18 November 2005. The World Summit on the Information Society has ended half an hour ago. The governmental delegates adopted the Tunis Commitment and Tunis Agenda by acclamation. Civil society groups in their closing plenary this afternoon have agreed on two more works to produce a comprehensive evaluation of the summit outcomes. The caravan will move on, though. The next stop, already agreed, will be Athens. But before that, we recommend to take some time for reflections. More…
Officials praise summit outcomes
After three days of speeches and presentations by very few heads of state, assistant secretaries and other government delegates, as well as some observers, the summit today ended a process that had begun seven years ago, at the ITU plenipotentiary conference in 1998, and which took six preparatory meetings, around ten regional conferences, 27 thematic meetings and an uncounted number of smaller meetings, conferences, seminars, last-minute informal talks and an extended public relations effort, especially in the last few weeks in the struggle over Internet governance. The final words by representatives of the ITU, the two host countries, and the regional UN groupings mostly praised the outcomes. ITU secretary general Utsumi again used his most favorite spin-doctor term, “the summit of solutions”, referring to the more than 2400 projects already entered into the ITU stocktaking database. And all of them were happy about the agreement reached in the end.
“Agreement” of course means only agreement on paper, while many of the underlying conflicts remain. The delegate from Ghana, speaking on behalf of the African Group, made clear that they are not satisfied at all by the meager results and lack of commitment by the rich countries to invest more in connecting the world. The EU and the US governments since Tuesday night have both presented themselves as winners in the struggle over the core internet resources – a clear sign that the language in the Tunis Agenda is only a vague compromise.
Civil Society not really happy, but more than two years ago
Civil society speakers at the summit this afternoon, reporting from various multi-stakeholder events during the week, made clear that some important issues have not properly been addressed, though there had been enough time during two summit phases. Titi Akinsanmi for example, speaking for the Youth Caucus, criticized the lack of progress in translating and implementing the more than 50 years old international human rights standards for the information society, the improper treatment of the need for financing connectivity in developing areas, and the fact that privacy as one of the most important rights for the internet age was almost forgotten by the summit.
Civil society groups over the last three days have worked hard on a first assessment of the summit outcomes. They have a solid ground to build on – their alternative declaration from the Geneva Summit two years ago. They are now using this as a scale against which they are measuring and evaluating the official documents. A pretty comprehensive draft of this civil society statement was presented today, and will be finalized in the next two weeks through online consultations with the various thematic working groups that were established in the last four years. The activists are happy with a few achievements, mainly in the area of Internet governance, where their input was really taken seriously. The can live with some compromises, e.g. the fact that with the ECOSOC commission, there will be a coordinating body that will provide an integrating function for securing the momentum and possibly can be built into a more open and inclusive entity. They are not happy at all with the lack of progress in bridging the digital divide and with the fact that the widely praised private-public partnerships in this area mostly mean a dominance of the private sector and a de-politicization of the core conflict between the free market prophets and the ones asking for public accountability and responsibility.
WSIS as the role-model for global governance
The most important impact of the decision to hold a world summit on the information society has not been the WSIS outcomes. It was to kick of a process of ongoing deliberations and exchange. Internet governance will be discussed in the new Internet Governance Forum, which will meet for the first time in Athens in 2006. Finance and other follow-up issues will be dealt with in the ECOSOC Commission on Science and Technology for Development, which now has a mission to re-invent itself. The end of WSIS is just the beginning of the real challenge of implementation and reforms on the various local, national, regional and global policy levels.
Civil society especially has gone pretty far in linking all the diverse groups, from Free Software programmers and privacy advocates to gender groups and the development community, over the last years. During the last few days, it has also continued the debate around its role in these processes. That this is needed urgently became clear in the summit’s closing ceremony.
ITU’s Utsumi, most governments, and even Tunisian president Ben Ali this evening spoke very warm about the more inclusive approach that has distinguished this summit from previous UN gatherings. It became clear that the multi-stakeholder paradigm has been established now as the next generation for global governance.
Official speakers this evening took this as a sign of the enhanced legitimacy of the summit results. Whereas civil society two years ago had publicly disassociated itself from the official summit documents, this clear statement was missing this time. Therefore, Adama Sammassekou, the president of the Geneva phase of the WSIS, even was so bold to state that “all stakeholders have adopted the Tunis Agenda and Commitment” - though there was never such a decision, and clearly will not be, by any civil society body. Quite to the contrary, in their press conference this afternoon, civil society speakers referred to the ongoing evaluation and hinted at the summit's few hits and many misses from their perspective.
But this time, the message was not as clear as two years ago, more differentiated, and more depending on the policy-fields and the backgrounds of the diverse groups. This is a sign that civil society has grown up and is taken as a serious actor now, but it also shows that in some respects it has lost its edge and the ability to produce a vision that can guide the global policy processes and not just react to them. Or was it a sign that the activists have really been listened to much better? Sasha Costanza-Chock from Indymedia this afternoon reminded participants of a “Communication Rights” event that it is important to ground these global policy processes in the reality of the disadvantaged and the ones not having a voice. We hope there will be time and spaces for reflecting on this, before the global NGO jet-set meets again in Athens and gets sucked into the detailed experts discussions and the more pragmatic lobbying it has learned so well in the summit process.