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Internet showdown side-stepped in Geneva

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The international showdown over who should run the Internet has been side-stepped at the very last minute following 12 hours of intensive talks in Geneva.

More than 200 negotiators met at an extraordinary meeting on the weekend before the World Summit on the Information Society in order to thrash things about and hopefully prevent the entire meeting from being disrupted by three controversial issues.

Most significant among these issues was over who should run the Internet. Western countries want ICANN to continue to head it, whereas the rest of the world wants the ITU to take over to lend a more international flavour.

The two sides were stuck in a deadlock (despite extra days of meetings) which threatened to put the entire meeting - the first of its kind concerning the Internet - at risk. And so, in true diplomatic form, all sides agreed to put the issue on the back burner.

Discussion papers dated 5 December (the first day of the special weekend meeting) suggested that a “Preparatory Committee” be set up that will hold its first meeting in the first half of 2004 and review “those issues of the Information Society which should form the focus of the Tunis phase of the WSIS” - to be held in 2005.

And that is what everyone agreed to - since agreement was going to be impossible, farm the issue out to a committee to report back in a year’s time when hopefully the hot potato will have cooled down.

And it’s a good job they did manage to broker this compromise. Both sides had dug their heels in and the argument threatened to damage or even break up the meeting. And if that had happened, a huge raft of agreed-to, widespread and positive agreements on how to improve and encourage the information age would have been lost.

The equally contentious issue of free speech and the role of the media on the Internet was also broached. China didn’t like the Western wording about press freedom. And so the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights was used as the reference point instead. The exact paragraph may read: “Nothing in this declaration shall be construed as impairing, contradicting, restricting or derogating the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, any other international instrument or national laws adopted in furtherance of these instruments.”

We say “may” because we only have the papers provided to the meeting on Saturday. Aside from announcing a compromise had been met, the exact wording has yet to be released and the Geneva press office is helpfully not answering its phones, but with any luck it should be posted on the official site soon.

So is everything agreed? No. There still remains the thorny issue of whether richer Western nations should provide aid to poorer nations to bring them into the information area and if so, how much money exactly and how that is to be managed. That should give the politicians plenty to grandstand about while the vast majority of the work has already been argued over and agreed to by civil servants.

In oddly connected news, ICANN has just revamped its website and given it a far more accessible and friendly feel. Discussion topics are actually flagged rather than carefully hidden; relevant information is easier to get hold of; and the ponderous and knowingly dense prose about ICANN and its roles has been turned into real English.

It seems that new head Paul Twomey knows what is needed to save ICANN and he’s working fast on it. With the WSIS decision to move the Internet governance issue back a year, the starting pistol has been fired. He now has 12 months to make ICANN acceptable to the rest of the world. It won’t be easy. ®

Related link
WSIS official site

Related story
Will December make or break the Internet?

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