Civil society urged to advocate for just digital future in WSIS+20 process
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An Indigenous young man and woman in India sit on the floor and look together at their mobile phones

Civil society urged to advocate for just digital future in WSIS+20 process

Civil society organizations need to be active participants in multi-stakeholder dialogues to find solutions to current global challenges and to shape a just digital future, WACC expert Sarah Macharia urged the United Nations Civil Society Conference last week in Nairobi.

Recent analyses clearly show that the Sustainable Development Goals are not on track, the WACC Gender and Communications program manager told UNCSC participants at the side event “Role of Civil Society Stakeholders in 20 Years of the WSIS Process, towards the Summit of the Future and beyond” on 9 May.

Organized by ITU, the UN agency for information and communication technologies, the side event underlined the opportunities for civil society to contribute to shaping global digital policies and strategies through the WSIS (World Summit on the Information Society) process.

Noted by ITU “as a strong example of global digital cooperation in action for over two decades,” the WSIS process provides opportunities for multi-stakeholder digital cooperation through platforms such as the Internet Governance Forum and the WSIS Forum where policy issues concerning digital for development are discussed.

Digital as gender-insensitive, exclusionary, disempowering

The UN Women’s The Gender Snapshot 2023 report “sounds the alarm over the ever-expanding technology and information divide, one that will push groups that are already disadvantaged even further behind,” Macharia said.

Of particular concern is the impact on gender equality and women’s communication rights, she stressed. Feminist civil society groups point to the “gender-insensitive, exclusionary and disempowering” nature of the internet, the global digital architecture, and all elements of tech ecosystems.

Civil society needed in WSIS process

Panelist Josephine Miliza pointed out the work done by civil society to implement decisions and commitments made at WSIS. She noted efforts by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) to coordinate community networks and support the development of licensing frameworks for internet connectivity initiatives.

Macharia highlighted that WACC has led civil society in promoting a standalone SDG 18 “Communication for All” to expand and strengthen public civic spaces through equitable and affordable access to communication technologies and platforms, media pluralism, and media diversity.

She urged more civil society groups, including those not primarily engaged in tech, to “plug into” the WSIS process.

“Going forward, there are enormous opportunities for all sectors of civil society to participate in the WSIS multi-stakeholder dialogues and contribute critical thinking on issues of digital rights and digital justice across all thematic areas,” she said. This includes national coalitions, which can offer a way to agree on a strong, collective advocacy positions.

“Making progress towards a digital future that is inclusive, sustainable and beneficial for all is a goal of the WSIS+20 review,” Macharia said.

Civil society vision for just digital future

She told the stakeholders in the WSIS+20 process that they already have access to a direct response on the contours of such a digital future, one outlined by WACC partners last August in the “Digital Rights and Digital Justice Advocacy and Action Agenda.”

“Such a digital future is gender sensitive. In it, human rights are respected. It is safe and secure, equitable, free, unbiased, accessible, transparent, inclusive, not exploitative, oppressive or discriminatory,” Macharia said.

This digital future for all is open, democratic, and community centered. “It is focused on the common good rather than on profit.”

Civil society links to grassroots

Logo of the 2024 United Nations Civil Society ConferenceCritical debate at the side event acknowledged power asymmetries in national and global digital governance, including attention to private sector profit interests and a seemingly tokenistic inclusion of civil society. Yet, civil society are the bridge to grassroot populations and communities, unpacking policy, identifying issues, and innovating solutions, participants affirmed.

Among other concerns, the discussion noted a need for civil society coordination in the WSIS+20 process, to ensure inclusion of persons living with disabilities and to capture the diversity of interests.

Other panelists at the ITU UNCSC side event included Cyril Ritchie, Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations (CoNGO); Fadi Daou, Globethics; Robert Meya, Africa Climate and Environment Foundation (ACEF); and Paloma Lara Castro, Derechos Digitales. Moderator was Liz Orembo, Research ICT Africa.

Young members of the Soliga Indigenous community in rural southwest India take part in a digital media and information literacy training run by WACC partner Ideosync Media Combine. Photo: Ideosync Media Combine

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