World+dog fight over World Summit of The Information Society

Principles, yes, but whose principles?

Geneva Prepcom-III was supposed to be the final preparatory conference for the UN's World Summit of The Information Society (WSIS) which takes place in December 10-12 in Geneva. All the loose ends should have been tied up yesterday when Prepcom-III, also held in Geneva, closed after two weeks of negotiation.

Now organisers have hastily reconvened another meeting for November aimed at breaking the deadlock over the drafting of two key documents. If the impasse is unresolved, WSIS looks wrecked, and it is very unlikely that many heads of state will tip up in Geneva only to be associated with failure.

Difficulties were to be expected from a meeting that for the first time sought to articulate a common vision of the Information Society, says Adama Samassekou. But the complete mess that was produced at Prepcom-III, was a bit too much even for the tireless Prepcom-President of WSIS.

Neither of the two core documents, the Declaration of Principles and the Action Plan, which are supposed to be signed by head of states in December when WSIS proper convenes, could be finalised after two weeks of lengthy discussions. "Still we have made progress," said Samassekou, "in the sense that we now know what are the points on which we do not agree."

The expectations in the Summit, promoted by the preliminary text of the Declaration of Principles, are high, promoting information and communication technology as the tool to achieve "eradication of poverty and hunger" and "attainment of a more peaceful, just and prosperous world." But there is a wide gulf of opinion over how this is to be achieved, with the governments of the North and South, the 500-plus participating Civil Society members (representing NGOs from around the world) and private sector representatives competing to have their say.

What the World needs Now

"The world needs to move to overcome the Digital Divide," said the head of the delegation from Tunisia, host country of WSIS 2, scheduled for 2005. Bringing ICT to the poor countries of the South shall help build up the Information Society for all and at the same time stop and revert the situation where rich countries get richer while the poor get poorer. The UN's Millennium Declaration is the blueprint for the ambitious goals of WSIS, highlighted by the fact that the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is main steward of the WSIS process.

But rich countries - possible donors - are sceptical about the "Digital Solidarity fund" proposed by Senegal's president at Prepcom-2. "We need some new ways of direct financing for ICT projects, but not necessarily another UN Fund," said Marc Furrer, director of Offcom, Switzerland's telecoms regulator. Here lies one of the major disputes of the Summit process, that Samassekou and his International Telecoms Union ITU)-staffed bureau and host country Switzerland must tackle.

For Western countries, protection of critical infrastructure and freedom of expression are much sexier topics. "Free Media are essential in a Information Society," declared a US delegate at the conference. But the media paragraphs in the documents have as many empty square brackets as a Swiss cheese has holes. "Pluralistic and free" media and access for them to information are not welcomed in many countries. "We deal with different versions of what we call freedom or freedom of expression," said Samassekou.

The media discussion was highlighted in a hot debate about the situation of press freedom in Tunisia. Representatives from the very active Media Caucus of the Prepcom have according to one speaker already demanded the replacement of a top Tunisian official in charge of organizing the summit in Tunisia.

"I am personally convinced of one thing, that nothing over time can prevent the desire of people to live and to express themselves," said Samassekou, "modalities may be diverse." He hopes to overcome the media and human rights questions for free access by referring to existing documents. But while China in any case prefers to have the dominance of national law regimes mentioned, the US leans on the other site in adding "consistent with the need to preserve the free flow of information" to possibly restrictive paragraphs.

Changing alliances

While Civil Society representatives found common cause with western governments with regard to media freedoms, on the other hand, they blamed them for yielding to industry interests over intellectual property rights. Against interventions from the Business Sector - represented mainly through the International Chamber of Commerce - they argued for a balancing of interests.

"When asked why he could see so far, Sir Isaac Newton replied that he was standing on the shoulders of giants. Imagine a world where those giants refuse to let him stand on their shoulders," said Georg Greve, president of the Free Software Foundation Europe, in one of the five minute slots that civil society representatives were given before governments started negotiating. Yet this road would be taken by barring access through layers of copyright regimes. After the end of Prepcom Greve said he was satisfied that Free Software is now integrated in the Draft Declaration and Action Plan as at least "equally valuable software model".

Free Software and a balanced role of copyright protection were heavily in the interest of developing countries, argued civil society participants from the North in debates with their counterparts from Southern countries, who warned against concentrating on expert problems.

In general the participatory role of the Civil Society in the WSIS is still very experimental and unsatisfactory from the point of view of the Civil Society members. "There was one moment in the second week when Civil Society members were on the verge of withdrawing from the whole process," says Karen Banks from APC.

The sentiment was that promises to accept not input and impact from the NGOs were not materializing, voices from the Civil Society were not heard, and the common vision had been completely lost. In the small drafting groups the possibility to participate were unpredictable for the NGOs. Sometimes they could make a five minute statement and even stay for the discussions, sometimes they were banned. By the end of Prepcom, Civil Society members were undecided about how far they should disassociate themselves from the official process;
the press statement was reworded several times.

Members of the German Civil Society were outspoken in their criticism: "Governments listen", they wrote, "or leave us alone in the Information Age." In any case the Civil Society started to work on their vision document, which they want to present to WSIS in December. In other words there could be competing declarations floating around the conference/

Stake in the Ground

Samassekou noted that Prepcom-III was an intergovernmental process in which the United Nations had for the first time opened up to observers. He hoped that the new "multistakeholder" approach would act as model for the overall reform of UN working procedures.

Samassekou's more immediate problem is in getting agreement over the wording of the documents. On Friday afternoon the highly controversial topic of Internet Governance was unexpectedly raised again by the delegations of Kenya and China and the US. At that point Samassekou could be forgiven for fearing that the process could collapse. Kenya, China and other countries such as Brazil favour a reform of the management of global Internet resources, namely domain names, root servers and IP addresses. But the US and to some extent the EU countries support the current US-backed private model and don't want to see the ITU involved.

"We are very, very, very far from a consensus - not only in Internet Governance issues," said a member of the Egypt delegation who had first brought up the idea of a stronger international grip on the root server system. ®

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