The Internet is so much a part of our lives these days it can come as a surprise to learn how much Internet freedom is at threat around the world. Fortunately, Internet freedom received a major boost at UNESCO last week, thanks to the efforts of the United States and other likeminded participants at the first review meeting of the "World Summit on Information Society" (WSIS), called WSIS+10.
As U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO, I joined Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs Esther Brimmer to lead the U.S. delegation at UNESCO's WSIS+10. This review meeting brought together governments, private companies, civil society groups and individual experts to discuss a whole range of Internet-related issues, from cyber-security to e-learning, and press freedom to e-business. The United States was well-represented across all these categories, with participation by the U.S. government; companies such as Verizon, the Walt Disney Company, Google, and PayPal; non-governmental organizations such as the Center for Democracy and Technology; and academics from U.S. universities.
UNESCO's WSIS review meeting was successful for three reasons. First, it helped heal some of the divisions that crystallized during the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) last year. The same countries that diverged at WCIT were able to converge at UNESCO and agree by consensus to a Final Statement.
Second, the UNESCO meeting reaffirmed the importance of a "multi-stakeholder" approach to Internet policymaking, which is based on the principle that Internet-related issues must be addressed through dialogue and cooperation between all stakeholders, not just governments. The WCIT conference raised concerns that enthusiasm for the multi-stakeholder model was waning in certain corners, but the UNESCO meeting showed that "multi-stakeholderism" is alive and well. AT&T called UNESCO the "shining example" of the multi-stakeholder approach, because of efforts to make the WSIS review meeting as open and inclusive as possible. Also critical was the emphasis placed on this model in the meeting's Final Statement, which calls multi-stakeholder processes "an essential and unique approach" to addressing information and knowledge society issues.
Finally, the UNESCO meeting addressed a central concern that freedom of expression will suffer as certain countries tighten their control over the Internet and hide behind legitimate issues, such as cybersecurity, to try to justify their repression. UNESCO has vigorously opposed such attempts, prompting Google to call it a "steadfast ally in the battle to keep the Internet free and open." With support from the United States and other participants, UNESCO won an unequivocal victory on this issue during the WSIS review meeting. The meeting's Final Statement highlights freedom of expression several times and states plainly that "freedom of expression off-line applies online."
In short, UNESCO sent a clear and resounding message at WSIS: keep the Internet free and open.