Phase One: Geneva, Switzerland, December 2003Phase Two: Tunis, Tunisia, November 2005
The first time I heard the title of this Summit: “World Summit on the Information Society” I asked myself if there were not more urgent matters to deal with, such as poverty, education, gender justice, or HIV/AIDS. But I realised that at least this Summit, unlike many others, was trying to tackle an issue before it becomes a crisis.
Information is an issue that affects all of us in our daily lives as we demand, consume, and share information. And it is obvious that the explosion of the Internet in the last ten years has profoundly changed many things in the world of information.
Interestingly, the United Nations tasked a very technical UN agency to organise this Summit: the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). This raised the question: is the key issue access to information (technical infrastructure) or has it more to do with the content of information?
Civil society fought hard on this issue as for them it is clear that human beings should be at the centre of the debate on information. No technical miracle will solve the world’s problems. If one African village gains full access to the Internet, its educational problems will not suddenly be solved. Information infrastructures are only the tip of the iceberg.
The purpose of the Summit was two-fold: to issue a Declaration on ethical principles and codes of conduct for all stakeholders in the Information Society, and to draft a practical Action Plan so that all can benefit equally from the new opportunities made available by the information society.
A first for the UN
For the first time in a UN Summit, civil society was allowed to participate meaningfully alongside governments and the business sector. This more open, inclusive process to decision-making was one of the main achievements of the Summit, and it allowed civil society to raise some key issues:
· How can we close the growing gaps in access to information and communication tools between North and South?
· How can we ensure a human-centred vision of the ‘Information Society’ that is committed to human rights, social justice and inclusive and sustainable development?
· How can we foster a strong commitment to the centrality of human rights, especially the right to access and share information and to individual privacy?
· How can Internet governance be reformed to be more inclusive?
This last topic may sound quite obscure until you realise that out of 13 computers (route servers) that control the Internet around the world, 7 of them belong to the US Government. Just before the Summit the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice wrote a letter to the Acting President of the European Union, Jack Straw, making it clear that the US is opposed to opening up Internet governance to other governments or civil society. She said: “The history of the Internet’s extraordinary growth and adaptation, based on private sector innovation and investment, offers compelling arguments against burdening the network with new intergovernmental structure oversight.”
Did the Summit make any difference?
A debriefing of the Summit held in Geneva made it clear that whilst for some the Summit had been a big success, for others it had failed to achieve its goals.
The Swiss representative, Mr. Charles Giger, was pleased with the way civil society had worked to keep the Internet in the public domain and not something in the hands of a few nations. Others agreed that the Summit showed just how much non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can influence debate at UN level.
Whilst the process of the Summit was generally applauded, the achievements were not so well received. The Swedish Ambassador, Astrid Dufborg, underlined the lack of strategic vision in the Final Declaration of Governments, saying it looked rather like a catalogue of goodwill decisions as opposed to a Declaration from the civil society sector which really placed human beings at the centre of the debate.
Others were critical of the behaviour of the host Government, Tunisia, during the Summit Phase Two, and expressed dismay that a country with such a bad record on human rights should be given this privilege. The Tunisian Government even censored one part of the opening speech given by the Swiss President Samuel Schmidt.
But I will give the final word to Ambassador Janis Karklins, Permanent Representative of Latvia and President of the WSIS Preparatory Committee: “In Tunis we came not to respond to the problems, but to respond to the challenges.”
The Final Declaration of the Civil Society Sector and the Final Declaration of the Government and other documentation can be found at: