25 February 2005. The WSIS PrepCom ended this evening after some wrestling over the work between now and PrepCom3 in September. Civil Society groups at their last meeting discussed the state of the whole process and agreed that the vision has been lost somewhere, but that the road to actually changing reality is also very long.
Many activists and lobbyists have been working on input to the official process for the last two weeks, online and in Geneva. Their presence is certainly normal by now, and many governments actually asked to be lobbied, because they themselves do not have clear ideas on some issues like internet governance. Tonight, at the final meeting of civil society's "Content and Themes" group, they tried to step back a bit and assess the overall WSIS process and its current status.
Political Chapeau: An unwanted document with bad content
The "Political Chapeau" in its current version got heavy critique from a number of groups. A new version was presented today, with all comments by governments and other stakeholders. Online comments can be sent to the ITU in the coming weeks. Nobody is really happy with this document. The consensus at the beginning of the WSIS process was to not have two declarations of principles, as the Geneva and Tunis phase are officially considered the same summit. But the fundamental question why another political statement is needed at all after the Geneva Declaration was never really answered. Now, governments and other stakeholders have started to add many issues and proposals, and they certainly are falling back behind the Geneva Declaration. Remember: Even that one was not accepted by Civil Society that instead produced its own declaration. But nobody really knows a way out of this.
Internet summit or information society summit?
The dominant issues during this last two weeks are surely finance and internet governance. Both incorporate the danger that the WSIS 2005 becomes a pure internet summit. The agreement on the Digital Solidarity Fund (DSF) will probably stay an empty gesture, though the delegation of Ghana this evening announced the official DSF inauguration on 14 March in Geneva. The finance debate mainly centres on the question of who pays for internet and backbone roll-out. So it touches the funding side of internet and ICT infrastructure.
The internet governance discussions naturally focus on the internet. The Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) has not finished its report, which will be delivered on 18 July. The good news on this front is that the WGIG's work is actually taking the Geneva Declaration with its human rights language etc. as the point of departure. This is not usual. But still, by focusing on this, the WSIS 2005 will be an Internet summit.
The summit in Tunis could therefore as well be a meeting of finance and information technology ministers who discuss the development, management and funding of the internet on a global level. What civil society constantly reminded the governments of in the first phase was the fact that the information society is much broader, and that one has to think in more inclusive and encompassing ways to come up with a true vision for the information society. This is not reflected in the process anymore.
Implementation: Back to Reality?
The Swiss government as the hosts of WSIS I, we could hear, is also very concerned about this developments. They have the feeling that the documents in their current shape even go in a different direction than the Geneva declaration. These kinds of inconsistencies between the Geneva and Tunis summit outcomes would of course be very bad.
Besides internet governance and finance, there always was a third theme to the second phase of the summit: Implementation and follow-up. The Swiss have today suggested drafting another document to show the real implementation of the Geneva decisions, based on the ITU's stocktaking database. It would be a rolling document and all stakeholders are invited to give contributions. This process would bring the summit more towards reality and implementation and would neatly fit the official title "a summit of solutions", but it also would be pretty un-political. It also does not include any benchmarking or binding agreements on priorities and next steps for all governments.
The interesting question is also much trickier: How will the follow-up after Tunis be organized and structured? The ITU is clearly interested in putting itself at the centre of gravity, but does not have the resources and expertise to pull together all actors needed in all fields of the information society. The big question is: Will there be time for a true and meaningful discussion on this? As there will probably be no intersessional meeting, the time during PrepCom3 in September will be eaten by negotiations on internet governance and the remaining parts of the finance chapter. There is a clear danger that the follow-up mechanism will have the same fate as the Geneva Plan of Action, which was never really discussed. As Sally Burch, former "Content & Themes" coordinator of civil society stated today, that was where the vision was already lost. But still, the summit organizers will try to sell the WSIS in Tunis as a "summit of solutions" - as if there had been any meaningful implementation mechanism in place since December 2003.
Civil Society discussing alternatives
As the current drafts of the political chapeau and the operational part are so bad, civil society groups are now discussing the options at their hands. This discussion is just starting, but around the end of PrepCom3 it will certainly become very lively. The alternatives are multiple: Do groups want to work on a new alternative declaration? Would this be needed at all? Would it not be better to support and revitalize the alternative civil society declaration from Geneva? Many groups are discussing if they still want to stay involved in the development of the official documents or if this is just a waste of time and energy. Some prefer to focus on alternative summit events or even a counter-summit. Many also do not want to participate in the official summit events, because they do not want to lend any legitimacy to the undemocratic regime of Tunisia's president Ben Ali.
Other groups will certainly stay inside the process. It has already led to its own little NGO bureaucracy that is not focused on content, with a bureau, charters, and criteria for the formation of new groups, rules for meetings, and a specialized working group on working methods. This was necessary mainly because of the high number of Tunisian "governmental NGOs" (GONGOs) that messed up the whole process at PrepCom1. But it does not only take a lot of energy. More important, it disconnects the groups inside from the groups out there in the real world and especially in the broader social movements. There will of course never be a common position on where to focus one's work, and the diversity is one of the strengths of civil society. But a better discussion on the overall strategy, on the distribution of roles, and sometimes on carefully crafted "good cop - bad cop" role playing is needed. A few groups have done this with significant success this time, especially the financing lobbyists and the Tunisia human rights monitors. Similar strategic discussions are missing in the overall civil society structures in the WSIS at the moment. Let's see if they re-emerge at PrepCom3.