Geneva, 14 November 2003. The civil society groups involved in the WSIS process online and offline today declared their partial withdrawal from the multi-stakeholder process. In a press conference this afternoon, they made clear that they will not endorse the outcomes of the summit, if there will be any. The NGOs will also stop giving any more input to the intergovernmental negotiations and now develop their own vision.
Civil society groups in a joint press release and conference this afternoon made clear they do not believe that governments and diplomatic closed-door deals of the 20th century are suitable for the information society. They stated that
"some governments are not prepared. They fear the power of new technologies and the way people are using them to network, to create new forms of partnerships and collaboration, to share experiences and knowledge locally and globally."
Because the governments of the world are not able to come up with a true vision for the information society, civil society groups have now taken their responsibility. They announced:
"We will present our vision at the summit in Geneva in December 2003. We invite all interested parties, from all sectors of society, to join us in open discussion and debate in a true multi-stakeholder process."
Civil Society also has released an "Essential Benchmarks" document that provides a measure against which the summit outcomes will be measured. The joint statement made clear that a "lowest common denominator" is not acceptable.
At the same time, civil society will still participate in the official summit events in December, because "we have every right to be and speak there", as one member of the human rights caucus said. They will use it as a platform to present their vision of the shared and inclusive knowledge society. In a way, the groups that had been active within the summit process have now taken the position of the countersummit activists literally: "WSIS? - We Seize!"
Summit on the edge to failure
After a week of tense discussions and only three weeks before the summit, the government delegations still have failed to reach a consensus. In the last days, new drafts were constantly distributed and withdrawn. The current declaration is in its sixth version, not counting a paper that was later declared a "non-existent" paper by the chairman because China and Brazil had left the plenary under protest.
On "intellectual properties" - or "limited intellectual monopolies" as civil society has started calling it - there is still strong armtwisting going on over the reference to international agreements in this field: Should they be called "existing" or not - which would mean open for renovation? Brazil is still resisting the pressure put on them mainly by the US delegation, but also by the EU, which has been heavily critizised by its civil society groups.
In the finance question, there seems to be some movement. The model being discussed here as the most probable outcome is not a new fund, but a special digital "window" for information society issues in the solidarity fund set up at the Johannesburg summit. But the African group led by Mali and Senegal is currently trying to get as much as possible until December. It remains to be seen if the developing coutries then agree on what the North has to offer.
The main deadlock therefore at the moment seems to be the human rights question. The Chinese delegation has made clear that they have orders to resist any reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the first paragraph of the summit declaration. The EU on the other side has taken the lead in insisting on this reference and has blocked all further negotiations on the media paragraph that also mentions the importance of the freedom of speech. There are a number of informal discussions going on with the Chinese to find out how they can back down without losing their face, and the host country Switzerland is sending a high-level representative to Beijing next week. There is also a problem with China on internet governance, because Taiwans involvement in ICANN conflicts with the "one China" policy of the People's Republic.
Nobody we have talked to had an idea how the negotiations could be lead out of this stalemate. An extra high-level meeting of the Preparatory Committee will be convened a few days before the summit on 5 and 6 December. The government delegates are hoping for a Johannesburg solution, where the final agreement was reached when the heads of states were already present and the summit had started. But as the civil society statement put it today, the problem is very deep: "The WSIS process has slowly but constantly been moving from 'information' to 'society'", and it is unclear if the governments of the globalized world are yet ready for a common vision on this fundamental issue.
The danger of pointing fingers
The EU is now in a comfortable position: They have blocked any progress and are able to blame a failure of the summit on China. By this, the other major clash between North and South on finance and the control of intellectual works is being shifted to the background. Civil society organizations so far have avoided naming the bad guys directly. This is part of a strategy of using the little amount of influence civil society has gained from the official "multistakeholder" label to influence the negotiations in a broader sense and become listened to. They must make sure that in their final assessments on the summit in December, they point fingers in every direction where progress has been blocked in their favour. It would be dangerous to only insist on human rights and at the same time diminish the centrality of power relations and unequal distribution of wealth, resources, infrastructures or knowledge. The civil society "Essential Benchmarks" document published today in Geneva and on line has shown that there is a broad understanding of the need for a balanced and broad assessment of the failure and maybe successes of this summit.