Internet Governance and Sustainable Development

Towards a Common Agenda

Early in 2007, in collaboration with partners and stakeholders, IISD commissioned exploratory papers to be written from the perspective of the Internet governance and sustainable development communities with the aim of discovering where links between these two communities of researchers and practitioners could be fostered. The premise of the project was that these two historically disparate policy communities will each gain if they can discover and leverage the overlap in their respective visions for the future. These papers focused on five areas in which potential links could be anchored: governance processes; economic barriers to development; the capacity of developing countries to participate in international governance; access to knowledge as a critical input to decision-making; and indicators for development.

From September 17 to 28, IISD hosted an e-conference to engage researchers, practitioners and policy analysts in an open discussion on the intersections between Internet governance and sustainable development revealed by these papers. IISD has created the following booklet containing short editorials on each of the pair of papers, which includes observations from the e-conference along with our conclusions regarding common positions, mutual challenges and differences, and where lessons from one community's experience might contribute to progress by the other.


Background and Rationale

In 2003, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) declared its challenge "to harness the potential of information and communication technology (ICT) to promote the development goals of the Millennium Declaration."[1] WSIS also reiterated its "commitment to the achievement of sustainable development."[2] Affirmations of an untapped potential to use information and communications technologies (ICTs) to achieve sustainable development have also appeared in other outcome documents such as the ECOSOC Ministerial Declaration on Development and International Cooperation,[3] as well as in the Plan of Implementation on the World Summit on Sustainable Development.[4]

One of the key issues that emerged during the WSIS process was a debate on Internet governance. The summit affirmed that "the Internet has evolved into a global facility available to the public and its governance should constitute a core issue of the Information Society Agenda."[5] It also recognized that "Internet governance, carried out according to the Geneva principles, is an essential element for a people-centred, inclusive, development-oriented, and non-discriminatory Information society."[6]

The Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG), created by WSIS to clarify the issues of this debate, defined Internet governance as "the development and application by Governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet."[7] Through its attempt to resolve key issues such as access, multi-stakeholder participation, openness, and security, among others, the Internet governance debate will have a bearing on the future of global communications and knowledge exchange.

WSIS's commitment to sustainable development should follow and inform the Internet governance debate. Sustainable development efforts cannot be conceived without global communications and knowledge exchange: therefore, the outcomes of the Internet governance debate will affect our ability to manage the social, environmental and economic factors of sustainable development. Beyond this fundamental link, numerous and diverse issue areas exist where the Internet governance and sustainable development policy communities could discover mutual challenges and learn from each others approaches to confronting them, setting the stage for future cooperation. Over the past year, in collaboration with partners and stakeholders, the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) proposed to focus on five areas in which further exploration of potential links between these two communities could be anchored:

By commissioning a pair of exploratory papers on each of these topics, IISD aimed to expand the links between these two communities of researchers and practitioners who have spent over three decades working in relative isolation from one another, creating gaps in vocabulary and culture.[8] Each of these papers defines the issue area; describes its relevant governance structures and processes; identifies the main issues currently being debated; articulates actual and potential links between ICTs/Internet governance and sustainable development; and proposes areas for further study.

Issue Areas at a Glance

Links to the papers appear below along with a short introduction to the issue areas.

Issue area: Governance processes

These papers examine the emerging multi-stakeholder governance models, tested in both the sustainable development arena and in the new Internet Governance Forum. Arthur Hanson provides an overview of the evolution of global governance for environment and sustainable development, covering institutions, state-centreed negotiations, the rise and influence of civil society, multi-stakeholder processes and related mechanisms. In examining the evolution of Internet governance, Jovan Kurbalija and Don MacLean focus on the process around the World Summit on the Information Society and point to the leadership of civil society and the technical community in the Internet governance debate.

Issue area: Economic barriers to development

Abi Jagun considers the cost of access to the Internet infrastructure as an "indispensable" resource for general development and economic growth by identifying and describing factors that contribute to the prohibitive access costs in developing countries. Hugo Cameron considers access as a "vector" for sustainable development: he outlines a number of infrastructural, systemic and regulatory impediments to ensuring the spread of information and knowledge, business opportunities, administrative efficiencies, employment and transparency, including those in what Cameron calls "the wider systemic setting," like the WTO.

Issue area: Capacity of developing countries to participate in international governance

These papers examine now recent changes—whether in governance systems, or in the international "geopolitical context"—have brought about specific challenges for participation of developing countries in governance negotiations. David Souter discusses the differences in challenges facing developing countries to participate in intergovernmental models of governance employed in the management of traditional ICTs (for instance, the ITU and WIPO) and governance models emerging around the Internet, where there has been "little involvement of the powers-that-be." From the sustainable development angle, Peter Doran looks beyond the capacity to participate in governance processes, and treats "knowledge" itself as a (geo)political concept, which is always implicated in formations of power and "governmentality."

Issue area: Access to local knowledge as a critical input to decision-making

Tony Vetter and Eddan Katz focus on the "access to knowledge" campaign that challenges current information infrastructure systems. Vetter and Katz point out several examples of advocacy and agenda setting that represent a pivotal shift towards global intellectual property policies that balance economic principles with the development dimension. Ashish Kothari suggests ways to revive or maintain knowledge that is critical to sustainable development beyond intellectual property regimes. Focusing on the relevance of traditional knowledge (TK) to the human quest for sustainable living, he shows how essential contributions of traditional knowledge can be made to various sectors of human welfare and development.

Issue area: Indicators for development

Christoph Stork and Clark Miller describe some of the existing ICT and SD indicators, and suggest ways to make them more meaningful for evaluating results. Stork distinguishes between access, usage and impact indicators, among other types, pointing out that impact indicators, as derivatives of primary or secondary data, are most useful in gauging the impact of ICTs on sustainable development. Miller examines traditional indicators of sustainability, and points to the need to establish indicators customized at the community level—an observation that could be especially useful for designing effective derivative indicators noted by Stork.

IISD gratefully acknowledges the generous support of Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC) for our ongoing work in this area.

For more information on this project please e-mail Tony Vetter.

[1] WSIS Declaration of Principles, 12 Dec 2003, (accessed August 30, 2007).

[2] ibid.

[3] See §2 of the "ECOSOC Ministerial Declaration on Development and international cooperation in the XXI century: the role of IT in the context of a knowledge-based global economy," July 7, 2000, (accessed August 30, 2007).

[4] See §52 in section "V. Sustainable development in a globalizing world" of the "Johannesburg Plan of Implementation", September 4, 2002, (accessed Aug 30, 2007).

[5] See §29, "Tunis Agenda for the Information Society", November 18, 2005, (accessed August 31, 2007).

[6] See §31, ibid.

[7] Report of the Working Group on Internet Governance, June 2005, (accessed August 30, 2007).

[8] Kapur, Akash. Internet Governance: A Primer. Elsevier: UNDP-APDIP, 2005. p. 29. For IISD's previous efforts to create linkages between the two communities through joint research initiatives, see /infosoc/