On the afternoon of Friday, November 18, 2005, one of three stakeholders taking part in the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) drew a line in the sand. Civil society representatives from all continents lined up to deliver a stark closing statement.
There were civil society thumbs up for the new multistakeholder Internet Governance Forum; the awareness built that people from all walks of life should be involved in ICT policy development, not just technology specialists and government officials; and the spotlight shone on state repression and surveillance in the host nation, Tunisia.
But thumbs were down for: the UN for choosing a flagrant violator of human rights as the hosts of a UN summit; wealthier governments which insist that financing for ICT for development should be voluntary only; the vague language on internet oversight; and the fact that WSIS follow-up will probably be assigned to technology-focused specialist committee.
On the afternoon of Friday, November 18, 2005, one of three stakeholders taking part in the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) drew a line in the sand. Civil society (CS) representatives from all continents lined up on a panel to deliver a stark closing statement. At the same time, International Telecommunications Union UN-o-crats drew conclusions of their own a couple of hundred meters away in the plenary room.
Even though the speakers made it clear that a more detailed civil society statement will be made available on various websites within two weeks, four points were addressed: internet governance, human rights, financing and development, and follow-up. The press conference essentially driven by questions of the audience, revolved around issues of development through ICTs.
Renate Bloem of the Civil Society Bureau kicked off the conference by saluting some language used in the Tunis Commitment such as multistakeholderism. She held up that civil society has become a force to be reckoned with. "We have moved to become a partner in negotiations," she assessed.
Civil society welcomes the creation of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), and emphasised the key role it played in its creation. This is seen as a positive development by these CS representatives because it is expected to broaden participation in internet policy. Vague language on internet oversight and the reform of ICANN still makes CS nervous. The danger of the U.S. wanting to retain its dominance over the domain name system (DNS) and the root zone file may be confirmed in the years to come.
CS representatives on the panel voiced concern about human rights such as the freedom of speech not being respected by many countries in the world. They made their commitment towards communication rights unequivocal, linking human rights to development. Human rights monitoring is seen as an essential means to attain a more balanced development of the information society. Compliance with universal human rights standards and the mainstreaming of ICTs are also stressed as building blocks for a respectful and just implementation of WSIS outcomes.
The human rights issue was approached more specifically in the press conference that followed. Steve Buckley of the Tunisia freedom of expression monitoring group vowed "Never again!". He argued that "the United Nations should never again hold a world summit in a country that does not respect its international human rights commitments."
He linked the WSIS outcomes directly to the situation on the ground here in Tunisia where many violations of basic human rights had been observed on the eve and during WSIS. Thereby, this member of civil society (Steve Buckley is president of AMARC) wanted to shed light on the central importance of freedom of expression and human rights, "not only in Tunisia, but in the entire world."
Meryem Marzouki, from the organisation IRIS in France hammered the issue on the nail by saying that if the UN is to boast its role in aspects of internet governance, it must start by monitoring its internal accreditation processes.
She suggested that an independent commission be set up to monitor the accreditation of all stakeholders, including what she referred to as “real governmental organisations” (RGOs as opposed to NGOs). Tunisian government sympathisers masquerading –and accredited- as NGOs have disrupted multiple civil society-organised events on and off site here in Tunis and in the two years run-up to the summit.
Financing and development
CS representatives underlined that no new financial mechanisms had been set up during WSIS and that the existing ones need to respond to a challenge that is much more demanding than traditional development financing.
"I think the gaps in infrastructure between the developed and developing countries are not just a question of lack of financing. Rather, it’s a renewal of the existing bilateral aid that is needed. ICTs need to be prioritised," said Anriette Esterhuysen, executive director of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC).
"What was also made clear in the WSIS process — and there is a large recognition of this — is that opening markets is not enough to develop ICT infrastructure. It’s now up to governments to ensure that these rights are respected."
"Since developing countries’ markets are starting to be taken more seriously — especially since we have seen mobile phone companies making huge profits in those markets — there is a need for strong empowered, independent policies, in the public interest. These are more important than ever," Esterhuysen insisted.
Questioned about the scant attention given to the Digital Solidarity Fund (DSF) established at an early WSIS preparatory conference, Papa Ndiaye Diouf, coordinator of the African Diaspora for the Information Society specified that estimates currently put the fund’s total value at 6 to 7 million Euros.
The voluntary fund is meant to channel more financing to the realisation of communication infrastructure projects in the South. "We are really far away from attending the needs. We are curious to see if financing mechanisms on international commerce will function. Again, the ball is in all governments’ court." he concluded.
Special attention for Africa was also demanded in order for sustainable solutions to emerge.
Robert Sagun of the Youth Caucus had a complementary speech in saying that "we did not want the outcome to be a commitment but a plan of implementation." He argued that the youth movements have been following and participating in WSIS negotiations for the last five years and that they are eager to move beyond documents and words, to actually help address the many development issues in which ICTs can play a role.
"The mandate of the Commission on Science and Technology for Development, which is expected to take on the follow-up function, is essentially technological," the closing press release of civil society read. Civil society groups believe that the information society is a complex socio-political phenomenon and that such a specialised organisation should in no way be the legitimate driving force behind the post-WSIS implementation efforts.
The full civil society statement expected to be released on all of these sites around the December 1, 2005: