5.1. WSIS

Although the process of Internet governance reform has been a continual one, marked by occasional milestones such as the foundation of ICANN, a natural point at which to begin discussion of the present regime is with the World Summit on the Information Society, as it was at this summit that the requirement that Internet governance be conducted on a multi-stakeholder basis was first clearly expressed, arguably setting a new norm of customary International law.[1] This marked a departure from the earlier prevailing norm—expressed even by some governments (most notably the United States)—that Internet governance was predominantly a private sector responsibility.[2]

As a summit, rather than a permanent intergovernmental organisation, the only power that WSIS had to make decisions was to make them by consensus. Some of the implications of consensual decision-making that have already been observed, such as the tendency for negotiations to be protracted, and the empowerment of minority groups,[3] were very much in evidence at WSIS, with negotiation sessions being extended time and again, and with the focus of its substantive agenda on development issues having been largely shaped by developing country governments.

Even in comparison to other United Nations summits conducted on the same basis, WSIS took place on a very large scale and over a lengthy period. Its genesis was at the ITU’s 1998 Plenipotentiary Conference in Minneapolis, at which it was originally resolved that such a summit should be convened by the ITU. Interest from other UN agencies in the proposed subject matters of the summit soon led to it being broadened into a larger scale event under the umbrella of the UN.

Thus it was that in 2001, the Council of the ITU endorsed a proposal of its Secretary-General to hold the summit in two phases in Geneva in 2003 and Tunisia in 2005, which proposal was endorsed later that year by a United Nations Resolution calling for the full involvement of other agencies and stakeholders.[4] The task of organising the summit was shared by all major UN agencies within a High-Level Summit Organizing Committee (HLSOC), chaired by the Secretary-General of the ITU.

The Geneva phase of WSIS was to focus on principles, and the Tunis phase on implementation of those principles and follow-up mechanisms.[5] In more concrete terms, the output of each phase was contained in two documents. For the first phase, these were a Declaration of Principles and a Plan of Action, that were adopted by 175 countries after being agreed in a succession of preparatory conferences. As the first phase of WSIS could not resolve differences on (most notably) Internet governance, WGIG was set up by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to report to the second phase of WSIS on that issue.

The Tunis Commitment and the Tunis Agenda were the output documents produced at the conclusion of the second phase, which presented the summit’s conclusions on the issues such as Internet governance that were outstanding from the first phase, as well as reinforcing the content of the two earlier output documents and outlining follow-up steps to be taken.

Preceding each formal phase of WSIS, meetings of the intergovernmental Preparatory Committee (“PrepCom”) were held at which the process of intergovernmental negotiation took place,[6] as were a series of regional conferences.[7]

Finally, in the lead-up to each phase and alongside it, there were a range of private sector and civil society events. The WSIS Secretariat rather poetically described the relationship between these events and the high level sessions of the first phase in the following terms:

To reflect its tripartite nature, the Summit could be pictured as a flower, where the central part represents the meeting of Heads of States and the petals represent civil society and private sector events.

The section of the petals that is rooted onto the core of the flower represents the participation of civil society and private sector representatives in the meeting of Heads of States. This is the space where they would present the positions of their constituencies on the outcomes of the Summit and take an active part in adopting the Plan of Action and final Declaration.

The remaining part of the petals represents the various events organized at the initiative of civil society and private sector during the Summit. ... they could take the form of debates, agora, colloquia, showcasing of projects, training sessions, etc. [8]



WSIS, Geneva Declaration of Principles (2003), para 48. Mueller, Mathiason and Klein posit an extension of this multi-stakeholder principle as one of six norms for a proposed Internet governance regime, without adverting to its status as a foundational principle of the extant Internet governance regime: Mueller, Milton, Mathiason, John, & Klein, Hans, The Internet and Global Governance: Principles and Norms for a New Regime (2007) .


Kleinwächter, Wolfgang, Global Governance in the Information Age: GBDe and ICANN as “Pilot Projects" for Co-regulation and a New Trilateral Policy? (2001), 18


See Section


General Assembly of the United Nations, World Summit on the Information Society (2001)


See generally Souter, David G, Whose Information Society?: Developing Country and Civil Society Voices in the World Summit on the Information Society (2006).


Five were held in Geneva prior to the first phase between July 2002 and December 2003 (including the originally unscheduled PrepCom 3A and 3B, also known as 3bis and 3bis+, or 3 resumed and 3 resumed II), along with an intersessional meeting in Paris. For the second phase, the PrepCom 1 was held in Tunis in June 2004, PrepCom 2 and 3 in Geneva, and a reconvened PrepCom 3 in Tunis in November 2005, immediately preceding the formal Tunis summit.


Five were held ahead of the Geneva Phase between May 2002 and February 2003, being for the WSIS regions of Africa, Europe, the Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Western Asia. For the Tunis Phase, the regional conferences took place between November 2004 and June 2005 (with the European regional conference being dropped in favour of subregional conferences in Kyrgyzstan and Egypt).


WSIS Secretariat, Civil Society & NGO Open Ended Bureau Proposal (2003)