World Summit on the Information Society: A very long road
MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY, 02 March 2005
The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) is a United Nations Conference led by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Its objective is to develop a new global framework to deal with the challenges posed by the development of new information and communication technologies (ICTs). Just as WSIS had been initially conceived, it has differed from other United Nations conferences in that it has taken place in two distinct phases: the first took place in Geneva, from the 10 to 12 December 2003 and the second will take place in Tunisia, between 16 and 18 November 2005.
Unlike previous United Nations conferences, WSIS aims to incorporate the consensual perspective of multiple actors – referred to as a ‘multi-stakeholder process’- (reflecting the interests of the governments, the private sector and civil society) in the deliberations.
From 17 to 25 February 2005, the WSIS second Preparatory Committee meeting for the second phase, known as PrepCom 2, took place in Geneva. The February meeting addressed three issues: financing mechanisms, internet governance and the Political Chapeau and operational part (in short, a reaffirmation of the Geneva Declaration and a plan of implementation of the Geneva Action Plan).
Geneva : The First Phase (2001-2003)
During the first phase of the summit in Geneva, governments were unable to find consensual language on two issues – internet governance (who controls) – and financing mechanisms (who pays). The latter included a controversial proposal to create a Digital Solidarity Fund. Faced with the impossible task of reaching consensus on these issues in the time allowed, a solution was found whereby the UN Secretary General convened two working groups mandated to discuss various options and bring recommendations back to stakeholders for further deliberation during Phase II, with the hope that governments will sign off on agreed language during the Tunis Summit.
Civil society organisations participating in the process released their own Declaration at the Geneva Summit. It stressed clear conceptual differences with governments regarding visions for the ‘information society’. Although official documents included some of the language proposed by civil society (such as language in relation to the promotion of human rights) detailed analysis of the texts revealed a vision of a technology-centric information society driven by commercial interests. This is in direct opposition to the understanding of technology that most civil society espouse which sees technology as a tool for egalitarian development. Strong pressure groups, such as corporate media, left their mark on the documents by placing more democratising means of communication –(such as the role of community media) at the margins of the ‘information society’.
Nor have the documents (a political ‘Declaration’ and a concrete Plan of Action) approved in Geneva in December 2003 resolved critical issues such as promoting the use of free and open source software (FOSS) or the demand to subordinate a “strong” intellectual property rights focus to the needs of a development agenda. Civil society, in its Declaration, has maintained that existing international regulatory instruments, including the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement and the instruments of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), should be revised in order to ensure the promotion of cultural, linguistic and media-related diversity and so they contribute to the development of human knowledge. Some governments, especially that of the United States, are firmly opposed to having aspects of the trade of goods and services considered in the WSIS process. They argue that the natural contexts for these subjects are the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and WIPO.
Tunis: The Second Phase (2004-2005)
Due to the difficulties that governments encountered in reaching solid agreements during the first phase of the WSIS and because of a general lack of vision, direction and leadership, the Tunisia phase of the summit got off to a rough start.
First Preparatory Committee Meeting (PrepCom 1)
In June 2004 the first meeting of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) of the second phase took place in Hammamet, Tunisia. At this meeting it was agreed that the preparatory process would have two objectives.
- On one hand it has to provide solutions regarding the implementation and monitoring of the decisions taken by the various actors in Geneva at the national, regional and international level. This should place specific emphasis on the difficulties that least developed countries face.
- On the other hand, the second phase should provide a solution for the issues that were left unresolved in Geneva, such as internet governance and financing mechanisms for countries in the South.
Consensus was reached during the PrepCom whereby the agreements arrived at during Phase I would not be re-opened for discussion.
During this meeting a heated debate surrounding the state of human rights and freedom of speech in the country that will be hosting the second phase took place. This debate made the work of civil society, in particular, very difficult, as most meetings, regardless of the issues under discussion, were the object of constant interruption and disruption by pro-government Tunisian groups.
Beginning the work on internet governance and financing mechanisms
The work of both groups – the Task Force on Financing Mechanisms (TFFM) and the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) began in 2004. Members were selected for both groups from governments, the private sector and civil society and began work on reports that would be delivered during PrepComs 2 and 3 (February and September 2005 respectively).
Second Preparatory Committee (PrepCom 2)
From 17 to 25 February 2005, the WSIS second Preparatory Committee meeting for the second phase, known as PrepCom 2, took place in Geneva.
The February meeting addressed three issues:
- financing mechanisms
- internet governance
- the Political Chapeau and operational part (in short, a reaffirmation of the Geneva Declaration and a plan of implementation of the Geneva Action Plan)
Financing mechanisms for developing countries
Regarding financing mechanisms, the final report of the TFFM was presented to stakeholders for discussion and negotiation on final language, which was to be inserted in the political chapeau and operational part of the document.
Mr Shoji Nishimoto, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Assistant Administrator and Director in presenting the report, made it clear that "the assignment at hand for the Task Force was a difficult one. Development finance is a complex issue in the best of circumstances. The needs for development finance are rising so that the question of the ‘adequacy’ of the existing financial mechanisms for ICTD had to be viewed in the context of available financing for the broader set of development goals. As a first step, the Task Force attempted to provide a diagnostic of the situation and offers strong findings, and various options and recommendations for improvement and innovation, which include greater cross-sectoral and cross-institutional coordination of financing programs and ICT development initiatives.”
The inter-governmental debate on the findings and conclusions of the Task Force report as put into operation as text for chapter two was intense. One of the key issues was the relative weight of private and public sector finance in financing ICTD. Four aspects of this are reflected in the sections of the text agreed by the end of the PrepCom:
“24. In the past, financing of ICT infrastructure in most developing countries has been based on public investment. Lately, a significant influx of investment has taken place where private sector participation has been encouraged, based on a sound regulatory framework, and where public policies aimed at bridging the digital divide have been implemented.
28. We underline that market forces alone cannot guarantee the full participation of developing countries in the global market for ICT-enabled services.
30. We recognise that, as a result of the growing impact of sustainable private sector investment in infrastructure, multilateral and bilateral public donors are redirecting public resources to other development objectives, including Poverty Reduction Strategy Programmes, policy reforms and mainstreaming of ICTs and capacity development. We encourage all governments to give appropriate priority to ICTs, including traditional ICTs such as broadcast radio and TV, in their national development strategies. We also encourage multilateral institutions as well as bilateral public donors to consider also providing more financial support for regional and large-scale national ICT infrastructure projects and related capacity development.
31. We recognise that public finance plays a crucial role in providing ICT access and services to rural areas and disadvantaged populations.” (Note by the Chair of the Subcommittee: Revised Chapter 2 of the Operational Part (Financial Mechanisms) 25 February 2005)”
This constitutes a reconfiguration of the relationship between private and public finance for ICTD that in effect shifts the previous expectation that private sector finance would alone be adequate to address the ICTD infrastructure needs of developing countries to a position where there is a greater balance between the contributions of public and private finance.
ICT for development (ICTD)
Some civil society representatives proposed specific text be included in Chapter Two that highlighted the centrality of public finance in ICTD and the role of community-driven and –owned ICTD initiatives and networks to contribute to social empowerment and sustainable development. In these two respects, the civil society advocacy work was successful and both aspects were successfully placed and defended in the text of Chapter Two with support from the government delegations of both developed and developing countries.
How the new balance between public and private and the inclusion of community-driven roles and financing translates into practice will be of critical importance to the future of the information society and the role of ICTs in supporting the achievement of national development goals and the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
In a sense this is the key trade-off of the WSIS process on finance. In return for dropping the pressure on developed countries and donors to establish a new dedicated Global ICT Fund to finance the extension of the information society into developing countries, it is almost as if this new configuration of public and private finance has been agreed and a greater willingness expressed in various quarters to more effectively align existing financing mechanisms to national development priorities This is of the utmost importance in the work ahead of extending ICT infrastructure, access, capacity to utilise ICTs and appropriate content and applications into rural and under-served areas of the developing world.
It also helps to place the way in which governments welcomed the Digital Solidarity Fund (DSF) into perspective. The agreement to welcome the DSF as a voluntary fund open to interested stakeholders makes it a complementary financial mechanism to the reconfigured range of finance mechanisms available for ICTD. It is up to those interested to make a success of the DSF.
At the same time the new balance between private and public finance for ICTD opens up a new space for taking rural and other under-served areas seriously and introducing new policy and financial models for ICTD, based on public good, public finance and “open access” to infrastructure approaches. It also draws attention to the important shift occurring with respect to Official Development Assistance (ODA) in particular within the context of the MDGs – namely, that it is up to developing country governments to prioritise ICTD within their national development strategies, including what are progressively being referred to as MDG-based poverty reduction strategies.
For ICT to be prioritized within these kinds of more general development strategies, not only will the case for ICTD mainstreaming have to be more effectively made, but in many instances, this will have to be done in situations where the physical infrastructure, policy processes and awareness on the part of the broader development community have not yet been realized. Not only is the space to rethink ICTD policy and to draw on the development enabler role of ICT with the new technologies at hand, so too is the imperative to do so if an inclusive development agenda is to be realised.
So, in short, what is in the process of happening as a result of WSIS and other changes in the development environment is a fundamental change in the approach to financing ICTD, and the attendant challenges and opportunities that this reconfiguration poses. Private sector financing of infrastructure while important is no longer considered paramount, ODA for ICTD activities will be linked to a developing country’s prioritisation of ICTD within its development policies and MDG-based poverty reduction strategies, while there is new space for public financing of ICTD from multilateral banks and donors. And the DSF is likely to raise and disburse funds for ICTD at the local level.
Free and open source software
Less effective was the discussion of issues relating to the cost of software and the potential to harness alternatives provided by free and open source software. The Indian delegation made a strong case for FOSS as a way of reducing the costs of ICTD but consensus could not be reached. The relationship between FOSS and financing ICTD is an issue that will need further attention as part of the reconfiguration of financial mechanisms: FOSS as a financial mechanism to enable ICTs to play an effective role in mainstreaming development in the MDGs. This is perhaps an issue for the MDG + 5 Conference in September 2005.
Another issue that needs further exploration is the relationship between internet governance and financing ICTD. Civil society groups raised the issue of a new financial mechanism to support ICTD in the form of a global tax on commercial internet domain name holders on the argument that information and communications networks are a global public good. This will be further explored in the months ahead.
Many delegates –among them those from the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC in Spanish)- insist that ICTs are tools that should help achieve the MDGs, in other words, reduce poverty.
“Without doubt the central and most conflictive issues are not resolved,” states Néstor Busso of ALER (Argentina), in one of his reports from Geneva for the CRIS (Communication Rights in the Information Society) campaign. “For starters, by the looks of things to date, a commercial criteria that insists on ‘facilitating an environment that favours investment’ is still prevalent as opposed to revising and modifying unfair relationships, regulations and international structures that condemn most human beings to starvation.”
The Working Group on Internet Governance shared its progress report which focused more on process than issues per se. The WGIG will submit its final report to delegates in early July 2005 in preparation for PrepCom 3 when it will be discussed and final language negotiated.
Reaction to the work of the WGIG from delegates was, in the main, in sharp contrast to that of the TFFM. Issues of representations, the transparent nature of the WGIG’s work and the relative ease with which delegates can contribute to the ongoing process are largely positive. However, the challenge lies ahead for the WGIG as it grapples with several issues as outlined in a report by Sally Burch of the Latin American Information Agency (ALAI):
“.. there is almost unanimous disagreement with the status quo, in which most countries have no say in how the internet is managed, and where a company registered under US law (ICANN), manages the administration of Internet (IP) names and numbers. Under the present system, organizations from certain countries can effectively be denied web domain names, as a result of US foreign policy or under the dictates of its antiterrorist legislation. In fact unilateral control of the system in theory gives one country the unacceptable power to cut off a whole country from internet access. [..] The range of positions among governments varies from those that are concerned mainly with development and digital divide issues, relating, for example, to lower interconnection costs to ensure better access for all; to those that are keen to get a bigger share in the business interests of running the networks, at present largely monopolized by US companies.”
Although civil society delegates are generally happy with the process of the WGIG, they certainly have concerns about some of the issues the group will have to address, as Burch continues:
“There is nonetheless some concern among civil society actors that the heated nature of debate around the control and regulatory aspects of internet governance, such as those mentioned above and issues such as cybercrime and spam, are tending to overshadow the broader but very necessary discussions on the more enabling and social aspects of Internet governance.”
Civil society contributions
“A question that many of us who participate as representatives of civil society organisations ask ourselves is whether we should invest the bulk of our effort in the official debate or if it is more important to dedicate ourselves to making contacts, parallel activities, sectoral negotiations,” remarks Busso. “An initial response would be: both. But it’s not that easy. That requires us to work in a more organised way. To have concrete proposals agreed with civil society and some governments. I have the feeling that we don’t always organise ourselves and work to put forward and sustain concrete proposals that aren’t just declarations of principles.”
For Sally Burch, “the results of phase one are clearly visible in terms of the greater openness of the official intergovernmental process to receive and consider civil society input. Many government delegations have actually been requesting civil society contributions to improve quality of the documents, the first drafts of which are extremely vague and general. In these circumstances, it makes sense to give priority to developing the input and getting it to governments in time. Broader consensus is likely to be needed further down the line as it becomes evident what the critical issues and areas of blockage are."
Finally it was agreed that, despite the efforts of some delegates, this PrepCom 2 was determined by subjects that have more to do with infrastructure and technology than with policy. “And the solutions to the problems we must face are, in our judgement, more political than technological,” affirmed Busso.
Latin American presence
Civil society representatives present at this PrepCom (around 20) were able to reorganize the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) Caucus – “an important advance toward having presence as a region,” according to Busso. Latin American representatives from various organisations that are a part of the CRIS campaign, such as ALER, ALAI, AMARC, APC y RITS were present.
“We all agree on the importance of working together and strengthening the presence of Latin American civil society at the Summit,” says Busso. He added that the Caucus also decided to request a formal meeting with GRULAC. “We are pleased that the majority of the governments of Latin America are working together, forming a regional block that is gradually attaining its identity.”
Toward Tunisia 2005
The documents that arise from the official process that will take place in Tunisia in November will include, among others, a political decision or political framework (chapeau) of the summit and an operational chapter that will establish the organisational mechanisms and responsibilities that ensure a follow-up and implementation of the agreements reached in the first phase. The two subjects to follow with particular attention are those of ICTs and development financing mechanisms and internet governance.
Various members and staff from the APC team participated in various PrepCom 2 reunions. Following their return and due to the processing of all the information gathered there, APCNews will continue updating the coverage on this subject in March.