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The WSIS: whose freedom, whose information?

About the author
Solana Larsen is managing editor of Global Voices Online.She sits on the board of openDemocracyUSA after being its editor for 5 years.

You can’t eat a computer. But having access to information and communication technologies can mean life or death, when it comes to delivering to people around the world necessities like clean water, medical help, education and employment.

Read Anthony Barnett's editor's note "An emerging world politics"

Around a third of the world’s population has still never made a phone call. Less than one tenth have experienced the internet. This disparity is often referred to as the ‘digital divide’. It is not only one of the most important indicators of development today, it has a dynamic link to the persistence of inequalities.

This week in Geneva the first phase of the UN World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS) will gather more than 130 of the world’s governments – plus interested representatives of business and what are called ‘civil society groups’ – to discuss how the world should administer the spread of technology and the internet. The second phase will take place in Tunisia in November 2005.

Thorny issues like internet governance, security, intellectual property, open source software, and not least, who should pay for new infrastructure and technology in the developing world, are on the programme.

Read direct reports from the WSIS in our discussion forum

It is a gargantuan agenda which WSIS will funnel into a declaration of principles and an action plan for all participants to undersign at the summit’s conclusion. Sadly, it is already clear that both will contain gaping holes. The summit is in real danger of becoming nothing but a talk shop.

Nonetheless, it is already clear that its divisions are crystallising some of the significant new issues of start of the century, as divisions between rich and poor governments, between the global north and south, and between NGOs and state power, criss-cross traditional left-right differences.

Not so civil

The preparatory meetings have gone less than smoothly. A complete breakdown of negotiations has been close more than once. Countries disagree radically on so many things that it is hard to come up with language that can be agreed on by consensus. Nonetheless, for all the hot air, the evasions, the clichés and the diplomatic subsidies, important issues are in play and innovation is occurring.

For the first time at a UN summit, non-governmental participants have been invited to take part in drafting the documents. But some governments – among them China, Egypt, Mexico, and Pakistan – refused to negotiate in their presence.

Civil society participants, who represent over 940 interest organisations, universities, think-tanks, and religious groups, were locked out of meetings on some of the most contentious issues. In frustration over the failure of government to come to terms, they have formed a body and created an alternative declaration.

The only thing everyone can agree on is that there should be more telephones and computers for everyone. In 2000, the UN’s member states promised to uphold a list of “Millennium Development Goals”. One goal demands there should be a computer with internet access for every 100 people around the world by 2015.

With little more than ten years to get online computers within walking distance of even the poorest of the world’s citizens, a meeting of nations is not happening too soon.

The issues that divide

A clear plan is nowhere in sight. China won’t hear any mention of human rights and wants governments to have full control over the internet. The United States and Europe have helped weaken proposals on open source software in favour of proprietary software (like Microsoft’s). And many of the wealthiest countries would like all mention of financial support for the developing world erased from the declaration of principles.

The reality is that WSIS is not just about bringing computers to the poor. It is also about making money from selling them equipment and software; privatisation of national communications industries; investment and infrastructure. And it is about seizing power over the internet as it spreads. Many governments want to rein it in and have more direct control.

There are five major issues that stand out at the summit and remain irresolvable for the near future.

Bridging the digital divide

Who will pay for the development of infrastructure in Africa and the rest of the developing world? The poorest nations are hoping the summit might lead to commitments from the rich to cover some of the costs. The president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, is behind a proposal to create a “digital solidarity fund” for the poorest countries. He suggests it would be “painless” for $1 from the purchase of every computer, software package, or network equipment to go to the fund. Other suggestions include taxing international telephone calls or commercial use of the radio frequency spectrum.

The United States, European Union, Canada and Japan have all declared themselves against the idea, and suggest Africa would be better served by establishing an environment in which the private sector would develop the needed infrastructure – for instance through deregulation. The World Bank has also been dismissive of a fund, saying it would cost too much money to manage it on a daily basis compared with the benefits.

Open Source versus Microsoft

One of the most inhibiting barriers to the spread of computers in the developing world is the cost of software like Microsoft Windows, which is not only expensive but needs to be updated regularly at a steep price. Governments can save billions simply by switching to free and open source software like Linux, which can be updated or modified gratis by anyone, helped by a global community of programmers. India, Peru, Brazil and South Africa are among nations who have already started switching over to viable alternatives to Microsoft.

In what many suspect is a response to the mounting business threat from open source software, Bill Gates and Microsoft have been donating billions of dollars worth of software and aid to the developing countries where open source is most popular. Accusations abound that United States and European Union delegates at WSIS are in the pockets of Microsoft lobbyists. Certainly, in the centre of the negotiations, the draft for the WSIS declaration of principles has gone from outright “support” of open source software for the developing world to “promoting awareness” about “different software models, and the means of their creation, including proprietary, open source and free software”.

Intellectual property

The issue of intellectual property has become explosive with the advent of digital technology, which enables anyone to make a quick and perfect copy of anything that can be stored on a computer. Since the original Napster, free file-sharing software has accelerated, hurting the profits of the music and film industry (and by extension the American economy). The legal battle between rich copyright holders and regular computer users in Europe and America has been fierce. But the loaded guns of the entertainment business are also aimed at developing nations like China where piracy is both rampant and a significant gain for the economy.

Hollywood lobbyists are given a lot of credit for new, stringent international legislation for the protection of copyright. The extension of copyright periods, and closure of old loopholes like “fair use”, impact on what is allowed to enter the public domain. Developing nations may have less free access to content from literature and science, to policy statements, basic statistical data and social and political analysis – all in different ways important tools of development.

Freedom and security

Fear of terrorism fuels the emphasis on “security” at WSIS. Reliability and integrity of the internet is also required for growth of the United States’s priorities. “Network security” is at the top of their list.

China and Russia are attempting to switch the emphasis onto “information security” and “military security”, causing alarm among critics that the declaration of principles could be used by nations to legitimise censorship and invasions of privacy through surveillance.

Their alarm may be justified. In the draft declaration, a free and independent media are currently only promised “in accordance with the legal system of each country”. This is a significant step back from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that guarantees “freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”.

Once again, China is stubbornly opposed to such basic rights. But there are many others with dirty track records, such as Tunisia, the 2005 host of the WSIS. After nearly a year and a half, this country still holds the editor of satirical website Tunezine, Zouhair Yahyaoui, in jail for being critical of the country’s president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Internet governance

Nobody owns the internet. But one of the most important organisations involved in its management is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). It decides who assigns names to the number addresses on the net. It’s a non-profit organisation with board members around the world, but it is based in California and answers to the US department of commerce. The European Union, the United States, and the Mexican and Canadian governments are all happy with this arrangement.

Developing countries like Brazil, South Africa, India and Bangladesh feel that ICANN is too American and corporate-controlled, and would prefer to see internet governance follow the guidance of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which happens to be the organiser of WSIS on behalf of the UN. China agrees, and is furthermore furious with ICANN for allowing Taiwanese representation on their government advisory board. Which form of internet management will be more democratic: a complex government bureaucracy that could inhibit the growth of a medium fuelled by speedy innovation – or a body that answers to US rules?

If the negotiations at WSIS can be used as a gauge for what government management of the internet might look like, we should be very concerned.

Old and new divides

The fact that these five major issues are being discussed on a global scale at the WSIS is great. Yet even as it starts, many observers disdain the summit and dismiss its chances of success. The challenge of creating an “internet-Kyoto” which could secure a more democratic, global information society is in the balance.

The quarrels between governments move along the axis of rich and poor, north and south. These divisions predate digital technology. “Anyone who has been paying attention to issues of the so-called digital divide will tell you that it is simply a symptom of the injustices that already exist between rich and poor countries,” says Sasha Costanza-Chock from Communication Rights in the Information Society (CRIS), a campaign to ensure communication rights are central to WSIS.

Negotiations between civil society groups have not been marred by the same problems as those of governments. Instead, most of the groups share a vision for development. But is this because they are genuinely representative, or mainly self-selected?

Who is right and who wrong?

One of the interesting developments that seems to be emerging from WSIS is the shared identity between its civil society participants. The evolving reality called ‘information society’ is so encompassing that groups as different as Rotary International and the Global Alliance for Women’s Health have found themselves on the same side of the picket line.

In plenary sessions at preparatory meetings, the non-government group organised a communications network, whose email lists and numerous working groups have finished an alternative declaration of principles. This seeks to promote freedom, justice and equality. “I’ll bet you if you put the two declarations next to each other, the civil society declaration will give you a much better, more coherent and progressive picture of what governments should be doing,” says William Drake, a board director at Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.

But will it be so clear-cut? No doubt governments need to set their differences aside, get their priorities straight, and listen to the unofficial groups from an emerging global civil society that is working to bring information and communications technologies to the whole world, developing as well as developed.

But on the eve of the WSIS summit, the divisions are more apparent than the unities and what is fascinating and acutely necessary to understand, is that these divisions are cross-cutting and not simply polarising.

The two familiar oppositions in the discussion of information society issues – that between governments and non-governmental, or ‘civil society’, groups on the one hand, and that between the rich north and the poor south on the other – intersect, but do not neatly overlap.

It is often the governments of the global south, ostensibly representing millions of the world’s poor (like China) which most vigorously seek to deny a proper voice to NGOs in discussion and decision-making, whereas it is often the governments of rich countries (like the European Union member states) which are ready to accommodate them. If campaigning NGOs truly represent a broader, democratic constituency of interest and are accountable for their views (propositions that need to be argued for and not assumed as fact) then it cannot be said that their natural ‘allies’ in their progressive project are the governments of predominantly poor countries.

The lack of overlap between different sorts of division is also reflected in the arguments over which body – ICANN or the ITU – should take the lead in the future governance of the internet. The defence of ICANN may appear to symbolise conformity to a US-defined authority over the internet. But it could also preserve its space from governance from state diktat. The apparently ‘multilateral’ and variegated system implied by granting authority to the ITU (as advocated by many governments from the global south) might prove to be an attempt by states to carve up power among themselves in a way that limits the space of freedom granted to their own citizens.

In this mosaic of arguments at the WSIS summit, who is the champion of freedom in the information society? The responsibility of those who seek to expand open, democratic space and discussion about new technologies is to argue the case in terms of practicality as well as principle, utility as well as ideology, and citizens’ rights as well as ownership or control of institutions.

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