World Summit on the Information Society: 5 things to know

World Summit on the Information Society: 5 things to know

25 September 2023

Nearly 20 years on, the summit continues to bring to life the UN’s vision of a digital economy that fosters development.

A customer uses his smartphone for digital payment at a groceries shop in rural India.
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© Shutterstock/NIKS ADS | A customer uses his smartphone for digital payment at a grocery store in rural India.

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which seeks to “build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented information society” will mark its 20th anniversary in 2025.

Leading up to the anniversary, a comprehensive assessment of the summit’s progress, challenges and future expectations will kick off with a session at the 18th annual meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), set for 8 to 12 October 2023 in Kyoto, Japan. The IGF itself was born as an outcome of WSIS.

Key stakeholders, such as member states, will give their views through a questionnaire.

A follow-up briefing on WSIS will also take place during UNCTAD’s eWeek in Geneva, Switzerland from 4 to 8 December 2023.

Here are five things to know about the summit:  

1. What is WSIS about?

In 2005, WSIS concluded with an agreement known as the Tunis Agenda.

It was the first-ever, clear statement of political will to establish a people-oriented, digitally connected global society, harnessing information communication technologies (ICTs) to support development objectives in the wake of the digital revolution.

To attain this ambition, the summit identified several action lines, including areas such as the role of governments and stakeholders, ICT infrastructure, capacity-building and cultural diversity.

2. What’s UNCTAD’s role in it?

Among other UN agencies, UNCTAD co-organizes the annual WSIS Forum – a global multi-stakeholder platform to discuss and coordinate strategies on leveraging ICT for development.

UNCTAD plays an active role in implementing WSIS action lines, particularly those concerning e-business and ICT applications.

It also provides substantive support to the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) as its secretariat, and conducts all WSIS-related activities on its behalf.

The CSTD was mandated by the General Assembly to be the UN focal point to follow up on the implementation of the outcomes of WSIS.

3. How has UNCTAD helped to make a difference through WSIS?

WSIS outcomes have helped countries formulate coherent national ICT strategies and policies in support of development.

UNCTAD’s work in policy advice and capacity-building for developing countries in e-commerce and the digital economy are consistent with WSIS outcomes.

Through the eTrade for All initiative, UNCTAD helps developing countries access resources and services to drive e-trade for more inclusive and sustainable growth.

Aligned with WSIS objectives, UNCTAD works to enhance the capacities of national statistics offices, particularly in the Global South, to produce reliable and internationally comparable statistics on the digital economy.

To promote technology and ICT-based entrepreneurial ecosystems, UNCTAD supports efforts in innovation, startups and technology for development, to ensure poorer economies, especially least developed countries, are not left behind in the digital age.

4. How has WSIS evolved to meet today’s global challenges?

Much has changed since 2005, but WSIS continues to advocate for a people-centred approach to digitalization.

Firstly, its action lines are aligned with the 17 SDGs, ensuring the information society directly contributes to sustainable development.

For example, the summit has focuses on areas such as e-health, e-learning, e-agriculture and e-governance, using ICT innovations to bolster key sectors of the SDGs.

Secondly, to foster inclusive development, WSIS has been advocating for multi-stakeholder approaches, encouraging the participation of governments, civil society, the private sector, academia and international organizations.

Thirdly, regular WSIS forums and annual WSIS prizes are key to the monitoring and review of its progress, sharing best practices and recognizing efforts that contribute to its action lines and the SDGs.

Additionally, WSIS has engaged in dialogues and workshops to tackle emerging challenges such as artificial intelligence, smart cities and cybersecurity.

5. What are the future WSIS priorities concerning technology and development?

As frontier technologies redefine the contours of the information society, WSIS priorities seek to reflect a balance of embracing innovation while ensuring equity, security and sustainability.

To bridge the digital divide, it needs to prioritize universal access to ensure everyone benefits from frontier technologies and infrastructure development, especially in rural and underserved areas.

To harness the potential of technological advances, people need the skills to use, understand and develop them.

This means a stronger focus on global digital education and literacy campaigns, reskilling and upskilling initiatives, especially in regions where some jobs risk becoming obsolete due to technological progress. WSIS should be at the forefront of discussions about the economic implications, advocating for policies that ensure economic transitions benefit all.

To mitigate the ethical dilemmas posed by frontier technologies – whether it's artificial intelligence decision-making, biotech interventions or data privacy in a world dominated by the Internet of Things, WSIS will continue to bolster frameworks ensuring ethical development and application of such technologies.

On upholding human rights, digital technologies can be used to both enhance and infringe upon human rights. In this regard, WSIS pledges strong advocacy to ensure that technologies help amplify rights, not diminish them.

To reduce the environmental impact of ICT, from e-waste to the energy consumption of massive data centres, WSIS promotes green and sustainable tech initiatives to help shape an environmentally friendly digital revolution.