3 November 2005. Parminder Jeet Singh from the Indian NGO "IT for Change" is taking a look at the big picture two weeks before the summit. He is linking the debates around Internet Governance, WSIS follow-up, developmental aspects and Tunisia with the focus of civil society groups active in the summit process. His conclusion: The United States need at least as much criticism as the Tunisian authorities. The article is based on a mail sent to the WSIS civil society plenary mailing list two days ago.
"United States Says No U.N. Body Should Control Internet."
(US State Department website, 25 October 2005)
There is something very basically funny in the United States' attitude to change in the Internet Governance regime. The US government says that when it - its executive authority and its territorial law - exercises oversight control over ICANN, it doesn't amount to exercising control. But when the same arrangement goes to a UN body (let us assume the minimalist change in the Internet Governance regime where nothing changes except that ICANN plugs into the UN which then exercises the same level of oversight as the US does today, and ICANN even if physically located in the US, gets UN immunities), the UN is said to be exercising control.
The problem is that many in civil society falls for this argument. They are fixated so much on certain fears about the Internet getting "controlled" that they entirely forget other issues - which are as important. It is the issues of sovereignty, legitimacy, and fairness and equity in global governance. Most of this civil society constituency comes from the North. They may trust the US more than they trust the UN, we in the South do not. In debates over Internet Governance, countries like Iran, China and Saudi-Arabia are held up as self-descriptive symbols of certain things. Please do not forget that US is also held as a strong symbol of many uncomplimentary things for the South.
We know the problems of bringing old political and bureaucratic governance frameworks - and what the UN or the ITU can do - to the free spirit of the Internet. And the world community has to deal with this issue, very vigilantly. But that comes second. First of all, the US must give up its control. If it does not, we must treat this control as illegitimate and see the US as a usurper. For us in the South with colonial experience, it is the most blatant form of imperialism: "Stay on my side, and you will gain" - as if you do not rule yourself. We prefer the legitimacy of rule to other goodies promised to us.
A US senator recently justified continued control of the Internet by the US government by saying,
"The United States is uniquely positioned in the world to protect the fundamental principles of free press and free speech, upon which the Internet has thrived."
The same argument can as effectively be used in global governance debates to take over UN bodies, or to bypass them. And this no doubt is increasingly sought to be done by the United States. The North led by US will quote financial constraints in setting up any new "global policy body for Information Society issues", but will readily spend many times more money in taking up these issues in other forums which either have less political legitimacy or admit of greater US lordship.
The recent US-led blocking of an effective WSIS implementation/follow-up mechanism was presented in terms which, at the bottom of it, challenge the very logic of WSIS itself - and certainly its Tunis phase. And during PrepCom-2 in February, all possibilities of seeing worldwide investment fpr ICTs for development as an urgent global need and responsibility - that could usher in a new paradigm of development - was scuttled again by US-led governments of the North. So when it is obvious that the Tunis summit is a failure at the moment, and US-led Northern governments are responsible for this failure, civil society needs to be more vocal - both in pronouncing the failure and the role of US in this failure of WSIS.
The Tunisian situation is an important issue for civil society. We are not going to let go this opportunity provided to us by the fact the WSIS summit takes place in Tunis, to do all that we can in aid of improving the human rights situation in Tunis.
But, as importantly, we can not let the United States get away with its self-assumed description of "uniquely positioned in the world to protect the fundamental principles of free press and free speech" - and not as strongly condemn what it has done to the world's hope for the poor and the disadvantaged from the WSIS process.
Most in civil society at WSIS are apt to say that they of course are critical of the US. But they are not strident enough in their criticism, as, for example, they are of the Tunisians. I have heard many say that they are not so strident in opposing the United States' unilateral control over Internet Governance, because it is unlikely that US will give up its control easily. But neither do I think Tunisia is going to change so much, easily, on our protests. But we still are and have to keep making our protest, as forcefully as we can. The Tunis summit should be used by civil society to tell the US - in clear strong words - what it thinks of its usurping of the Internet oversight - and its basic responsibility for failure of the WSIS on all fronts.
The Tunis phase of WSIS has been an even greater failure than the Geneva phase. It is the responsibility of civil society to prepare a score card for the Tunis phase (and WSIS overall) and identify factors of failure. The United States will outdo everyone else by a big margin in earning red-marks. But the US has for many years now taken such extreme geo-political stance regarding fair global governance that most global policy-related events have been accompanied by fierce criticism of this by civil society. It is a necessary corrective to US polices, and one of the most important responsibilities of global civil society to push for reclaiming fairness and equity in global governance. The United States must be quite used to it by now. I hope civil society does not give the US a pleasant surprise at Tunis.