advisory Council (GAC).

The careful implementation of the ‘1988 compromise’ led to an absurd situation when, during the first few regional preparatory events for WSIS in 2002, participants refrained from mentioning the word ‘Internet’, let alone discussing the question of Internet governance. This rather irrational occurrence was ‘broken’ in February 2003 when the West Asia WSIS preparatory conference proposed that WSIS should address Internet governance. Since that moment, the issue of Internet governance rose high on the agenda and remained ‘the elephant in the room’ throughout almost all WSIS discussions.

2. About WSIS

WSIS placed digital issues on the global policy agenda. The summit was organised in two phases: the first was held in Geneva (10–12 December 2003) where the establishment of the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) was agreed, while the second took place two years later in Tunis (16–18 November 2005) where WGIG’s proposal to establish the IGF was adopted.

WSIS-Tunis was a major event attended by nearly 20 000 representatives from governments, businesses, and civil society. The Summit set the stage for four main follow-up activities:

The WSIS Action Lines cover the digitalisation of health, education, security and other critical fields. The ITU is mandated with a task  to co-ordinate follow-ups on the WSIS Action Lines. To this end, the ITU hosts the annual WSIS Forum to evaluate the implementation of action lines. The 2020 WSIS Forum (WSIS+15) is taking place online between  7–10 September 2020.

The IGF was established as a compromise solution, mainly between developing countries that advocated for digital policies to be addressed by an international organisation (e.g. the ITU or a new international organisation devoted to the Internet), and developed countries (in particular the USA), as well as tech and business communities that argued that Internet policy should be addressed in a multistakeholder fashion, going beyond standard international organisations.

Aimed at accommodating the two opposing positions, the ‘Tunis compromise’ resulted in the creation of the IGF, a body under the UN umbrella. The IGF is the first body under the UN umbrella to address Internet-related issues (a win for the pro-government camp) which, on the other hand, does not make legally-binding decisions (a win for the multistakeholder camp).

Enhanced co-operation was an ‘add-on’ to the IGF ‘Tunis compromise’, and has been the most controversial issue in the post-WSIS debate, with two opposing positions:

  • predominantly developed countries which argue that enhanced co-operation already exists in practice; and
  • mainly developing countries that argue that enhanced cooperation requires a new body for coordination among governments at the UN level.

Despite three iterations, the Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation (WGEC) has still not managed to settle the two conflicting views. The IGF Plus proposal aimed to find a compromise solution by having a separate ‘government’ track within the overall IGF process. In this way, both sides in the debate can gain something. Proponents of the new mechanisms would acquire a new separate track which would be anchored within the existing IGF mechanisms, to the liking of proponents of ‘status quo’. If this IGF proposal gets traction, it could resolve the question of enhanced co-operation, the last open issues of the WSIS implementation.

The political follow-up and review process has been coordinated by the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD). The CSTD played a key role in the ten-year review of the WSIS+10 Process held in December 2015 in New York. The next review process is planned for 2025.

3. Digital policy foresight: 10 inputs from past WSIS developments

The passages below address some of the key issues tackled at the different stages of WSIS and offer an overview of the prospects for future discussions on digital policy issues, which are highlighted in blue.

3.1. ‘We the peoples…’as the center of digital governance[3]

We the people…’ as the first words of the UN Charter inspired the early stages of WSIS, but have throughout the years gradually disappeared in the meanders of digital governance. While the lives of people worldwide are being shaped by digital technology, individuals have less and less influence on how the digital world is shaped. To illustrate, since 2005, the economic power of tech companies (as shown in Table 2) has increased enormously. With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic early this year, governments have gained new room for political manoeuvre.

More than ever, they decide on the free movement and assembly of people and the distribution of emergency financial packages. Citizens, for their part, have less and less space to impact key decisions of society. Oftentimes, their voices are lost in the cacophony of social platforms or remain unheard in the political processes. It is therefore not surprising that we are seeing a rise in protests worldwide. Strengthening the voices of the people was one of the key tenets of WSIS which in today’s state of affairs has become even more relevant than it was in 2005.

Future: The UN should return the ‘we the people…’ spirit to the digital realm. The UN has the legitimacy to become the ‘digital home of humanity’, which would be open to all actors that affect or are affected by digital technology. Citizens, alongside countries and companies, should find the place where they can address their problems and search for solutions in inclusive, informed, and impactful ways. In political lingo, the ‘digital home’ should endorse a smart interplay between multilateral and multistakeholder approaches.

Most of the building blocks for the ‘digital home’ are included in the IGF Plus proposal of the UN High Level Report and the UN secretary general’s Roadmap. For instance, the network of help desks as part of the IGF Plus could help various actors get help for their digital policy problems, such as protection of data and privacy, content management, cybersecurity, etc. Policy incubators could help generate new policies. The Cooperation Accelerator could help connect the dots between increasingly diverse digital policy processes. The return to the fundamentals of the UN (‘we the people…’), by means of digital policy, could ensure the future relevance of the UN and global governance.

3.2. Compromise is key for dealing with digital interdependence

The WSIS negotiations were one of the first examples of the high relevance of compromise in dealing with digital interdependence. To illustrate, the WSIS process helped transform a potential conflict between ICANN and policy processes. The status of ICANN was the main ‘elephant in the room’ in many WSIS discussions. Many countries, as a result of the geopolitical suspicion after the Iraq War in the early 2000s, requested the internationalisation of the US supervision of ICANN. Following WSIS, the US government gradually started internationalising the role and structure of ICANN which, later on, resulted in the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) transition in September 2015.

The IGF arrangement (Article 72 of the Tunis Agenda) helped diffuse major policy tensions at WSIS 2005, facilitated a continuation of policy discussions, and provided a space for changes and the future evolution of the IGF. In addition, the IGF compromise was achieved in an open and transparent way which is not common in diplomatic compromise.

Future: The more digital interdependence increases, the more compromise and diplomacy will become relevant for digital governance. Military conflict and the use of force are not adequate tools for advancing national interests in a space with numerous interdependencies.  The need for engagement, compromise, and diplomacy is the underlying spirit of the High-Level Panel report titled ‘The Age of Digital Interdependence’. The Report proposes IGF Plus as one solution to manage digital interdependence through the inclusion of various actors and carefully balanced policy processes.

As digital governance processes extend beyond homogenous IGF/ITU/ICANN policy circles toward a wider policy space, there will be a need to reduce the possibilities of misunderstanding and confusion among increasingly diverse professional, national, and cultural communities participating in digital policy.

3.3.  Technology is changing, but the values remain the same

WSIS values and principles have passed the test of time. They reflect a wide range of approaches by combining two main inputs:

a) values such as people-centricity, inclusion, and orientation towards development have been central to digital developments since the 1970s when researchers and engineers designed the first Internet protocols and standards (inclusion and a solution-oriented approach); and

b) global values codified in the UN Charter and the UN Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR).

These core values and principles have been repeated on numerous occasions in many documents, including the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) R-O-A-M principles and NETmundial (2014) principles, to name a few.

Future: Artificial intelligence (AI), as a disruptive technology that increasingly challenges the central role of human agency in the running of modern society, poses a new stress-test for the core values and principles outlined in UN and WSIS documents.

So far, the search for a new formula that would enable the growth of AI while preserving the core values of humanity, led to hundreds of events and initiatives which resulted in the drafting of documents such as ethical codes, declarations, and national AI strategies. While these initiatives are similar in focus, they have not yet found solutions for the core tension of the modern era: the one between modernity (science, technology, efficiency, and optimisation) and humanity (human dignity and human rights). If we achieve to turn this tension into a creative solution, we could foster the future sustainable and inclusive progress of AI. 

3.4. Digital governance is about the cross-cutting coverage of the political, societal, legal, cultural, and economic aspects of technology

Prior to the WSIS process, the Internet was mainly discussed as a technological issue. WSIS made a change by introducing security, culture, e-learning, ethics, and other aspects covered by the set of WSIS action lines. Following the establishment of WSIS, the most specific policy areas, such as e-commerce, human rights, and cybersecurity, have evolved into specialised policy and academic fields with related events, policy communities, books, articles, and other publications. This specialisation led to the fragmentation of policy coverage of highly interdependent digital policy issues.

Future: Digital governance should become as interdisciplinary as digital technology. The main digital challenges cannot be effectively addressed in the policy silos covering technology, standardisation, security, commerce, and human rights, to name a few. AI governance will further highlight the need for holistic digital governance. This interplay between the silos and cross-cutting dynamics needs to be handled with great care. The reality is that cybersecurity practitioners will continue to meet in their niches whether it be the UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE), the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG), or professional organisations. The same applies to human rights, tech, commercial, and other communities. The key will be to nurture boundary spanners via training, organisational architecture, and the like.

The IGF Plus proposal includes a Cooperation Accelerator as a practical approach to improving cross-cutting coverage of issues across institutional, professional, and other barriers. ICANN, the WSIS Forum, UN organisations, and other policy spaces should build in links to other policy spaces in their architectures. Via horizontal cooperation, values of inclusion and transparency should make some digital policy spaces less opaque.

3.5. Digital technology is not only an enabler of development, but also an amplifier of new divides

In the 2000s, WSIS established a link between the digital and developmental sphere in, at that time, the spirit of the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). When the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were introduced in 2015, digital technology did not become a part of any specific SDG, but remained invisible, ‘18th SDG’, that cut across all 17 SDGs.

The rather rosy narrative on digital (and) development faced a ‘reality check’ with the landmark 2016 World Bank Development Report Digital Dividends which argued that, contrary to expectations, digitalisation did not increase productivity, reduce inequalities, and improve governance. Since 2016, these negative trends have further accelerated. As new tech companies emerge, older industries scramble to maintain their relevance through digitalisation. Jobs and livelihoods are at stake. Electoral and political systems are under greater pressure resulting from the misuse of online tools.

Future: The future steps should focus on unfinished ‘digital gaps’ in business. Namely, the concentration of the Internet-based economy, lack of access, and the concentration of data will remain high on the agenda. In addition, new divides are likely to emerge around emerging technologies such as AI. AI could not only concentrate Internet companies, but could also start concentrating human knowledge, leading to further divides beyond the digital ones. In the absence of a ‘tech invisible hand’, there is a need for informed and inclusive action aimed towards avoiding new digital divides.

3.6. Mapping and navigating digital policy space

Since 2005, when WGIG provided the initial mapping of digital policy, mapping of the complexity of digital policy has been high on the WSIS agenda. This mapping was further extended by the WGEC which identified 680 distinct mechanisms related to digital cooperation. [4] The number has risen to over a thousand digital policy mechanisms collected and systematised by the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP) Digital Watch observatory.

Future: The more complex digital space becomes, the more mapping will be needed. It will be particularly important for avoiding the duplication of actions while addressing, for example, AI, from a human rights, security, or another perspective. Mapping of digital governance will be particularly relevant for actors with limited human and financial resources in keeping track of the numerous policy processes and events in the digital field. Emerging technologies, such as AI and quantum computing, will require mapping and careful guidelines.

3.7. ‘Inclusion is central for a stable and prosperous digital society.’

The above title would have been the main WSIS tweet, if Twitter existed back in 2005. Inclusion has remained the central challenge ever since. WSIS helped us to step beyond the limited understanding of inclusion that solely encompasses technical access to the Internet. The broader understanding of the concept should encompass issues such as the development of new skills, creating an enabling policy environment for digital businesses, involving ‘missing actors’ in policy processes, etc. WSIS has also increased inclusion by increasing awareness and sharing knowledge about Internet governance and digital policy. It has also inspired the creation of academic networks (GIGANet), and other activities.

While a lot has been achieved, inclusion remains the main universal challenge affecting developed and developing countries alike. Some groups tend to be more excluded and marginalised online than others, as is the case with persons with disabilities, women and girls, youth and children, indigenous peoples, and other vulnerable groups.

Future: How to ensure meaningful and impactful participation? Inclusion needs to be addressed from two perspectives. First, missing actors and communities should be brought into the digital governance processes from the local to the global level, as per their policy interests. For example, small and developing countries are underrepresented in the current digital governance process. Second, once actors are included, there is a need to ensure their meaningful participation beyond mere formal participation, or observation disguised as participation. This meaningful participation will require training, and institutional capacity development and design of processes which would make it easier for individuals and small delegations to navigate governance discussions.

3.8. Subsidiarity: Finding solutions closer to those affected by digital technology

There are three main reasons why the principle of subsidiarity is important in the digital realm: a) it is increasingly difficult to adopt and implement global digital policies in uniform ways; b) many digital values and principles are global in aspiration and local in the application; and c) the closer digital policy solutions are to the source of problems, the more effectively they will be applied.

Future: The main challenge will be to make policy ‘elevators’ move both ways (up and down) between local, national, regional, and global levels. Current mechanisms of ‘policy elevators’ must be upgraded via new reporting policies built around specific issues covered on various policy levels (cybersecurity, privacy, standardisation). The proposal for the Cooperation Accelerator in the Panel’s Report can be an important mechanism for ‘vertical coordination’ in the digital governance space.

3.9. Effective capacity development means much more than training

Through the WSIS process, many countries developed their capacities to address digital policy issues. Thousands of government officials, business people, engineers, and civil society activists have participated in training and capacity development activities organised in the WSIS context. Since the very early days, they have been more than just training. Many ambassadorship and fellowship programmes have involved research and policy immersion in international meetings.

Future: Capacity development should be holistic while prioritising the following main gaps:

  • Building institutional capacities of states, small businesses, and civil society. While organisations may have trained individuals, the main problem is the lack of capacity to sustain digital policy efforts which usually span across long  periods of time
  • Building capacity to cover the interdisciplinary aspects of digital governance. Even well-trained experts in human rights, trade, or security fields would need a new set of skills for covering the interplay among digital policy issues

3.10. Online meetings, verbatim reporting, and e-participation as digital innovations in multilateral meetings

In addition to dealing with innovative digital issues, WSIS also introduced quite a few innovations in the field of multilateral diplomacy. Online meetings are perhaps the most popular, which have today become central in response to social distancing and confinement measures imposed in the fight against COVID-19. Online meetings and e-participations have been mastered in the WSIS process in various modalities, from individual e-participation to the organisation of e-participation hubs worldwide. The second innovation is verbatim reporting, i.e., the simultaneous transcription and display of each oral intervention in a meeting as it is presented (first used by ICANN and later by the IGF and the ITU). As a regular feature of Internet governance meetings nowadays, verbatim reporting has increased the transparency of diplomatic meetings.

Future: Two main challenges in the forthcoming period will be:

  • To foster more effective online meetings (which the COVID-19 crisis introduced) as one of the main ways for making global deliberations
  • To develop techniques and practices for ‘hybrid meetings’ (combination of  online and in situ meetings) which are likely to become the dominant way of conducting meetings in the future)

4. The next steps?

The WSIS and UN SG Roadmap will be the two key components of future digital cooperation on the global level. WSIS provides legacy, infrastructure, and mandate. The UN SG Roadmap provides new dynamism in the digital realm. An interplay between two processes has already been reinforced via the IGF Plus. The IGF Plus gets its mandate from the WSIS document, and its renewed shape from the Panel Report and the UN SG Roadmap. It provides a solid basis for making the IGF Plus a ‘digital home of humanity’, reflecting multilateral and multistakeholder approaches to digital governance.

From a geopolitical perspective, it remains to be seen if the new digital governance architecture will be able to diffuse digital conflicts and preserve the integrated global digital space. With regard to reducing digital divides, the WSIS Forum can bring into global processes its experience and expertise. The main challenge will be to achieve more synchronisation between WSIS and the UN SG Roadmap, and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The next important moment in the evolution of digital cooperation will be the 2025 WSIS review when the UN GA should decide if the current initiatives are the right response to digital developments and growing challenges.


[1] Internet World Statistics (2020). Available at https://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm [accessed 9 September 2020].

[3]Special thanks to Amb. Asoke Mukerji for raising the question of ‘people’ in digital governance during the recent web debate ‘The UN at 75: Evolution or revolution?’‘. Available at https://www.diplomacy.edu/event/webdebate-un-75-evolution-or-revolution [accessed 14 September 2020].

[4] United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development [UNCTAD] (2015) Mapping of international Internet public policy issues. Available at https://unctad.org/meetings/en/SessionalDocuments/ecn162015crp2_en.pdf [accessed 9 September 2020].


1 reply
  1.  Amb. Asoke Mukerji
    Amb. Asoke Mukerji says:

    Remarks on Dr Jovan Kurbalija’s Paper on WSIS
    This is a very timely and thoughtful paper. Having been involved in the issues of communications technology and the application of this technology in public policy space, I offer the following remarks:

    1. The role of communications technology has accelerated with new miniaturized technologies inside smartphones, replacing the dependence on desktop and laptop computers. A particular issue that has emerged is the role of Apps (Applications) that make smartphones ubiquitous. The recent political polarization over Apps (exemplified by TikTok, but there are many other cases) requires the mapping of Apps and an eventual understanding on their presence in smartphones.

    2. The paper has focused rightly on Skill Development. In turn, this is also linked with languages used in communications technologies. In India, the major national languages are becoming more prevalent in the Apps marketed by major multinationals. The fact that each of these languages comprises more than 20 million individuals makes the size of this community and market relevant for future discussions on Skill Development and Market Access.

    3. In Internet Governance, the issue is of equity of participation, i.e. the ability of entities and individuals dependent on Internet Governance to be part of the decisions taken on an equal basis. How will this be regulated or ensured?

    4. The ITU and ICANN issues are being overtaken by the convergence of communications technologies, although the 2012 ITU Conference tried to draw a line for communications hardware and infrastructure for ITU, and leave the rest to ICANN. Can ICANN become part of a reformed ITU, if the ITU becomes multi-stakeholder in composition including in decision making? The best precedent for such an evolution of the ITU is the International Labour Organization, which is multi-stakeholder in structure and in decision making.

    5. The issue of Multilateral and Multistakeholder was resolved through compromise at the 2015 High Level Review of the Tunis Agenda by the UN General Assembly. This recognized the legitimate interests of governments especially departments of homeland security and of businesses. The need is to regulate access to data, which is looming as the next big confrontation.

    6. Convergence and Synergy for a Digital Home in the United Nations is an idea whose time has come. This will focus on the human dimension, taking the focus back to 1998. It will require a conscious structured participation of stakeholders from Telecoms, Technologies, Trade and Development to ensure that the human dimension is central to the work of a UN Digital Home.

    7. Enhanced Cooperation was initially blocked as an attempt by Governments to restrict or access proprietary technologies. However, the current politicization of technologies (the United States versus China, but not limited to only these two countries) makes Enhanced Cooperation more relevant. Can this become the foundation for discussing and negotiating an International Multi-stakeholder Convention on Cyberspace?

    7. Artificial Intelligence is the big challenge ahead for the Tunis Agenda. If communications technologies with a human dimension become the SDG 18, then AI will have to be integrated into this new SDG.

    Hope you find these remarks useful!



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