Geneva, 18 February 2003. As one of the first Multi-Stakeholder Roundtables to precede the Prepcom negotiations on content and themes, the meeting on "Access to knowledge, open access, cultural and linguistic diversity and local content" focused on some of the main issues of the summit, but also uncovered some of the fundamental dividing lines between visions of the information society.
  The "open access" side was represented by Mr. Latif Ladid from ISOC / Ericsson, thereby member of the business sector. He expressed his main objective for the information society as simply to "connect everyone and everything", while another vital aim would be for everyone to become "residents on the internet". For this to become reality he stressed the role of IP addresses, which would serve as identities for the new netizen, and which may finally be available in unlimited quantity with the dawn of the planned IPv6 version.

Abdul Waheed Khan, representing UNESCO, proposed an entirely different focus by referring to the creation, distribution and utilisation of knowledge as the main parameters of the society discussed here. He doubted that providing technological infrastructure would be enough to enhance human development, instead a knowledge society should be both our target and our reference point. An important step towards this would be an increase in local content creation. Mr. Khan pointed out a number of UNESCO programmes facilitating local content development, but also admitted that local content was facing serious obstacles, as most content still comes from developed countries, the provision of Intellectual Property Rights is often inadequate, there's both a lack of resources and a lack of commitment by many decision-makers, and of course market forces do not encourage diversity.

The focus on local content was reinforced by two members of the Association of Progressive Communication (APC) and the CRIS campaign for information rights, Alan Alegre and Olinca Marino. Both work with community and non-profit media and know the issues relevant for this sector from first-hand experience. Marino stressed the interactivity of new technology and drew links to the variety of local communities and collectivities. Practical cultural diversity would mean to allow the variety of collectivities to find their own solution for information and communication needs. Alegre added the pressing problem of the concentration of media ownership and control, and called for media democratisation.   

The issue of cultural diversity, as introduced by the debate on local content, was taken up by the French Ambassador for the WSIS Michel Peissek. He proposed an international convention on cultural diversity to prevent culture to be imposed from North to South. Such a convention should be drafted by UNESCO. This and further state-led programmes by the French government to preserve small content providers were widely appreciated  during the session, but Francis Tusubira from Makerere University in Uganda rightly remarked that such programmes and conventions can't be transplanted from North to South but have to be based on local initiatives.

Supporting Mr. Khan's view of knowledge as an unlimited resource that grows as you share it, Tusubira mentioned the property of knowledge as a main problem for developing societies. Open source technology is, in his words, "the only hope for survival" for African universities, as software alone requires one third of the university budget. This view was naturally not shared by Richard Owens from the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), but even though he pleaded to secure intellectual property rights, he did not rule out exceptions in copyrights laws to take into account development needs and the public domain, and he called not for unlimited but "responsible" use of digital rights.

Some of the differences in both the views of and the priorities for the information society, as they became apparent on the panel as well as the plenary, were summed up by Professor Niv Ahituv from Tel Aviv University. He saw a contradiction between the objectives of universal access to information and knowledge and of the production of relevant content. For this he did not so much refer to the difference in interests between different sets of actors, but mentioned some of the problems inherent in both objectives: Information overload, inefficiency and surveillance ("big brother knows everything about you") on the part of "open access"; possible filtering by governments or other actors on the part of "quality content". The general question he posed was: Who is doing the channelling and filtering, and who decides about the content?


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