May 17





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Bridging the Gap: The Essential Role of Civil Society in Internet Standard Development Organizations

Bridging the Gap: The Essential Role of Civil Society in Internet Standard Development Organizations

In the digital age, the internet is the backbone of modern society, connecting people, businesses, and governments across the globe. Yet, behind the seamless façade of cyberspace lies a complex ecosystem of protocols, technologies, and standards that govern its operation. Internet Standard Development Organizations (ISDOs) play a pivotal role in shaping this digital infrastructure, laying the groundwork for an open, interoperable, and secure internet. However, amid the technical jargon and arcane processes of standardisation, complex dynamics of power, influence, and representation, one voice often goes unheard but is crucial for ensuring that internet standards reflect the values and aspirations of society: Civil society.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) encompass a diverse array of groups, from grassroots activists to international Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs), who are digital rights activists and privacy advocates, united by a common mission-to promote the public interest in the digital age. Their inclusion in ISDOs is not just desirable but essential for fostering inclusive, democratic, and human-centric internet standards that empower users, protect rights, and promote innovation.

This piece espouses some of the roles that civil society organisations are meant to play at Internet Standards Development Organisations and why they should be seated at the table. 

Inclusive Representation: At the core of the need for civil society voices in ISDOs is the principle of inclusive representation. The internet impacts every aspect of our lives, from communication and commerce to education and entertainment. Yet, without the input of civil society, there is a risk that internet standards will be shaped solely by the interests of powerful stakeholders, such as technology companies and governments, neglecting the perspectives and concerns of ordinary users. CSOs serve as a voice for the marginalised, the vulnerable, and the disenfranchised, ensuring that internet standards are equitable, inclusive, and responsive to the needs of all.

Expertise and Advocacy: Civil society brings a wealth of expertise and advocacy to the table, enriching the standardisation process with diverse perspectives and insights. Whether it’s advocating for digital rights, privacy protection, or cybersecurity, CSOs offer specialised knowledge that complements the technical expertise of engineers and developers. By leveraging their expertise, civil society can help identify emerging threats and opportunities, inform policy debates, and shape standards that promote the public interest.

Guardians of Digital Rights: In an era of ubiquitous surveillance, data breaches, and online censorship, civil society serves as a crucial guardian of digital rights and freedoms. By monitoring ISDOs’ decision-making processes and outcomes, CSOs ensure that internet standards uphold fundamental rights such as privacy, free expression, and access to information. Their vigilant oversight holds ISDOs accountable to the public interest, guarding against abuses of power and ensuring that internet standards serve as a bulwark against tyranny and oppression.

Building Trust and Legitimacy: Inclusion of civil society in ISDOs enhances their trust and legitimacy in the eyes of users, policymakers, and the public. It demonstrates a commitment to transparency, openness, and participatory governance, fostering trust and confidence in internet standards. By welcoming civil society voices, ISDOs signal their willingness to engage with diverse stakeholders, listen to their concerns, and collaborate in pursuit of shared goals.

Empowering Users: Beyond advocacy and oversight, civil society plays a crucial role in empowering users to understand, navigate, and shape the digital landscape. Through education, outreach, and capacity-building initiatives, CSOs bridge the gap between technical standards and user experiences, ensuring that users are informed, empowered, and able to exercise control over their digital lives. By engaging directly with users, civil society fosters a culture of digital literacy, empowerment, and citizen participation, empowering individuals to assert their rights and hold ISDOs accountable.

Fostering Innovation: In the dynamic and rapidly evolving world of internet technology, innovation is key to driving progress and staying ahead of the curve. Civil society brings fresh perspectives, innovative ideas, and out-of-the-box thinking to the table, challenging conventional wisdom and pushing the boundaries of what is possible. By fostering a culture of innovation and experimentation, CSOs inspire ISDOs to explore new frontiers, embrace cutting-edge technologies, and develop standards that promote openness, interoperability, and user-centric design.

In conclusion, the need for civil society voices in Internet Standard Development Organizations is paramount. From inclusive representation and expertise to advocacy and accountability, CSOs play a multifaceted role in shaping internet standards that serve the common good. By embracing inclusivity, transparency, and collaboration, ISDOs can harness the collective wisdom and passion of civil society to develop standards that are not only technically robust and interoperable but also ethical, equitable, and human-centric. As we celebrate World Telecommunications and Information Society Day today, let us recognise the indispensable contributions of civil society in building a future internet that is open, inclusive, and built on principles of trust, empowerment, and respect for human rights.


Ihueze Nwobilor is a Senior Programmes Officer at Paradigm Initiative where he leads the organisation’s Digital Inclusion programmes while advocating for digital rights and an open, accessible, resilient and interoperable internet.

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