Geneva, 19.2.2003. One of the thematic fields which are still completely open for debate is the regulatory framework for the information society. All actors involved agree that the issue needs to be discussed and that crucial areas in the information society need regulation, but there is hardly any consensus on what exactly these areas are. While civil society wants to see rules on data protection, freedom of expression and media ownership included in the WSIS declaration, the private sector seeks a liberalised and stable business environment, and governments are unwilling to keep their hands off information and communication channels such as the internet. The Multi-Stakeholder Roundtable focusing on "Enabling Environment: Legal and Regulatory Framework" at the Geneva Prepcom was composed entirely of the latter two approaches.
French Ambassador Jean-Francois Soupizet started the round by outlining the EU model of regulation which is based on the pillars of liberalisation and harmonisation of rules between members states. Emphasis was put on creating and preserving competition and reconciling this objective with the interests of economic actors, while public interest would also have to be considered - thereby creating a hierarchy of priorities which would certainly be questioned by civil society.
Adding to the EU presentation, the Egypt approach to regulation offered a detailed example of a government-led liberalisation model. It is based on a complete liberalisation of all telecommunication services, a separation between regulatory functions and service provisioning, and a total lack of restrictions on private ownership of services. Government activity in the sector continues but is reduced to a supporting role in individual fields where active development of communication services is regarded as essential. Egyptian delegate Nadia Hegazi named government support for so-called IT Clubs in remote villages and schools, a programme for affordable PCs to be paid through the phone bill, and "Public-Private-Partnerships" (PPP) offering free internet access.
That kind of partnership, which involves governments creating a favourable business framework and the private sector providing the services, is certainly high on the agenda of business actors present at Prepcom 2. Riad Bahsoun from TIT called PPPs the "key to development". He made a strong statement on the need for stable legal and regulatory frameworks for business, but he also added the ideological environment, noting that mindsets would have to be changed in order to create an efficient and essentially business-friendly culture.
The second major area of regulation was introduced by Manuel Lezertua from the Council of Europe as "Taming the World Wide Web". Alarm bells ringing at such an expression were fully confirmed as Lezertua outlined the alleged threats and risks posed by computer and cyber-crime. He presented the Convention on Cybercrime by the Council, which entails the criminalisation and banning of certain internet content. Such content currently includes porn and racist material, but Mr. Lezertua forgot to mention that additional types of content deemed illegal, illegitimate or otherwise "against public interest" could easily be added to the list. With much irony, ICANN member and moderator of the Roundtable Amadeu Abril expressed his happiness about the fact that "we are fully protected by our beloved and trusted authorities".
Despite Abril's interventions, statements on a regulation of privacy, media owenership, or related issues were virtually absent from the panel. So there is a good chance that liberalisation and criminalisation will be the lines, along which delegates will be discussing regulation issues at the WSIS.