As part of our introductory guide to internet governance, Andreas Karsten introduces key organisations and bodies working on the internet, communications and governance, including their overarching aims and where you can find more information. Organisations covered include the United Nations, Council of Europe, UNESCO, and civil society. In this article, Andreas introduces the work of the United Nations on internet governance.

The United Nations and Internet Governance

The United Nations and Internet Governance

The work of the United Nations on internet governance spans across several agencies and bodies within the UN work, most notably the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations Group on the Information Society (UNGIS), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), the United Nations Conference on Trade amd Development (UNCTAD) and UNESCO.

Much of the United Nations’ engagement relates back to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the Geneva (2003) and Tunis (2005) conferences aiming to bridge the digital divide and take concrete steps to establish foundations for an information society for all. In Geneva, a common vision of the information society was agreed upon and underpinned with a plan of action, setting out to bring 50 percent of the world’s population online by 2015. This was followed up with the Tunis Commitment and an agenda for the information society in 2005. The World Summit established May 17 as World Information Society Day.

The 11 WSIS Action Lines

The 11 WSIS Action Lines

The main follow-up process to the World Summit is the WSIS Stocktaking Process, which provides a register of activities carried out by governments, international organisations, the business sector, civil society and other stakeholders with reference to the eleven action lines defined by the World Summit’s Plan of Action. In 2010, the World ICT Development Report (pdf) by ITU focused on monitoring the targets set by the summit. Regular WSIS Fora and a WSIS Community further contribute to connecting, recording and coordinating stakeholder initiatives to implement the action plan.

The World Summit on the Information Society also called—following a recommendation of the Working Group on Internet Governance—for the establishment of the Internet Governance Forum, which convened for the first time in 2006 as a multi-stakeholder forum for policy dialogue on internet governance. The IGF intends to bring together all stakeholders in the internet governance discourse on an equal basis, from governments and the private sector to civil society and the academic community. The IGF was mandated to be principally a discussion forum for facilitating dialogue, and also to identify emerging issues and make recommendations on them, but without any direct decision-making authority.

The Internet Governance Forum has met in

2006 in AthensReport (pdf) | 2007 in Rio de JaneiroReport (pdf) | 2008 in HyderabadReport (pdf) | 2009 in Sharm El SheikhReport (pdf) | 2010 in VilniusReport (pdf) | 2011 in Nairobi – Report (pdf)2012 in BakuReport (pdf)

The next IGF will take place in October, 2013 in Bali, Indonesia. The Forum’s mandate was extended by the United Nations’ General Assembly (resolution, pdf) for another five years from 2011 to 2015.

State surveillance and freedom of expression

In June 2013, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion, Frank La Rue, delivered a report on state surveillance and freedom of expression. The report states:

“Communications data are storable, accessible and searchable, and their disclosure to and use by State authorities are largely unregulated.  Analysis of this data can be both highly revelatory and invasive, particularly when data is combined and aggregated. As such, States are increasingly drawing on communications data to support law enforcement or national security investigations. States are also compelling the preservation and retention of communication data to enable them to conduct historical surveillance.” p. 5

La Rue reminds states that they have to meet their human rights obligations, which includes also the obligation to embed the rights to free expression and privacy in their surveillance frameworks. The Special Rapporteur asks in the report to revise national laws regulating surveillance practices in line with human rights standards:

“Legislation must stipulate that State surveillance of communications must only occur under the most exceptional circumstances and exclusively under the supervision of an independent judicial authority.” p. 21


Further publications of the United Nations on digital governance include:

The United Nation’s work on internet governance is coordinated by the United Nations Group on the Information Society (UNGIS) together with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).


Featured image credit: N3rdabl3

Written by Andreas Karsten

Andreas works as a researcher and journalist in and beyond the youth sector on rights-based public policies, youth-sensitive budgeting, human rights, equality, empowerment, participation, citizenship, sustainability, learning, change and common sense.