COMMENTARY
  Governments, listen or leave us alone in the information age!
 
 
 
Geneva, 26 September 2003. The government delegates assembled in Geneva for the third preparatory conference to the WSIS today ended their work without a clear result. A new draft action plan was available this morning, and a new draft summit declaration was circulated among the government delegates in the afternoon. These documents did not even reflect the current state of negotiations. The chair of the drafting group was still working with the secretariat on including all inputs made by member states or ad-hoc groups. Several  sheets of paper with amendmends to the distributed drafts were handed out during the evening. The status of these is still not clear, they will just serve as one more confusing momentum in the currently deadlocked process.

The upcoming next meeting of PrepCom3 in November therefore still has a lot to do. But if the conflicts between the different groups can be solved just by having another week for negotiations is still an open question. There are substantial controversies that need more than a handful of bureaucrats locked up in a conference center in Geneva. The main issues include the status of human rights, the global governance of the internet and other ICT infrastructures, and the big question of who pays for bridges across the digital divide.

This list of essential conflicts already shows the technocratic approach of the summit. Human rights and the trade and monetary inequalities between the North and the South have been issues for a number of other conferences. They are not typical for the information society. The only remaining information-specific big theme of the WSIS is the question of global internet governance. No mention of new forms of social and political organizations ICTs make possible, no new thinking about communication rights (even the banal fact that "communication is a fundamental social process" is still in brackets), no reference to bottom-up processes and collaborative distributed work, and of course no idea about how the fundamental divides that are responsible for the "digital divide" can be overcome. Even the "digital divide" is not mentioned anymore, and the reference to the Millenium Development Goals of the UN is still not agreed upon. So far, the WSIS process has failed to produce a broader new vision for the information and communication society that really meets the challenges and lives up to expecations.

The numerous inputs from civil society made over the last two weeks and before have not led to many results. A group of volunteers had already shown for a previous version of the draft declaration that only a small number of civil society inputs and suggestions had been reflected in the document. Yesterday night, PrepCom president Adama Samassekou had approached the chairs of civil society´s content and themes group and asked for a list of essentials that would make sure civil society can support the final summit declaration. The short list handed over to him later in the evening consisted only of the "non-negotiables". These are the really essential demands from civil society groups and are only an extremely small part of all the suggestions made over the last year. Of these 31 proposals, only 4 - that is 13 per cent - have been included in the latest draft declaration. 42 per cent - 13 proposals - have been rejected, and more than half of them - 55 per cent or 14 suggestions - are still not agreed upon with little chance of getting them through.

Civil society itself still has a lot of work to do in producing a common alternative vision for the WSIS. During this PrepCom3, the activists present in Geneva were so busy in preparing hopeless document language inputs and non-resonating plenary interventions, they did rarely find the time to discuss among themselves. All the fuss about this "new kind of summit" is mostly just hot air. We did not have a real impact, neither in true procedures as could be seen during the second week, nor in content as the latest draft declaration of principles shows.

But civil society has more solid foundations to build its vision upon. There are some documents that show the spirit of far-thinking visions, be it the "Visions and Principles Document" consensually drafted by global civil society organisations at PrepCom2 almost half a year ago, or the "Charter of Civil Rights for a Sustainable Knowledge Society", developed by German civil society organisations this year in preparing for the WSIS.

Maybe it is time to go back to the roots of cyber libertarianism. Let the governments discuss and negotiate, and in the meantime we continue building up the vision in reality, online and offline. You become melancolic and at the same time feel the spirit again when you recall such far-thinking statements as John  Perry Barlow's 1996 "Declaration of the independence of cyberspace". How unattainable this ever might have been, the current WSIS draft declaration is just the opposite. Square brackets, diplomatic compromise formulas and text blocks with UN speak, but no vision, no grand idea, not even a small sustainable strategy. The possibility to realise it, contrary to Barlow's grand ideas, is easily achieved: You do not talk about things that are not here yet, that would be desirable. You just refer to the business as usual, with telecom corporations laying down infrastructures only in areas where the money is, with the content industry collecting a private tax (via copyright, patents or trademarks) on the sharing and using of human knowledge, and with all exciting new ideas blocked by referring to established frameworks like WIPO or TRIPS. No real understanding of the future importance of global knowledge commons, public domain information or Free Software can be felt in the official WSIS process, nor was there a spirit that would at least allow open discussions on how to build a common vision.

The current WSIS draft declaration is only beaten in boringness by the "draft declaration" done by the private sector speaking through the Coordinating Committee of Business Interlocutors, courtesy of the International Chamber of Commerce. The mantra of "investment" and "market-driven economies" is so old and not at all related to the challenges and opportunities of the information society, you can just ignore it. But what do you expect for example from a content industry that wants to punish all users who do not stick to their old ways of making money, and that at the same time does not even try adapting to new and appropriate business models?

Can anything good be said about the outcomes the WSIS process has produced so far? If you reduce your expectations to almost on the ground, then it was a progress. The discussion on the information and communication society has begun on the global political level. This declaration might be one year too early. Though the visions are already out there, the slow and exhausting process of building alliances and coalitions, of convincing people and conciling traditions with perspectives may be needed. The summit process has so far offered a chance for civil society organisations to take steps in the right direction, to articulate, organize and argue. But if the first summit in December decides on principles for the information society that lock it in the old business and organisational models of the industrial age, it might be the time for civil society to say goodbye to UN politics and start working on its own again. At least it should not lend its legitimacy to a summit declaration that does not meet the lowest criteria for transparency, participation, global equality or any other far-reaching ideas.

Ralf Bendrath


 
 
 
 
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