22 March 2004. The structure as well as the struggles for the second phase of the WSIS summit process are slowy becoming clearer. One thing is clear: It will be more complex than the first round, as it has to deal with many more loose ends. WSIS 2003 only had to deliver two pieces of paper (the declaration of principles and the action plan). This left a lot of time for endless discussions, arm-twisting on wording, sorting out friends or foes in different arenas, and for civil society to start playing inside the official UN process. Now, the negotiators from Geneva will meet the real world. And as conflicts remain, the actors are positioning themselves for the second round.
In Tunisia in 2005, there will have to be a report on the implementation of the action plan and the principles from Geneva 2003 – so who is taking care of implemenation, by the way? And who is doing the benchmarking and reporting? A recent ITU proposal that was emphasized by ITU head Utsumi at an informal meeting in Tunisia earlier this month suggested a multistakeholder “coordination group”. The UN ICT Task Force that is meeting in New York this week also is under discussion as an evaluator in fields where it has expertise. The ITU also regularly produces assessments of the world connectivity, and on 5 March, all the UN agencies that are involved in information society issues had a meeting in New York that mainly dealt with statistics. In other areas, there are useful annual reports done by NGOs, like the amnesty international yearbook or the privacy and human rights survey by EPIC and Privacy International. The reporting on implementation could therefore really become a multistakeholder exercise. But still, somebody has to take care that there will be any implementation in the first place. This is not about documents, it is about spending real money and sometimes making tough political decisions.
Implementation, part one: building infrastructures with no extra money
The conference “implementing the WSIS action plan” organized by the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organization this week in Nairobi will be a good chance to discuss this and also present best practices and needed follow-up. It will especially deal with the situation in less developed countries and how to build up telecommunication infrastructures there. Therefore it will serve the interests of a broad range of diverse groups: The population and elites interested in getting more connectivity, the telecom companies interested in selling their services, the governments interested in positioning their contries as role models, the civil society organizations interested in linking the projects to their grassroots experience.
The major WSIS conflict on the financing of these activities will only sheepishly be adressed, though, according to the outline of the conference. The “digital solidarity fund” that was set up by Senegal and others after the summit is not eben mentioned. If delegates from richer governments will participate, they will mostly come from the development aid agencies and will not have any mandate to discuss fresh money or even structural reforms of bandwidth cost distrubution or even the global financial economic inequalities that are underlying the digital divide.
Implementation, part two: securing human rights? really?
This focus on infrastructures follows the technocratic approach that had been more prominent when the summit process started in 1998. But in the last year, civil society and some friendly governments have pushed the agenda from “information” (read: ICTs) to “society”. This includes much more than infrastructures, and central for most other issues are human rights in the information society. There has been no initiative yet that looks into this direction for implementation. Regarding privacy for example, just a few days ago the Council of Europe’s Cybercrime Convention has entered into force, which gives governments and law enforcement agencies broader powers of internet surveillance and sharing of personal information. In many parts of the world, censorship on- and offline is still prevailing. This is a clear contradiction to many principles of the WSIS summit declaration. Who is taking care of these implementation issues?
In this area, there are not so many overlapping interests. Some governments would officially like to strengthen human rights in the information age, and Brazil has even adopted the idea of communication rights. But many at the same time are extending surveillance at home, and few want to enter into open conflict with others. This is where civil society is already quite active, but many of these activities are not yet related directly to the WSIS follow-up process.
The problem will become very concrete when the first preparatory meetings start in Tunis. Pressure from the WSIS community on the repressive Tunisian regime has already built up considerably during phase one. The torture general responsible for organizing the summit on behalf of the Tunisian government (see more here) has been relegated to “logistics only”, and rumours say he might be sent to another job soon. Still, the government’s overall human rights record is not bettered through such symbolic acts. All incoming and outgoing internet traffic in Tunesia is still censored and monitored. As participants at the recent informal WSIS meeting in Tunis could experience, the Human Rights Watch and amnesty international websites could not be accessed from either Internet cafes in the city or at the cybercafe set up at the meeting by the conference organizers. People still are put into prison for accessing opposition websites. Use of cryptography is illegal.
The civil society organizations involved in the WSIS process will have to make sure that these problems are adressed clearly, but in close coordination and solidarity with local groups. But they also have to make sure that the focus is not on Tunisia alone, but on all human rights violations around the world. The implementation of this will have to include constructive dialogue, but also heavy public pressure and close coordination among diverse groups. Only slowly are the traditional human rights organizations approaching the new area of digital rights or civil liberties in the information age. The case of Tunisia can be helpful in getting them more involved in the WSIS process. At the same time, though, very governmental Tunisian NGOs are threatening to mess everything up.
Implementation, part three: extending global knowledge commons
While the 2003 summit declaration speaks about finding a balance between the interests of creators of knowledge and the public interest to use it widely, the intellectual property battle in the real world is going back and forth. A few examples: The European Union recently agreed on a strong enforcement policy that allows severe punishment of teenagers who share music online. Scientists are more and more publishing their research online and for free. The creative commons license is spreading all over the world. The U.S. music industry is filing thousands of lawsuits against users of filesharing networks. Free Software is being used in ever more public institutions.
This patchwork actually shows a true implementation of the summit decisions, as the governments in Geneva have not has been able to decide in favour of a true vision, but instead chose an unclear comprimise formula. The underlying conflicts and struggles are still going on, and so will the debate on this in the second WSIS phase.
The Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) regional meeting and the Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP) meeting in San Jose, Costa Rica in May will be the first major events where this is adressed again after the summit. Brazil as a major regional power has been heavily pressing for Free Software and the global knowledge commons in the WSIS process. If you look at the agenda of the GKP meeting, it sounds familiar: Free Software, Knowledge Sharing, Financing and Internet Governance will be debated there. Topics like “the way forward in ensuring sustainability, replication and upscaling of initiatives” do not sound very pro-monopoly or pro-proprietary. Brazil and others are clearly planning to put this issue on the agenda of the preparations for WSIS 2005, as will civil society. It is pretty open if there can be a coherent implementation in this field if the underlying conflics are still prevailing.
The ITU proposal for the second WSIS phase is suggesting thematic preparatory conferences that would be organized by international organizations with specific knowledge in the respective fields. In this case, it would be the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). WIPO has showed some interesting movements during the last year, and it seems it is opening up towards open knowledge production models. But it still is a biased organization, as is the WTO with its TRIPS agreement on international trade in intellectual property. How can the WSIS implementation activities, the benchmarking and the follow-up discussions be managed and facilitated to ensure a balanced process? These questions have not yet been clearly adressed. Civil society has to make sure that it not only deals with WSIS, but also engages other relevant international organizations. Governments also have to take this into account. Brazil has already announced it will hold a WSIS thematic meeting in the second half of 2004 – let’s see if they get the relevant players on board.
Unresolved conflicts, part one: Internet governance
The diplomats assigned to the WSIS are also forced to continue working on the major open conflicts: Finance and Internet Governance. The latter, too, brings them down to earth, or better: into the basement, to the technicians who run the internet (and who are missing the “Jedi Engineers”). The upcoming meeting of the UN ICT Task Force this week in New York is opened with a “nuts and bolds” lecture by ICANN president Vinton Cerf, who will attempt to explan to the politicians and global elites how the internet really works. Good luck, one is tempted to say.
The most tricky issue will be to define what “Internet governance” means. As became clear in the recent ITU workshop, it is not just technical coordination anymore, and ICANN will have to face a broad discussion over its legitimacy and its mandate. After the summit 2003, a number of governments announced more or less publicly that they don’t want to go through the whole process again for phase two. They prefer to leave the summit declaration as it is, to not open any closed cases, and to just focus on the two controversial issues, namely Internet governance and finance. It might be the case that now that the discussion has broadened the term “internet governance” to encompass everything from the management of the name space to such complex and heterogenous matters as worldwide privacy legislation, licencing schemes or filtering, to name some examples, the “Internet governance” working group under the auspices of UN secretary general Kofi Annan will have to break down the matter into sub-groups anyway. These might easily mirror the different negotiating and drafting groups that were set up in preparing for the Geneva phase of the summit.
Swiss “e-envoy” Markus Kummer, who was picked by Kofi Annan as chairman of this working group, was not too happy about this task. “I was just a diplomat at the wrong time at the wrong place”. But at least Kummer has announced that "the WSIS format based on its past record would not have satisfied those who wanted a truly open process with the full and active participation of private sector and other stakeholders.” It is not yet clear, though, if the different stakeholders will really have the same or even more participation rights as they had in the WSIS prepcoms before December 2003. The UN ICT Task Force meeting in New York for example seems to be “invitation only”, though a number of key WSIS participants are willing to participate. If they again are locked out, the second phase of WSIS will already have its first little scandal.
Unresolved conflicts, part two: finance
The other working group set up by the Geneva phase of the summit is on finance. Though it has not started working yet, as for internet governence it is at least clear who will chair it. Kofi Annan has reportedly picked Mark Malloch Brown, administrator of the UN Development Programme UNDP.
Though this sounds good at first sight, there might be a problem with this. UNDP recently shut down the ICT4D (“D” for development) programme area. It has mainstreamed it into the existing programmes, a maneuver that normally is linked to budget cuts. Even worse, the “finance” and “donations” this issue might get from big Western ICT corporations can mean a backlash for the global knowledge commons and here especially for the Free Software movement. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January this year, Bill Gates announced that Microsoft would bring cash and software to a computer training programme it has set up with UNDP, as part of a $1 billion company investment to bring computers to developing countries. UNDP will work with the Microsoft “Unlimited Potential” programme to invest in community centres in poor regions, following a pilot project in Afghanistan where the two organisations set up 16 centres. UNDP administrator Mark Malloch Brown - the same one that now will lead the finance issue for the WSIS - said the ambition of this project was "to hook up the world to the Internet". (see here for more)
Well, this hook will certainly turn into an addiction and lessen the freedom of the information society in developing countries if it is implemented 1:1. Microsoft’s “embrace and extend” strategy has long been critizised, because it is like a drug dealer who looks nice and altruistic by giving you the first shot for free. And by the way, “a billion dollars worth” of Microsoft software costs the company only a small fraction if this sum – it is essentially only shipping cheap CDs to customers who would normally never buy them anyway. This is not what “bridging the digital divide” – the original motto of WSIS – was intended to mean.
The stronger governments of the south are already preparing for the follow-up and show a strong will to not let this issue be buried and forgotten in a working group. The heads of state and ministers particpating in the G-15 summit in Venezuela in late February “particularly support the initiative aimed at the creation and mobilization of a digital solidarity fund”, as the final declaration states. But this is easily done when you are among peers and do not have to negotiate and argue with the ones whose money you are asking for.
As said above, the upcoming Nairobi conference on implementation later this week will neither generate fresh money nor even sustainable economic models for North-South relations. The more fundamental question – how to tackle the global economic divide – will also not be adressed here. The WSIS might not be the perfect place for this anyway, but just ignoring it here does not lead any further. Quite to the contrary, a summit with the task of producing a global vision for society will have to adress underlying unequalities. But who is going to do this in a way that can build pressure on the rich and powerful North?
Civil society will have to build much stronger links to the critics of neoliberal globalization and the wider social movements – like the world and regional social forums - if it wants to maintain its legitimacy as the defendor of equality and freedom for WSIS two.
Barcelona is planning a thematic meeting on cultural diversity, as is Lyon on the role of cities and local authorities in the information society. And Italy reportedly also wants to take care of the financing issue.
Ah, yes: The United States government has reportedly announced it wants to hold a meeting on security. Did anybody say “surprise”?
The big picture
So, looking at the mosaic that slowly is forming into a bigger picture: The next phase could be a patchwork show of pet projects, where everybody holds meetings of differing relevance but still somewhat connected to the summit, in his area of interest and political preference. Getting these together into a unified vision will be a tough task.
If WSIS I had only reached an agreement on the last day before the summit itself, it seems that phase two might overstretch the ability of negotiators to deal with complexity. Let’s see if civil society with its more fluid structures is better suited for this task.
Of course the really big picture would be on another level. It would adress the global power shifts, the information revolution in general, its impact for global governance and the fact that visions are not invented but grow slowly but constantly. But for this task, even we feel a bit too overwhelmed by the complexity at the moment.
And don’t believe all the “experts” who gather in New York and Nairobi this week know better. They may have some smart ideas, but they also can only make educated guesses.