The net's future after Tunis

Bill Thompson
21 November 2005

It would be easy to dismiss the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) held in Tunis on 16-18 November 2005 as just another United Nations-sponsored waste of time, effort and money.

After all, an event that attracts Robert Mugabe and Muammar Gaddafi, enhances the political credibility of Tunisia’s own President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and at the same time endorses control by the United States of core aspects of the net’s technical architecture would seem to have nothing to recommend it to anyone committed to freedom of expression, accountability or progressive politics.

Also in openDemocracy on the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS):

Solana Larsen, “Whose freedom, whose information?” (December 2003)

Becky Hogge, “Why the WSIS? Democracy and cyberspace” (November 2005)

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Dismissing the summit certainly makes for good headlines, and both the blogosphere and more establishment press have been filled with criticism of the “deal” struck over the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), the lack of funds for digital development and the inappropriateness of the venue.

About the only positive coverage was generated by Nicholas Negroponte and Kofi Annan when they showed off a children’s laptop that can be made for $100, but even then all we actually saw was a dummy display connected by a thick black cable to the “real” computer running under the table. It could be argued that bringing together 18,422 people, including forty-six heads of state and government – though none from any major western country – 197 ministers, 6,241 representatives of 606 NGOs and civil-society organisations and 979 journalists (one advantage of holding a summit in a closed society is that your visitor figures are usually accurate) is rarely a good idea. The event is too big for anyone to really understand what is going on, so journalists will always be tempted to fall back on generalities in their coverage, and any agreements reached will be easy to attack as compromises.

In fact the summit achieved a great deal, and the two main documents produced – the Tunis Agenda and the Tunis Commitment – were only part of it. Just having everyone in the same place at the same time allowed conversations to take place at all levels, from senior ministers to activist members of radical NGOs. Information was exchanged, future collaborations were discussed, and the hundreds of exhibitors at the ICT4ALL exhibition that accompanied the summit were able to show off their work to a remarkably receptive audience.

Nor should we forget the broader context within which the two meetings – in December 2003 in Geneva, and now in Tunis – are taking place. Because this is not about dealing with a short-term problem but rather about finding ways to adapt the whole United Nations system to take account of the emerging information society. The back page of the Tunis Agenda lists the “possible moderators/facilitators” for the many areas of action, and they include Unesco, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the World Health Organisation, the United Nations Development Programme and UNCTAD – all key agencies from diverse parts of the UN, and all whose work will be directly affected as more and more people get online.

Bill Thompson went to WSIS with the BBC, to record material for the World Service programme Go Digital. He took lots of photos and wrote more about his experiences for the BBC website – visit his weblog here.

Bill Thompson’s most recent articles in openDemocracy:

“Random” (October 2004)

“Dump the world wide web!” (December 2004)

“The democratic republic of cyberspace?” (September 2005)

This is not just inappropriate optimism or a desire to go against popular opinion on the value of the summit. Building the information society will take collaboration and cooperation between governments, companies and all the many and various groups and individuals that make up civil society. The United Nations is the best, if not the only, space within which such discussions can take place, even if it means occasional top-heavy and expensive summits to keep things going.

Those who have little faith in the United Nations should reflect on what would be happening to the debate on internet governance if we didn’t have WSIS offering a space for discussion. Further, since many of the countries in the developing world are not even potential markets, can we really believe that Microsoft, Intel, Google and the many other private companies who were present in Tunis would be as committed to the developing world if there was no UN-provided framework in place?

The Tunis Agenda provides a safe place in which to work out disagreements and ways forward, albeit one that allows the representatives of countries like China, Saudi Arabia and Iran to argue for increased control and restrictions on freedom. Since those who want change will have to argue for it in a forum that is open to all, the UN may even, in its search for consensus, help to preserve the internet’s essential structure as an end-to-end network where any device can talk freely to any other.

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