Geneva, 10 December 2003. The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was opened today in a ceremony at the Palexpo venue in Geneva. Everybody on the official side looked relieved that they will not have to negotiate during the summit itself, as a final agreement was reached on Tuesday afternoon.
In the summit speeches, in front of the cameras of the world public, it looked like there had been no heavy struggle even in the last days before the summit. No more talks of a new Cancun, no more negotiations, no more fighting for national interests. Now, everybody is playing nice. If you looked a bit closer, though, you could still hear the differences.
Swiss President Pascal Couchepin in his opening remarks mentioned the importance of human rights as the foundation of the information society, like the free access to information. This had been the classic western approach throughout the summit process. It is liberal in a good way by insisting on human rights and civil liberties even against tough negotiators from non-democratic governments. But it is also liberal in an economic sense, where the summit motto "bridging the digital divied" is reduced to just asking for better conditions for private sector investment in developing countries.
UN secretary general Kofi Annan on the other hand explicitly made clear that there is a development and justice dimension underlying the whole discussion on the information soicety. He said the "digital divide" is in reality many more divdes besides access to infrastructures. It is also a divide in content, gender, social, political and economic divides.
The Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the ITU secretary general Yoshio Utsumi even stayed below this level of analysis. They mainly priased the work of their government or organization in organizing the summit. Utsumi even referred to the "remarkable contributions by civil society and the private sector" - a bit ironic if you consider the public withdrawal of the global civil society coordination at PrepCom3A in November. For Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the main values of society that should be promoted "Peace, security and stability". This again shows the lack of meaning in part of the official summit debates, and in this case it especially shows how old-fashioned non-democratic governments equate peace with stability, which basically means "no change". Even Utsumi, who declared himself the inventor of the "multi-stakeholder" approach, only declared the techno-centered "vision" of "universal acces" as the summit's goal.
Kikki Nordström, president of the World Blind Union, who had been handpicked by the ITU as the "civil society speaker", announced the launch of civil society's summit declaration and reminded the summit of the eight millenium goals agreed upon by the United Nations in 2000. Though her speech was nice, it became clear why the ITU had chosen somebody who had not been active in the civil soiety structures during the preparatory process. The scandal here is not the person itself, but the fact that civil society was denied its right to choose by itself who is representing it.
Adama Samassekou, the president of the preparatory committee for the summit, was the other African speaker during the opening ceremony. He also, like Kofi Annan, showed a much better understanding of the meaning of the "information society", far beyond technology. He stated that the digital divide is also a divide "between governments and simple subjects of governments". He also strongly criticized the current underlying econmic structures: "If we don't do something, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer." His vision was one of a "society based on the sharing of knowledge". This was the "true meaning of the concept of digital solidarity".
The summit afterwards adopted the declaration of principles and the plan of action. The delegates had been negotiating until the last day before the summit, on the last open conflict - the "digital solidarity fund". The German government had backed down from blocking to even mentioning a voluntary fund in the summit declaration in the last minute. From what we could hear, it was forced to do so, because otherwise the common EU position would have broken down. Now the fund is mentioned in the declaration, whereas in the action plan the delegated decided to do a feasability study first. In the end, the two major WSIS conflicts besides human rights and "intellectual property" were postponed - internet regulation and the "digital solidarity fund".
It will be interesting to see how the follow-up will look like, because a number of key actors have already declared their frustration with the way to Geneva. Civil society has already started a discussion on a more equal multi-stakeholder approach, and a number of governments and international organizations would welcome a chance to really listen to the experience and expert knowledge available here. The limits of this approach, though, are where the "expert knowledge" ends and the political struggle begins. Civil society groups must make sure that they widen the room for inclusive discussion within the official structures, while at the same time devoting enough energy and time to the discussion among themselves.