Yoshio Utsumi, General Secretary of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) which acts as main organiser of the WSIS, illustrated the particular importance of this Prepcom: “This Prepcom is the most crucial conference of the whole preparation process. This is where the substance of the WSIS will be created and where the real work will be done.” Access to information and knowledge, according to Utsumi, should be enhanced through the WSIS process, and the digital divide in information-rich and information-poor must be bridged.
After the agenda and the conference procedures had been adopted, Samassekou presented the orientation document which he had drafted together with a number of experts and which is to give input to the declaration to be drafted at Prepcom 2. Even though the paper “Information and Communication for All” contains basic demands such as universal access and the preservation of cultural diversity, its focus lies in the development of technical infrastructures and the spread of information and communication technologies. Not surprisingly, Utsumi as General Secretary of the technology-oriented ITU applauded the document as a fine starting point for debate.
In contrast, the President of the Swiss Federation Moritz Leuenberger declared that the WSIS should not become a meeting of technology experts willing to extend their profit margins. His plea was to explicitly include critical groups in the debate. “Governments can’t do this alone, they need the support of civil society.” Not least his final remark, that especially in times like these communication for peace is of paramount importance, caused the largest applause by delegates of governments, civil society and international organisations.
The first plenary session of the Prepcom was concluded with reports from the regional conferences which had taken place in the run-up to the Prepcom. The regional declarations are likely to influence the final WSIS declaration and the plan of action as heavily as will the Samassekou document. The first one in the series of regional conferences was the African conference which took place in Mali in May 2002. Emphasis there was put on the Digital Divide and the use of information and communication for development, but also the preservation of the African cultural heritage. The prime aim of the Paneuropean regional conference, which took place half a year later in November 2002, was “E-Inclusion”, meaning that all members of society should be enabled to enjoy the opportunities of the information society. However the security of the information net and “cyber-terrorism” took over as focal points of the debate, as well as the emphasis on “Public-Private-Partnerships” – a barely disguised form of privatisation of public services.
The Asian regional conference in Tokio allowed the most far-reaching participation of civil society to date. The main thematic issues here were cultural and linguistic diversity, social aspects of the information society and universal access to broadband technology. The West-Asian conference as well had a commitment to enable broad participation of civil society and the business community. A delegate reported of demands for the establishment of information as a human right, for poverty reduction, as well as of the need for a peaceful environment for the development of civil society. A delegate of the Arab League emphasised the dialogue of cultures, eGovernment solutions and network security. Once more, security also represented a major issue on a sub-regional conference of the CIS states. However the major challenge for the region, according to a Russian delegate, lies in the implementation of universal access to ICTs for the general public.
The national component was particularly emphasised on the Latin American Conference in the Dominican Republik. Country-specific characteristics should be considered in the debate on the information society: In addition to global programmes, national strategies should deal with the development of information and communication solutions.
A number of alleged „visionaries“ formed a panel debate in the afternoon and informed the delegates about their views on the information society. Diverging interpretations of the issues to be discussed at WSIS uncovered some interesting lines of conflict. Professor Lawrence Lessig from Stanford University recalled the history of the creation of the Internet and emphasised that most components of current information nets had been developed, partly in collaborative efforts, around the globe. Thus the character of the Internet as a decentral network was based in its very foundations. Lessig described the net as an unprecedented platform to fulfil human potential, innovation and freedom, but he also warned the plenary about massive threats to information and communication freedom by “those who regard information and culture exclusively as property.” This “extremism”, according to Lessig, has dominated the debate on information issues. He asked the conference not to repeat that mistake. “We are facing the decision whether the information society which is currently evolving will be free or feudal.”
The centrality of a critical analysis of Intellectual Property Rights, as demanded by Lessig, was firmly rejected by Maria Cattaui from the International Chamber of Commerce. Her vision was business-oriented. She called the private sector “the real implementer of information society, and the true creator and innovator of information services.” No one else, according to Cattaui, has the skills, experience and creativity to create the foundations of information society. Large parts of civil society would probably object to this claim quite strongly.
The press conference on which Mrs. Cattaui, amongst others, spoke had the title “Access to Information is a fundamental Right”. This motto may very well lead the way for the coming two weeks: Certain rights for all should be established – however far-reaching participation, which for example would not only include access to but also production of information, goes to far as many delegates from governments and business are concerned.