60 government leaders, officials from 175 countries and another 10,000 representatives from civil society, media, business and technology gathered in Geneva in December 2003 for a three-day World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) organized by United Nations and International Telecommunication Union.
The declared aim was to bridge the “digital divide” between rich and poor and to boost the use of information and communication technologies in the developing world. Heads of state and senior ministers from around the world were meant to agree on a Declaration of Principles governing the global information society as well as on a Plan of Action.
Yet for all those who expected tangible results WSIS was a disappointment. To those who attended some of the featureless plenary sessions it was no surprise that the adopted documents were vague and that no actions will be taken until the next meeting in 2005. No agreement was reached on the summit’s two most important issues: Internet governance and digital development. According to the United Nations, one way of encouraging the accessibility of information technology throughout the world is to transfer the control of the Internet from ICANN to the United Nations. o But this involves the risk of increasing governmental domination of the Net, particularly with regard to the suggested regional root servers: “Root servers are a powerful tool that can be used to limit access to information, and to track the movements of citizens on the Internet. A government with a less than stellar human rights record could use this part of the plan to further limit the rights of its people” according to security engineer Allan Liska.
Moreover the conference has not yielded any consent on the second, and presumably most critical question of WSIS: the funding for digital development. Although the leaders of a number of developing countries called on the richer nations to provide financing to allow people access to information and communication technologies, governments failed to agree on a special fund to help bridge the “digital divide”. “We are speaking of a right of communication for developing countries, but no one is willing to fund such activities” said Sean Raboy from the World Forum on Communication Rights.
Frustration over the outcome of WSIS was also noticable amongst civil society representatives. Only 2 out of 22 hours of plenary sessions were reserved for speakers from NGOs. As Christian Schiess from the University of Geneva commented: “I doubt that WSIS will help developing countries advance their cause as the most important questions are certainly not raised during this summit." Critical statements such as this were voiced across the whole spectrum of activists. While human rights campaigners pointed at the the lack of political will to approach the effective implementation of human right standards, representatives concerned with intellectual property (IP) issues critizized the lack of understanding of the nature of the information commons . “How can we partner with the private sector when we do not have similar values?” remarked IFLA’s President Kay Raseroka.
There was a widespread feeling that he summit promoted the official goals rather than enabling an open discourse. As a symptom of this tendency, some information material was confiscated at the summit venues' entrance - and even World-Information.Org’s special IP edition was only just accepted. “There has been a lot of distasteful propaganda” was the comment of one security officer. Moreover, the great variety of counter activities such as the presentation of an 'alternative' declaration by civil society represenatives passed largely unnoticed by media and officials. Not even the forced closure of the counter summit "WSIS? We Seize!" by Geneva police stirred any reaction amongst most WSIS participants let alone the meeting’s organizers.
The event itself was too complex and short to have an immediate effect. On the positive side, it at least allowed thousands of people concerned for a just information order to get in contact with each other, exchange information and build networks. “We believe that WSIS as a platform helps us share our experiences and allows us to gather different perspectives for our future work” explained Girma Dessalegn from the Information Technology Center for Africa.
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World Summit on the Information Society
WSIS? WE SEIZE!
WSIS Civil Society Meeting Point
WSIS Civil Society Working Group on Patents, Copyrights and Trademarks