The Relevance of WSIS & IGF for International AI Governance

· 10 min read

As multilateral processes and bodies such as the Global Digital Compact (GDC) and High-Level Body on Artificial Intelligence (AI) begin forming proposals for the international governance of AI, it’s vital that key actors, including those negotiating texts like the GDC, understand the existing digital governance landscape in order to avoid the duplication of efforts. Understanding this landscape is not an easy task, with dozens of intergovernmental and multi-stakeholder conferences, processes and forums on digital governance currently in existence at the UN level. 

To help deconfuse the landscape, the Simon Institute for Longterm Governance (SI) drafted a set of briefs on the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) and the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), two platforms focused on digital governance at the multilateral level. In the briefs, we outline how these processes were formed, their original mandates, and their current governance structures. 

We also reviewed how these platforms may or may not be well suited to serve some functions of a multilateral regime complex for AI, and concluded that while the WSIS Forum & IGF are both valuable platforms for sharing best-practices and fostering multi-stakeholder dialogue on topics such as the digital divide and ICTs for development, their lack of decision-making power prevent them from implementing concrete AI governance initiatives at the UN.

If you have feedback on these briefs, or would like to talk about these topics further with our team, feel free to reach out to

You can scroll down to read each brief in full, or click here to download a PDF version. You can also download a PDF version of the diagrams outlining how WSIS & IGF work here.

The World Summit on Information Society (WSIS)

What is the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS)?

WSIS (also commonly known as the WSIS process) was a series of summits focused on information and communications technology (ICT), organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The Summit was endorsed by UN General Assembly Resolution 56/183, and was held in two phases, first in 2003 and again in 2005:

  1. The Geneva Summit in 2003 resulted in the Geneva Declaration and Plan of Action
  2. The Tunis Summit in 2005 resulted in the Tunis Agenda and the creation of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF).

A high-level review of the process, WSIS+10, took place in 2015, and a second high-level review, WSIS+20, is set to take place in 2025.

What is the difference between WSIS (the WSIS process) and the WSIS Forum?

  • “WSIS” or the “WSIS process” refers to the sequence of summits held between 2003 and 2005 across Geneva and in Tunis, and the subsequent high-level reviews. 
  • The WSIS Forum is an annual event hosted by ITU which aims to share best practices, highlight ICT solutions for the SDGs, and assess progress on the implementation of the WSIS action lines. Unlike the WSIS process, it does not hold any decision-making power. 

What is the focus of the WSIS process?

The WSIS process has 2 main areas of focus:

  • ICT for Development (how can we leverage ICTs to boost development) 

    • In 2003, the Geneva Plan of Action set the goal of bringing 50% of the world’s population online by 2015 through 11 WSIS Action Lines, addressing infrastructure, information access, capacity-building, and international cooperation.
    • In 2005, the Tunis Agenda laid out “financial mechanisms for meeting the challenges of ICT for development”.
  • Internet Governance (how can we govern the internet to ensure safe online spaces)

    • Internet governance was the most controversial topic during the WSIS process. By the end of the Tunis Summit, States agreed on a decentralized, multi stakeholder framework to ensure that elements of the internet including administration of IP systems and domain names are not controlled by individual States, but by the internet community at large. 

Who is in charge of the WSIS process?

  • The ITU was originally tasked by the UN General Assembly to organize the WSIS process and serve as its Secretariat, and now organizes the annual WSIS Forum.
  • Various UN agencies serve as facilitators of the 11 WSIS Action Lines, identifying key priorities, opportunities and challenges for their respective lines in alignment with the SDGs.
  • The UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) regularly reviews WSIS outcomes. It will conduct the WSIS+20 review and report findings and recommendations to ECOSOC and the UN General Assembly.

What is not covered by the WSIS process?

As this process was developed between 2003-2005, a number of technological developments and digital issues are not addressed, including:

  1. Information integrity and the issue of misinformation and disinformation;
  2. Data governance, and considerations of cross-border data flows and data exchanges;
  3. Safe and beneficial development of emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI)

What are the successes and drawbacks of the WSIS process?

The WSIS principles successfully aligned various UN processes and agencies on ICTs and helped raise the profile of ICTs in the context of the SDGs. The IGF is widely considered the greatest outcome of the WSIS process due to its role as a stable, multi-stakeholder platform on internet governance.

Unfortunately, the WSIS process fell short of its initial goals to accelerate development and bridge the digital divide. Indeed, “fundamental questions asked 20 years ago have remained the same”. Furthemore, the Tunis Agenda’s lack of key performance indicators makes effective review of WSIS difficult and proposed financial mechanisms have not been able to effectively address digital divides.

What is the future of the WSIS process?

2025 will mark 20 years since the Tunis Agenda was adopted. During this occasion, the CSTD will conduct a WSIS+20 review, evaluating progress on the WSIS Action Lines and presenting findings to the UNGA. Based on these findings and multi-stakeholder consultations, Member States will define what WSIS should look like after 2025. This will likely include a renewal of the IGF mandate and implementation of select principles from the Global Digital Compact (GDC). 

The WSIS process and the GDC

The GDC and WSIS should mutually inform each other. The sequencing of negotiations (GDC in 2024, WSIS+20 review in 2025) offers an opportunity for coordination and complementarity. For example, the GDC could amplify relevant messages from the 11 WSIS Action Lines, and WSIS+20 could help implement relevant GDC proposals following the Summit of the Future in September 2024. 

Synergies between WSIS+20 & the GDC

  • The WSIS forum, known for fostering UN collaboration on digital technology, could serve as a good starting point for any GDC initiatives aiming to further harmonize efforts across agencies.
  • The GDC could support existing WSIS efforts on connectivity, capacity-building, and the digital divide, rather than straining resources by creating new ones.

Why WSIS+20 might not be able to address everything set out in the GDC:

  • Given its historical mandate, WSIS and its implementing agencies might lack the necessary technical expertise to govern emerging technologies, such as AI. 
  • The WSIS negotiation process could be disrupted or dragged out indefinitely by the introduction of new and contentious topics pertaining to emerging technologies.
  • WSIS embraces a multi-stakeholder approach in which its main elements (the IGF and the WSIS Forum) do not produce negotiated outcomes. The WSIS process likely does not have the ambition nor the capacity to establish new mandates and new institutions on topics it has not covered before. Therefore, the GDC should probably not expect WSIS to create new bodies, such as an international panel on AI.

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The Internet Governance Forum (IGF)

What is the Internet Governance Forum (IGF)?

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is an annual forum that fosters multi-stakeholder dialogue on internet governance issues. Its mandate was established by the Tunis Agenda during the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005, and was extended for another 10 years by the UN General Assembly in 2015. 

What is the IGF’s mandate?

The IGF’s mandate is to offer a multi-stakeholder platform for discussing policy issues related to internet governance: exchanging best practices, enhancing capacity building efforts, and improving internet access in developing countries. Its mandate also entails identifying emerging digital issues and promoting the principles of internet governance originally established by WSIS.

The IGF is a non-binding process that has no direct decision-making authority and does not produce negotiated outcomes. As outlined in the Tunis Agenda, the IGF should not be tasked with oversight responsibilities and should have no involvement in day-to-day or technical operations of the internet. 

Who is in charge of the IGF?

  • Secretariat: The IGF has its own secretariat based in Geneva, administered under the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA). It helps coordinate the work of the Multistakeholder Advisory Group and organizes the Annual IGF Meeting. 
  • Leadership Panel: The IGF receives strategic guidance from a high-level panel of 10 members from across government, the private sector, civil society and the technical community, all of whom are appointed by the UN Secretary-General. This panel addresses urgent internet governance issues, coordinates follow-up actions, and relays proposed policy recommendations to appropriate decision-making bodies.
  • Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG): Composed of 55 members from across government, private sector and civil society, the Multistakeholder Advisory Group meets every year to develop the programme and schedule for the Annual IGF Meeting.
  • Host country of the Annual Meeting: A different country funds and hosts each Annual Meeting. In 2023, Japan hosted the Annual Meeting in Kyoto, and in 2024, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will host the meeting in Riyadh.

What are the advantages of the IGF? 

  • The IGF adopts a bottom-up approach, with an emphasis on organically bringing stakeholders together to discuss the complexities of internet governance. This multistakeholder model has enabled participation from a range of independent, informed, and invested stakeholders, and has helped develop meaningful norms around internet governance.
  • The Annual IGF Meeting gathers a diverse group of participants and is widely attended by high profile governance actors. The 2023 meeting welcomed more than 6,000 participants from 178 countries, including representatives from governments, international organizations, civil society, and the private sector. Every year, it produces a series of key messages summarizing points raised during the Annual Meeting.

The IGF and artificial intelligence

The IGF’s original mandate was limited to internet governance, but its scope has evolved to include a broader range of issues. During the 2023 Annual Meeting in Kyoto, one of eight themes was artificial intelligence (AI) and emerging technologies. The IGF Key Messages from 2023 highlight the importance of global cooperation for harnessing AI’s potential, developing standards, guidelines and self-assessment mechanisms and better understanding the impacts of generative AI. 

Due to its non-binding nature, the IGF lacks the capacity to implement AI governance solutions and mandates. Nevertheless, it remains an essential platform for multi-stakeholder dialogue, exchange, and sharing of best practices, including on AI governance.

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