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The internet's future in an aircraft hangar

James Cowling
19 December 2003

The first, just-concluded stage of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva aimed – according to its United Nations organisers – to bring together heads of state, leading business executives, NGOs and members of civil society to develop a better understanding of the revolution brought about by Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) and its impact on the international community. The Geneva summit adopted a declaration of principles and developed an action plan, to be reviewed at the second stage in Tunis in 2005.

Solana Larsen’s article for openDemocracy.net argued that there were four key issues for the WSIS: how to bridge the digital divide; open source software vs. Microsoft; intellectual property; internet freedom, security and governance.

According to experienced (and sometimes cynical) conference-goers, there are four ways to judge the importance of a meeting. The quality of the speakers and the possibility of policy change are fundamental elements – the latter, after all, is why we do it. But the attractiveness of the location, and the contents of the “goody bag” (the free gifts that delegates receive) also matter.

In the light of this mix of high principles and low criteria, how did the WSIS summit perform?

Niger, Zimbabwe, Azerbaijan and the “information society”

The Old Town of Geneva is extremely pretty with narrow cobbled streets and a wide range of chocolate shops and bars for weary delegates. But WSIS was held in a cavernous, anonymous, windowless hall beside the airport. It evoked a Marshall McLuhan vision – the global village in an aircraft hangar.

Geneva is also one of the most expensive cities in Europe – perhaps not the most diplomatic choice for an event which, at least in part, was supposed to focus on the contribution ICTs can make to the Millennium Development Goals. In this respect, the combination of heads of state (many from the developing world) and lesser political figures from the rich countries was revealing: it was hard to avoid the impression that the latter took WSIS less seriously than the former.

WSIS had been roundly criticised before the summit even began, on several grounds – the declaration and action plan were worthless, it was just an opportunity for a massive corporate sales pitch to the developing world, it is a waste of time talking about the information society in countries where primary schooling is a rarity rather than a right.

The summit itself seemed to validate many of these criticisms. The ICT 4 Development (ICT4D) hall was a trade show featuring stands from the Japanese company NTT DotCoMo, demonstrating their latest 150 USD 3G mobile phones, to the Myanmar World Distribution Company, informing delegates of Myanmar’s (Burma’s) vital role in the information society. One stand promoted e-voting as a route to greater participation in politics and offered bottles of wine to volunteers in return for their fingerprints – begging the question whether e-voting or “wine for votes” would best breathe life into the democratic body politic?

The plenary speech from the new president of Azerbaijan underlined the importance of freedom of information to the global society. According to Reporters sans Frontieres, state pressure on independent media in Azerbaijan has survived the end of official censorship. The president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, took a $4,500 per night presidential suite on the shores of Lake Geneva. (In three years Zimbabwe’s GDP has fallen by a third). Perhaps most poignant of all, the delegate from the ministry of communications in Niger stated that his minister is extremely keen on the idea of e-democracy and saw it as a key priority for his country. Niger, a country of 11 million people, has one personal computer for every 200 citizens.

Soft centre, tasty at the edges

So was WSIS a waste of time? The high-sounding declaration of principles and the action plan evaded the controversial (and crucial) issues. The latter’s request to the UN to conduct, by the end of 2004, a review of existing financial resources that would also consider the feasibility of a digital solidarity fund is typical of the summit’s preference for the scheduling of endless meetings over focused delivery.

The plan also enjoined governments to promote both proprietary and open source software through public/private partnerships. Perhaps the most positive note for those who believe that Microsoft is creating one desktop to rule them all was to be found in the summit Cybercafe that resolutely ran Linux rather than Windows, with all things Microsoft banished to the ICT4D platform.

Internet regulation was a concern frequently raised at fringe meetings. Participants seemed to agree that reform of ICANN was needed, but they feared that (to paraphrase one speaker) “an organisation based on bribery like the UN” was not the organisation to do it. Nicholas Negroponte wondered if, in ten years’ time, WSIS may consider deregulation of the internet. The link between cyber security, the importance of which was emphasised in the declaration of principles, and internet regulation will be a serious concern in the coming period.

Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) emerged as a high-profile issue at the summit. The declaration steered a course between the need for IPR protection and the chilling effect that its over-emphasis could have on creativity and innovation, particularly in developing states. John Gage, chief researcher at Sun Microsystems, lent support to Lawrence Lessig’s “creative commons”, which attempts to break the current impasse through an innovative approach to copyright protection.

The WSIS at least served to air these crucial concerns. The summit featured some excellent fringe debates and enabled groups from all over the world to come together and discuss their needs. The rules governing IPR, and the need for realism about what ICTs can and can’t achieve, are now established (as James Goodman emphasises in openDemocracy.net) as central to global development. We know that the declaration of principles and the action plan are inadequate precisely because they were produced. The challenge now? To ensure that Tunis – even if there will be no Swiss chocolates in the goody bag – does better.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent those of the IPPR

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