19 September 2005. The third and last meeting of the Preparatory committee for the WSIS (PrepCom-3) has started two hours ago. The upcoming two weeks will see major struggles around the hot topics Internet Governance and summit follow-up. The chances for progress are less than slim, and civil society is already discussing if and when it should leave the official drafting exercise. In the meantime, the PrepCom was almost blocked over the non-accreditation of the NGO Human Rights in China.
With the summit less than two months ahead, the coming two weeks will see a lot of arm-twisting at the Geneva Lake. While the struggle over financing ICTs for development has more or less been settled at PrepCom-2 in February, the major issues Internet Governance and follow-up have not been resolved at all. This PrepCom will be decisive. If it fails, the whole summit might be seen as a four year long waste of time and money. The interesting question is also how to relate the WSIS to the general UN reform discussion that came to a preliminary conclusion at the MDG summit in New York last week.
Internet Governance: Still extremely contested
Internet Governance is still the most tricky issue, and therefore the PrepCom will devote at least half of its time to this. The Working Group on Internet Governance, set up after the first WSIS summit could not find common ground here, has done its job and delivered a comprehensive report and recommendations in July. Recently, the ITU executive secretariat has published a compilation of the most important aspects of all the different comments that were submitted to the WGIG report. The central conflict is still between the United States and some larger Southern governments over the control of ICANN. The United States have made clear they do not intend to give up its control over the root zone file that contains the top-level domain entries. Other governments, like China, Brazil, India, South Africa and others, insist that this global resource has to be controlled multilaterally. Many observers do not believe there will be a solution to this fundamental conflict. So the PrepCom will again have to discuss what to do when you don't agree. Another follow-up process for further discussion is likely, though it can't be as high-level as the WGIG, which had been set up by UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.
Besides the central conflict over the root server, it is also not clear if "Internet Governance" will be understood in a very narrow way that only refers to ICANN and the likes, or if it also includes broader aspects like interconnectivity, privacy, standards and more. At the moment, there is no draft available for the Internet Governance chapter of the Tunis summit document. The current time management plan for the PrepCom has allocated the mornings for subcommittee A on Internet Governance, the afternoons for subcommittee B on all other matters (mainly follow-up). Not even the "food for thought" paper presented by Pakistani Ambassador Masood Khan, chairman of subcommittee A, has so far been accepted by all governments as a basis for structuring the negotiations. The civil society Internet Governance Caucus is meeting on a daily basis and has been given a fixed office space for the whole PrepCom. Its members are already expecting a failure of the negotiations and preparing for drafting a "civil society declaration on Internet governance".
Follow-Up and Implementation: Will the Summit survive?
Another issue is how to make sure the summit does have an impact on the real world and not just on the diplomats in Geneva. The "operational part" of the Tunis summit documents has experienced some major changes recently. The new draft contains less commitment of governments to serious implementation efforts, and it also is a major step back for multi-stakeholderism. The United States government has made clear that it did not want this summit in the first place, and that it wants the WSIS process to stop after Tunis. Others like Brazil are keen on making sure meaningful implementation procedures are set up by the summit -otherwise it would have been a "major waste of time and money", as the Brazilian delegate stated at a recent meeting of the Group of Friends of the Chair. PrepCom president Janis Karklins advised the PrepCom delegates to not fall back behind the Geneva agreements. In fact, if you look at the Geneva declaration, it contains language that is much stronger on inclusiveness than the current drafts. For example, the governments now trying to avoid a more inclusive follow-up, in 2003 have agreed on this sentence in the WSIS Declaration of Principles:
"Governments, as well as private sector, civil society and the United Nations and other international organizations have an important role and responsibility in the development of the Information Society and, as appropriate, in decision-making processes. Building a people-centred Information Society is a joint effort which requires cooperation and partnership among all stakeholders."
Civil society participants have been intensely discussing the implications and possible ways out on various email lists in the last weeks. It seems likely they will also leave the official drafting process on this matter if there is no substantial improvement.
PrepCom suspended after argument over NGO accreditation
One of the formal procedures of the opening plenary was the accreditation of new observers. Human Rights in China (HRC) again was not on the list of new NGOs to be accredited to the PrepCom and the summit. The United Stated asked for clarification about this, mentioning that this group is based in the U.S. The British EU presidency also raised its concern about this, as did Canada. Charles Geiger, executive director of the WSIS secretariat, replied with an explanation that tried to be diplomatic, but only annoyed people more. It is well known that the Chinese government is vetoing the accreditation of HRC, but Geiger's excuse was a lack of full transparency of the financial sources of HRC. The United States was definitely not amused about this, and they asked the PrepCom plenary to accredit HRC. The Chinese Government immediately replied and tried to stop the discussion with reference to the scarce time of the PrepCom. After some procedural back-and-forth, China finally made clear that it subjects to the accreditation of HRC on substantial grounds. The PrepCom meeting was suspended for five minutes, and president Karklins afterwards suggested to vote on the accreditation of HRC. This is the first time that the WSIS PrepCom has ever voted on an issue. The outcome of the vote was 55 to 35 in favour of China (the rest abstained), who cleverly had turned into a procedural issue. Human Rights in China will again not be accredited.
While this tragedy has been going on since the first phase of the summit, it can have two implications for the rest of the PrepCom: It put, to the surprise of many, the issue of civil society participation in the spotlight. On the other hand, the early clash between the U.S. (with some weak support from Canada and the EU) on the one hand and China (supported by Cuba) on the other hand, will set the tone for the negotiations on the substantial matters like Internet Governance and Follow-Up. They are just testing the resolve of the other side before the real battles start.