WSIS wraps up to mixed emotions
Source: Third World Resurgence
Pablo Accuosto

The second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) took place in Tunis from 16 to 18 November 2005. The Tunis Summit was expected to tackle some of the unresolved issues that emerged during the first phase of WSIS held in Geneva in 2003, in particular, the democratisation of Internet governance and the leveraging of funds for the development of information and communications technologies in the South. Pablo Accuosto provides a background to the Summit and evaluates its outcome.

THE second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) took place in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, from 16 to 18 November 2005. While heated debates on the future of the Internet were taking place inside the police-surrounded conference venue, citizens' demonstrations calling for the host country's compliance with international human rights agreements were being severely repressed in downtown Tunis.

WSIS origins

At its 1998 Plenipotentiary Conference in Minneapolis, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) passed a resolution to explore the possibility of holding a high-level meeting to discuss global issues relating to the information society. In December 2001 the United Nations (UN) General Assembly resolved that the meeting would take the form of a world summit at the level of heads of state and government, and assigned to the ITU the leading managerial role in the executive secretariat of the Summit and its preparatory process. The World Summit on the Information Society was scheduled to take place in two phases: the first in Geneva, in December 2003, and the second in Tunisia, in November 2005.

The expressed aim of the UN General Assembly in organising WSIS was to provide an effective means of providing support to the ITU in achieving the development and poverty-reduction goals set at the 2000 Millennium Summit by developing a global framework to address the challenges posed by the information society. One of the clearest challenges in this respect was the new expression of historic structural inequalities between rich and poor countries that was given the name of the 'digital divide'.

For developed nations the Summit offered an opportunity to promote expansion of their telecommunications companies in countries in the South. The way had been paved by the signing in 1996 of the World Trade Organisation (WTO)'s Telecommunications Agreement promoting the liberalisation of communications markets at the expense of the national companies (which were frequently state monopolies) that had regulated the sector until then. The agreement assured competitive conditions for foreign investment in national markets, and held the promise for developing countries of increased access to communications, a drop in charges for international calls and more efficient national telecommunications systems.

Previously, global communications resources had been managed by the ITU according to an international accounting rate system, and it was aware of the fears expressed by developing countries that liberalisation and the opening up of their communications sectors to foreign investment might not benefit areas lacking services. However, the ITU found itself sidelined in the new international telecommunications framework, promoted by the WTO and backed by the rich-country governments and the international financial institutions (IFIs), in which access prices to communications services are regulated by market forces.

Organising WSIS therefore represented an opportunity for the ITU to regain its central role within the cohort of multilateral bodies. The ITU, which at one time had promoted a vision of international communications that took into account the interests of the least developed countries, arrived in 1998 at the proposal for the Summit with its agenda updated in line with the new dominant paradigms and in the midst of the growth phase of the 'communications bubble' that was to burst in the year 2000.

Political changes

The year 2003 found the first phase of WSIS taking place against a backdrop of political changes in multilateral negotiation processes, marked by a new central role for countries from the South and a high level of involvement by organised civil society. Tensions between alliances of countries in the South and the North led to the collapse of the WTO ministerial meeting in Cancun in September 2003, coinciding with the third WSIS preparatory meeting and one of the most difficult moments in the intergovernmental negotiations.

Furthermore, the Summit was being led by an organisation attempting to recover its leading role through an agenda based on the expansion of telecommunications through market laws at a time when international communications were in the hands of a few transnational companies and following a period of economic contraction and a drop in foreign investment, in particular in the telecommunications sector, where interest dropped sharply at the end of the 1990s.(1) Justifiably, expectations about what could be achieved at the Summit were not high.

WSIS issues

In the preparatory process of the Geneva phase it soon became clear that developed-country governments (the United States and European Union in particular) would do everything in their power to avoid broadening the WSIS agenda to include issues that had a decisive impact on the creation and growth of the digital divide, such as the conditionalities imposed on countries in the South by the IFIs or the policies promoted by developed countries within such bodies as the WTO and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) with respect to international trade or intellectual property rights (IPRs). For the most powerful governments, discussion on the digital divide in WSIS should be limited to analysing the problem of lack of access to digital technology affecting the majority of the world's population and to exploring how to resolve it through the development of economically profitable communications infrastructure.

Financing ICTs

During the WSIS preparatory process in Geneva, President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal argued for the need for a transfer of resources from the North for the development of information and communications technologies (ICTs) in the South, with the aim of bridging the digital divide. This transfer would be based on the notion of 'digital solidarity'. The proposal - which was subsequently elevated to the Summit in December 2003 - included the creation of a 'Digital Solidarity Foundation'. The foundation would be headed by a 15-member council chosen according to a criterion of regional balance and with multistakeholder participation. The foundation's mission would be to manage a 'Digital Solidarity Fund' (DSF), which would be fed by voluntary donations.

Southern countries, which had built strategic alliances during multilateral processes parallel to WSIS (such as the WTO meetings), expressed their support for the African countries' initiative and favoured the inclusion of the terms proposed by Senegal with respect to the creation of a DSF in the official Summit documents.

On the other hand, the governments of developed nations, in particular the United States, the European Union and Japan, strongly opposed the initiative, which - together with the discussion around modifications to the current Internet governance system - caused friction in the discussions during the preparatory process to the point that it was feared that the Summit would be a complete failure, and that no prior agreement on the Declaration of Principles and the Plan of Action would be reached by the time the Geneva meeting came about in December. As a result, new rounds of negotiations had to be added to the agenda in addition to those originally scheduled. Declarations by the President of Senegal during the preparatory process evinced the possibility that, were references to digital solidarity not included in the WSIS official documents, the countries from the South would walk out, leading to the collapse of the negotiations, as had happened shortly before, at the fifth WTO ministerial meeting in Cancun.

The United States, one of the principal opponents of the creation of the Fund, has argued that financing should be sought through existing mechanisms, not by creating new ones. US policy for the development of communications in Africa advocates the liberalisation of African markets, which should be opened up to US private sector investment. This policy finds its practical application in the 'Digital Freedom Initiative' (DFI), a Bush administration programme that, according to its aims, 'embraces market forces' and 'provides US business entities an opportunity to voluntarily invest their resources with the expectation that market demand will essentially increase DFI beneficiary nations.'

The position adopted by governments of the developed world with respect to the DSF was backed up by the private sector, one of the three stakeholders participating in the WSIS preparatory process. During discussion of the draft official documents the Coordinating Committee of Business Interlocutors (CCBI), speaking on behalf of the private sector, proposed the elimination of the references to the creation of the DSF and expressed concern 'about the creation of additional funding mechanisms'. They further stated: 'we believe that the focus should be on coordination among existing funding mechanisms and the effective use of existing private sector initiatives. [...] Business does not support the creation of a new specific digital solidarity fund which is tied to supporting the work of one organisation such as ITU [...]'. In its explanatory notes on this point, the CCBI argued that 'it is critical to recognise that an international fund will not and cannot serve as a substitute to private sector investment which requires an enabling environment which fosters a pro-competitive policy and responsive and effective regulatory environment'.

Since no consensus could be reached on the creation of the DSF, the governments agreed to include a 'Digital Solidarity Agenda' (DSA) in the WSIS Plan of Action. In short, what the DSA amounted to was the proper implementation of existing financing mechanisms, such as those agreed on in the Monterrey Consensus, which had not been effectively applied by developed countries, and an evaluation study of them, to be completed by December 2004 by a Task Force under the auspices of the Secretary-General of the United Nations and submitted for consideration to the second phase of the Summit. In this way, the issue of how to finance the development of communications in countries in the South was transferred to the second phase of the Summit, and an official decision regarding the creation of a DSF was delayed until November 2005 in Tunisia.

Shortly before the conference closed, the cities of Geneva and Lyon, and the government of Senegal announced contributions totalling about one million euros, representing the first three payments towards the Digital Solidarity Fund, thus rescuing the initiative from a sense of total failure. Later on Paris, Rome, Bilbao, New York and Tunisia also expressed their willingness to contribute to the DSF. The United Cities and Local Governments, a coalition of cities and local governments around the globe, has made a call for its constituents to participate.

The Task Force on Financial Mechanisms (TFFM) was set up by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on behalf of the UN Secretary-General. Both the process and the outcomes of the TFFM raised serious concerns, particularly from civil society organisations, as the process of convening the Task Force suffered from lack of clarity and transparency and the report did not succeed in finding a way out for the entangled governmental negotiations. The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) - the only civil society organisation participating in the TFFM - expressed in a letter addressed to Mark Malloch Brown - former UNDP Administrator - that the TFFM findings and conclusions would not contribute to resolving the impasse on financing issues between governments that had led to the establishment of the Task Force.

The negotiations on financing ICTs in the second phase of the WSIS process were therefore resumed more or less from the same point at which they had been left at the end of the first phase and, consequently, by the end of the third Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meeting of the second phase - the last meeting originally scheduled in the WSIS process - there were still paragraphs on finance that remained in brackets (denoting lack of agreement) in the draft documents.
Some general agreements were, nevertheless, reached at the second PrepCom of the second phase, in February 2005, including a 'welcome' to the DSF established in Geneva 'as an innovative financial mechanism of a voluntary nature' that would 'complement existing mechanisms for funding the Information Society, which should continue to be fully utilised to fund the growth of the new ICT infrastructure and services'. Although not an official outcome of WSIS, this sudden welcome to the DSF raised suspicions with respect to the terms of backstage negotiations and the possibility of using the funds raised by the DSF to buy equipment and services from Northern companies.

A positive note can be salvaged in the WSIS process with respect to finance, since continued lobbying actions from civil society organisations achieved the inclusion of some, albeit timid, language into the official Tunis outcome documents recognising the crucial role of public finance and that market forces alone cannot guarantee ICT access and services, in particular to rural areas and disadvantaged populations.

The WSIS outcomes express good intentions, ackowledge the existing fund and, maybe, open a new space for policy dialogue, but in no way provide concrete mechanisms to address the disparities in access to information and communication between developed and developing countries. Nevertheless, considering the lack of expectations surrounding the WSIS process in its origins and its strong market orientation, the language included in the documents can be considered as a small victory, and civil society organisations involved in the process should further their lobbying actions to make sure that this step is just the beginning of a walk in the right direction.

Internet governance

The other conflicting issue that emerged in the first phase of the WSIS process was related to the Internet governance system, that is to say, to the development and application by governments, the private sector and civil society of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.
Historically, the management of important Internet resources such as top-level domain names and IP numbers has been done by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), based in California and operating through a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the US Department of Commerce. This contract gives oversight authority to the US government on ICANN's policies, in detriment to the rest of the governments, that only have an advisory role, through ICANN's Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC).

Several governments sought WSIS as an opportunity to review this schema and pushed for a change in the Internet governance system, so that the post-WSIS system would be autonomous from any particular state. Civil society also considered that the new system should include the multistakeholder participation approach that was transversal to the whole WSIS process.
Two poles emerged in the discussion: one that argued for leaving things as they were (the 'do not fix what is not broken' approach), and the other that considered that ICANN's functions should be gradually transferred to the ITU or another body in the UN system.

The ensuing deadlock in the discussion made it impossible to resolve the issue during the first phase of WSIS. The governments ended the first phase of the Summit by asking the UN Secretary-General to establish a Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) that would develop a report to be used as input for negotiations during the second phase. The group was made up of 40 members from different countries and sectors (governments, private sector, academics and organised civil society) with the main purpose of investigating and making proposals for specific actions regarding Internet governance.
In July 2005 the WGIG delivered its report. Since it was not possible to achieve consensus in terms of a unique governance model four alternative models were proposed. The idea of an Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was introduced in the WGIG debates by civil society and was included in its final report. In different models, the IGF had different structure and functions (from pure advisory to policy-making and oversight roles).

In Tunis, during the last stages in the negotiation process and after a long and heated debate, no clear winner could be identified in the Internet governance fight. It was recognised in the 'Tunis Agenda for the Information Society' - the Tunis Plan of Action - that all governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international Internet governance, even if the US was allowed to keep control over ICANN - at least until September 2006, when the current MoU between ICANN and the US government expires. As a result of the WSIS process ICANN has also recognised the need to begin an internal reform process to turn it into a more democratic and open forum.

Perhaps most important to civil society organisations involved in the process, it was agreed to create the IGF as an official outcome of WSIS. This is recognised as an important achievement since, despite having just an advisory role and no actual policy-making or oversight functions, the IGF will be a concrete space where global information and communication policies will be discussed by governments, civil society and private enterprises on an equal footing and where all these stakeholders will be able to make proposals and recommendations. Following the valuable experience of the WGIG, it is expected that this forum will be most influential in the future development of the Internet and its governance, seen from a broad perspective and involving not only Internet domain names and numbers, but also inter-country data bandwidth cost settlements, rights of access to infrastructure and information, freedom of expression, cultural and linguistic diversity, privacy, cyber-security and use of free and open source software.

Implementation and follow-up

With respect to the Summit's implementation and follow-up mechanisms the outcomes are uncertain. UN bodies such as the ITU, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and UNDP are recognised to have an important role in the implementation process and the UN Economic and Social Council's (ECOSOC) Commission on Science and Technology would be in charge of the follow-up. Even if this commission does not seem to be the most suitable body in the UN system to take care of the concept of the 'information society' - which should certainly be conceived from a much broader perspective - this should be seen as a compromise solution and, to some extent, as a small victory against the positions of governments such as the US, which had fought against any kind of concrete commitment or mechanism to implement and follow up on the WSIS outcomes - in line with the general US policy of hollowing out the UN.

Mixed emotions

The Tunis Summit, which was supposed to give an answer to unresolved issues that emerged during the first phase of WSIS in 2003 in Geneva - in particular the democratisation of the Internet governance system and the leverage of funding for the development of information and communication in the South - was closed to mixed emotions.

The gap between what civil society organisations had aimed for the second phase of the Summit (expressed in civil society's declaration at the end of the WSIS first phase) and the real outcomes of the official negotiations is almost as wide as the so-called digital divide between the North and the South. However, some achievements were realised in the process. In particular, upon looking back into the past and considering the context in which this Summit was originally conceived, some progress can be identified, for example, in terms of civil society participation, in the perspective towards the role of public and private investment in information and communication, in the opening of the debate on Internet governance policies to multiple actors and, most importantly, in the shift of perspective from a market-oriented and technology-centred information society towards a stronger awareness on the role of information and communication infrastructures and capacities for human development.

The 'people-centred' and 'development-oriented' information society envisioned in the Geneva Declaration of Principles might still be within reach after the second phase of WSIS. For it to be achievable in the near future, however, WSIS commitments must be put in motion without delay, in the form of concrete actions by the international community. As civil society activist Roberto Bissio has said, 'The decision-makers, whose responsibility is now to walk the distance from words to action, should remember what entrepreneurs like to repeat as a mantra: Vision without implementation is just hallucination'(2).


Pablo Accuosto is coordinator of the 'WSIS Papers' project, aimed at contributing to the WSIS decision-making process by researching key issues of interest to developing countries. He is also editor of the Choike.org Internet portal on civil society in the developing world, run by Instituto del Tercer Mundo (ITeM, Third World Institute) in Uruguay.


Endnotes

1 In the case of developing countries, investments during the period prior to the bursting of the telecom bubble were concentrated in centres of population density and in the mobile phone sector. A significant proportion of investments were bids for market position through the creation of start-ups and projects that never got off the ground.

2 Bissio, Roberto (2005), Preface to 'Information Society for the South: Vision or Hallucination - Briefing papers towards the World Summit on the Information Society', Instituto del Tercer Mundo (ITeM), November 2005. Available online at wsispapers.choike.org.




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