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Unseemly 'elitism' row rocks PrepCom3

Government-only meetings provoke ire

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Frustration with an elitist approach taken by governments at the crucial PrepCom3 meeting in Geneva boiled over yesterday.

In two strongly worded interventions, first the civil society and then the private sector condemned the decision taken in some meetings to exclude everyone but government officials.

Ayesha Hassan, representing a consortium of business interests calling itself the Coordinating Committee of Business Interlocutors (CCBI), later told us that the meetings were being run on an ad hoc basis - sometimes they were entitled to stay and speak; at others only observe; in some, they were banned from entering.

Both Ms Hassan and, earlier in the day, Ms Avri Doria, speaking as a civil society representative, pointed out two fundamental points: one, that the both civil society and the private sector had, and continue to have, an enormous influence on the internet’s success and future; and two, that their role has been explicitly recognised by the UN and is written numerous times into the very text being decided at the conference.

In an impassioned plea, Ms Doria stated that: "The decisions to exclude non-governmental stakeholders from meaningful participation in the drafting groups are not acceptable as a matter of principle." They were also breaking "fundamental conditions" and undermining the WSIS’ legitimacy, she said.

Ms Hassan drew a wider historical point. "In the case of the internet, multi-stakeholder participation is not just a political and moral commitment, it is an acknowledgment of the genius of people from around the world from every stakeholder group that have driven the internet’s growth.

"A lack of full and active participation in all phases of this process is thus not only inconsistent with WSIS’ commitment, it is a historic departure from how internet stakeholders have dealt with each other."

Her statement, which was loudly talked over by some in the room, was greeted with applause by those relegated to the fringes.

The entire WSIS process has come as something of a culture shock to many government officials who have been consistently stymied in their attempts to cut deals behind closed doors. With the UN stating time and again - and the US and European governments enforcing it - that a "multi-stakeholder" approach (meaning the inclusion of businesses and internet organisations) be taken, they have had little choice.

Earlier this week, several countries sought to exclude non-governmental observers, fearing a precedent would be set for future UN meetings. Hours of subsequent debate produced a series of options ranging from exclusion to full involvement. However, a vote was never taken, a consensus never reached and now the decision of whether or not to allow "observers" in is dependent on the general feeling in the room.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of meetings remain open, to the bemusement of some who have consistently asked this reporter how he got in.

It is unclear what governments fear from holding open meetings. Certainly the petty political squabbles could prove embarrassing if extensively reported on. And the general sense that they can’t speak freely if observed by "outsiders" is no more than cultural inertia. The reality is that the deals struck and the alliances made occur in corridors and phonecalls, not in front of a commission meeting.

The point made by civil society and private sector is a good one: we built a big chunk of the internet and if you want to produce a document that will hold up in future years, you will benefit from our knowledge. In one sense, both are superior delegates to WSIS meetings for the simple reason that their self-interest lies only in improving the internet.

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