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Magazines > Information Today > November 2005
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Information Today

Vol. 22 No. 10 — November 2005

Feature
WSIS Preview and Highlights of PrepCom-3
Text and photos by Dick Kaser

From Sept. 19–30, the clock in Geneva was ticking. After 3.5 years of ramping up, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was set to convene its final session in Tunis, Tunisia, on Nov. 16.

It was already the middle of September when the delegations from more than 100 U.N. member countries arrived in Geneva for what was purported to be the very last preparatory meeting (PrepCom-3) before the big Summit. Less than 90 days remained to reach agreement.

By the end of these last 2 weeks of meetings, the delegates were to have developed, in the words of WSIS Secretary-General Yoshio Utsumi, a concrete, clear road map for the future, and worthy of world leaders' attention … a way forward for Internet governance that is multi-stakeholder and democratic.

The PrepCom-3 delegations gathered in the historic Palais des Nations, original home to the League of Nations and now home of the U.N. Office at Geneva, to seek, as so many generations of statesmen before them, just the right words to achieve international consensus.

How should the digital divide be crossed? Where should financial resources be focused?

What should the political priorities be? And, most contentious of all, how should the Internet be governed by nations, if at all?

Delegates had 10 working days—and, as it turned out, as many nights—to come to terms and write the text of four chapters that would comprise the final Summit resolutions to be presented for adoption in Tunis.

As they were reminded countless times during opening ceremonies, they had come to craft the words. They needed text. We must have a draft negotiated and find satisfactory compromise, admonished Ambassador Janis Karklins, chair of the Tunis Phase of the PrepCom process, at the start of the meeting. We must agree by Sept. 30.

But by Sept. 26, an entire week into the PrepCom-3 process, the subcommit­tee dedicated to writing Chapter 3 on Internet governance had progressed no further than speechmaking and arguing over how best to proceed in writing the chapter.

As the clock kept ticking and the days wore on, the number of working sessions on Internet governance was doubled, and delegates worked into the nights.

Twenty-four hours before the meeting was set to end, the chapter on Internet governance was finally taking shape, but it still lacked its climactic ending. There was still no consensus on the most critical aspects of the plan. Would there be a recommendation that a formal governance structure be created?

If so, would the PrepCom be recommending—and the World Summit considering—the creation of a global forum to provide stakeholders with a platform for debating Internet policies and providing recommendations? Would they go all the way and recommend a formal structure where governments could wield their global policy-making sovereign authority over everything about the Net?

Or—yet a third option was on the table—would they, as the U.S. delegation was insisting so intently, change nothing in the way the Internet is currently governed, lest instability and insecurity of the entire Internet result?

The outcome of the PrepCom-3 meetings would not be reached until 9 p.m. (Central European Time) on Friday, Sept. 30. But when it came to this midnight hour, the bottom line emerged not with a bang, but a whimper.

The anticlimactic result of those 10 long days—and nights—of deliberations was no result at all. Nothing on the major points was resolved. No outcome on Internet governance was determined. But eight new proposals were now sitting on the table.

The final recommendation for how to continue the work of the WSIS process (and what organization should oversee the implementation of Summit recommendations after they are adopted in Tunis) was also left unresolved as PrepCom-3 adjourned.

In addition, the final press release from PrepCom-3 noted, the political part of the Tunis document proved more difficult to negotiate than expected. Among the contentious political issues left undecided were free access to information and the handling of harmful content, the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for the Information Society … and the regulatory role of governments.

Many of these unresolved items are now to be worked out by an intersession­al open-ended negotiation group, set up under the chairmanship of Ambassador Janis Karklins.

The intersessional group will finalize Chapters 1, 2, and 4 on implementation, financial mechanisms, and WSIS follow-up, prior to the Summit in Tunis.

Chapter 3 on Internet governance will be handled by a resumed session of PrepCom-3, to be held back-to-back with the Summit in Tunisia. The date, place, and time will be announced by the WSIS secretariat.

The clock is still ticking. As the final Summit meeting in Tunis fast approach­es, the Internet community is still left to ponder and speculate about how things might yet turn out.

WSIS Preview: Who's Who and What's What at the Upcoming Summit in Tunisia

Three Organizations to Watch at WSIS-Tunis

ITU: Summit Kingpin and WSIS Heir Apparent

It was at the proposal of the International Telecommunications Union, aka ITU (in 1998), that the United Nations ultimately (in 2002) decided to support a World Summit on the Information Society.

Since then ITU has been officially playing the lead role in organizing the two Summit meetings (the first held in Geneva in 2003 and the second held in Tunis this month) and all of the PrepCom activities leading up to each of the two major Summit events.

ITU's secretary-general, Yoshio Utsumi, has, in fact, also served as secretary-general for the Summit itself. And ITU has already volunteered to continue to support the follow-up activities after the Tunis summit later this month.

During PrepCom-3 meetings this September, some people were quick to nominate ITU as the agency best suited to follow up the Summit process and oversee the implementation of recommendations coming out of the Tunis phase, but others clearly were not eager to back an automatic transfer of authority to ITU, noting that other organizations are equally well suited.

ITU, nearly as old as the telegraph, has played a leading role in telecommunications technologies and related policies worldwide for more than a century and a half. In a world where wires will be less important than they were in the past and where new technologies do not necessarily lend themselves as readily to centralized government control, ITU would appear to be an organization in search of a new strategic mission.

As a proponent of the Summit itself and the leading figure in the Summit's development, ITU might appear to some to be a shoo-in for the job of following up on the Summit process.

But controversy over ITU's role going forward prevented a final decision on the matter of Summit follow-up from being reached in Geneva in September. Will the intersessional group go ahead and nominate them anyway? And if so, will the topic rage into a debate at the Tunis Summit?

ICANN: Red Herring of the Summit Process

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is officially recognized in Summit documents as being a member of the private, commercial sector. But because it was formed originally (in 1998) by the U.S. Dept. of Commerce and because it will report to that agency until its privatization is finalized, ICANN has taken the brunt of anti-U.S. sentiment from Day 1 of this Summit process.

When dignitaries from other lands point to the WSIS principles adopted in Geneva 2 years ago, they often hone in on one key passage: [N]o one country should control the Internet. They may be pointing to ICANN when they say this, but what they are really saying is that the U.S. is controlling the Internet because of its loose affiliation with ICANN.

The governance of Internet resources must be guided by a set of public policies, said Ambassador Sha Zukang, speaking for the Chinese delegation at PrepCom-3, but summing up the position of various other delegations. At the global level, the [organization] responsible for managing the IP addresses, domain names, and root servers of the global Internet is ICANN, who is authorized by one country's government and responsible only for that country's law. This situation is very undemocratic, unfair, unreasonable, and its decision-making procedures are also not transparent. We claim that, to keep the stability and security of Internet, the public policy issues, including the governance of Internet core resources[,] should be kept under a fair, legitimate, democratic and transparent international Internet governance mechanism under the U.N. framework.

Besides serving as the euphemistic whipping boy for back-handed criticism of the U.S. government, ICANN itself has been criticized directly by Summit delegates for lacking global sensitivity in the assignment of identities, including top-level country codes (all in English). And particular flack was taken recently for ICANN's decision to create a .xxx space for pornography on the Web, a type of content that is highly illegal in many nations.

However, ICANN seemed to be going out of its way to reply directly to the concerns of nations that they are not being adequately represented in ICANN decision making when it issued a press release midway through the PrepCom meetings in Geneva.

The release specifically addressed issues related to multilingualism by announcing that a 30-day comment period had been opened for its revised guidelines on the Implementation of Internationalized Domain Names. According to the release, ICANN recognizes the need for overall multilingualism in the Domain Name System (DNS) and is committed to playing its part in bringing this about through a consultative approach that includes all stakeholders, while at the same time ensuring the ongoing stability of the DNS.

At the same time, ICANN reiterated its position that use of international character sets—though certainly of interest to nations wanting to preserve their individual cultures—can open the Net to security problems. ICANN had previously highlighted the issue of vulnerability of certain web browsers to URI and domain name spoofing that relies on the use of Internationalized Domain Name (IDN) resolution, the release said.

Recommendations for changes in Internet governance have specifically suggested that ICANN be reformed, internationalized, and made subservient to some higher official authority, possibly the U.N. or one of the global councils proposed by the Working Group on Internet Governance.

Will world leaders in Tunis decide to continue beating up ICANN in lieu of taking on the U.S. directly? Will they admit that the Internet currently works well because ICANN does a good job? Or will they insist on politicizing the assignment of domain names as an entree to justify formal governmental power in controlling all aspects of the Net?

WGIG: PrepCom Folk Hero, Summit Ghost

The Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG), appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the recommendation of the first phase WSIS meeting in Geneva 2 years ago, delivered its final report last July. At that point WGIG's work was done, and it occupies no position in the Summit process going forward. But, no doubt, WSIS discussions in Tunis will continue to harken back to the work of this group, which has proved seminal to Summit discussions and resulting documents on Internet governance.

The ghost of WGIG is sure to haunt the halls of the Tunis Summit.

The WGIG report (available in six languages from http://www.wgig.org/index.htm) had no official status in the WSIS process upon its presentation. But, by consensus of the delegates assembled at PrepCom-3 it was used to guide the Internet governance discussions and draft Summit texts, which draw heavily upon it for both their form and content.

The WGIG, as charged by Annan, put forward in its report a working definition of Internet Governance, identified policy issues that were regarded by the working group as being globally critical, and outlined the appropriate roles for governments and other stakeholders, including the private sector, civil society, and existing international organizations.

The WGIG also pressed the limits of its charge by going on to recommend under the category of providing proposals for action, as appropriate the recommendation that an international forum be created to provide all stakeholders with an opportunity to discuss policy matters and also a recommendation that a more formal structure to support Internet oversight by governments be created, with at least four alternative models presented for doing so—three of which were virtually the same.

Chaired by India's Nitin Desai, special advisor to Kofi Annan, WGIG comprised 39 members.

Though the working group had a diverse organizational composition, including representatives from industry and various associations, as well as a few independent academics and consultants, half its members were from government agencies. Some critics, particularly the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC), observed that the vast majority of these representatives were from governments that favor strong Internet controls, including in some cases strict content controls.

The map (shown on page 44) clearly makes a statement about the group's composition. Brazil, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Tunisia were all represented by various government officials. No one from the U.S. government participated in the group. The European Commission and the U.K. each sent representatives, as did Norway and Luxembourg. But apart from these latter countries, few democracies were directly represented.

As a result, the WGIG report and the evolving Summit documents give particular voice to parts of the world currently underserved by Internet and oth­er information technologies. The WGIG report best articulates the issues of developing nations and emerging powers, along with the angst of nations confronting a new, invasive, and threatening information technology that they cannot necessarily control in the manner in which they are used to controlling things in their jurisdictions.

Said WGIG chair Desai in his opening remarks at PrepCom-3, Governance, over­sight, is provided at present, the question is, is the manner that oversight is provided what is needed for tomorrow and five years from now, given that growth will come from the developing world?

A lopsided view of reality? It's certainly an alternative view that gathered much support in the international forum created for PrepCom-3 debates. When the nations assemble in Tunis this month, will they buy into the view that in order to be acceptable worldwide the technology needs to be made subservient to the sovereign right of nations?

OECD: Another One to Watch

The Organisation for Economic Co-op­eration and Development (OECD) is certainly one of the existing agencies that could handle coordination for many of the global policy issues identified by WGIG and the WSIS PrepCom-3 group. In fact, OECD has devoted an entire Web site to the subject of Internet governance (http://www.oecd.org/site/
0,2865,en_21571361_34590630_1_1_1_1_1,00.html)
.

The Web site reads like a resume for OECD's qualifications to manage the pro­cess going forward. It clearly demonstrates OECD has done work in almost all of the policy areas identified by WGIG, including universal access, leased line costs, capacity building, infrastructure building, telecommunications infrastructure, VoIP, peering/interconnection, spectrum, cyber­crime, spam (development of a tool­kit), security, privacy, privatization, consumer rights, and many other top issues.

If push comes to shove, will ITU be out and OECD be in?

‘Internet governance is the development and application by Governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.'

—WGIG working definition of Internet governance

The U.S. found an unlikely ally at PrepCom-3 when the Russian Federation first objected to the WGIG definition of Internet governance. The U.S. immediately took the bait.

When asked directly by the chair, Is it a working definition? the U.S. delegation, headed by David Gross, U.S. Coordinator, International Communications and Information Policy, Department of State, answered, It certainly does lend itself to much work.

By reopening the discussion on such a fundamental point in the WGIG report—which by some accounts took hundreds of hours to craft—it was rumored the U.S. was attempting to stall the discussion of the WGIG's bold proposals to form new Internet governance structures. The PrepCom-3 group charged with articulating the final recommendation was meeting in Geneva for just 2 weeks.

A Peek Inside the U.N. Library in Geneva

Prior to PrepCom-3's opening, Ruth Hahn-Weinert, chief of the user services section of the United National Library, United Nations Office at Geneva, gave Information Today a special tour of the U.N. library located within the Palais des Nations. The collection, she said, is one of only two in the world that includes a complete set of all U.N. documents in all six official languages. The other is the Dag Hammarskjöld Library at the U.N. in New York. A million volumes occupy 10 floors of stacks originally built to house the League of Nations collection, which still resides here.

Bernhardine Pejovic, archives assistant in charge of the League of Nations reading room (left), and Blandine Blukacz-Louisfert, chief of registry, records and archives unit, United Nations Library, United Nations Office at Geneva, Palais des Nations, pose in front of a bound set of notes and papers from the deliberations leading up to the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I and established the League of Nations. The 21-volume set, titled My Diary at the Conference of Paris and edited by David Hunter Miller, is among the rare treasures of the U.N. collection in Geneva. The number of texts produced in the 4-year preparation to the World Summit in Tunisia might arguably take up as much space if they were bound back-to-back.

Tunisia Itself: Unlikely Host for a World Summit on the Information Society

Location, Location, Location

A Summit that is said to embrace the highest principles of transparency, openness, and all things democratic and good about information technology could find no less likely host than Tunisia, a country notorious for its bad record in respecting human rights and its general intolerance of even mildly dissenting voices.

Montasser Ouaili, Tunisian minister of communications, spoke in Arabic at PrepCom-3's opening session in Geneva. He said: Tunisia is aware of its responsibility as a member of the U.N. and [is] eager to assure the Summit meets its objectives. Tunis will redouble its efforts to assure the open debate is successful.

But all eyes are still focused critically on Tunisia as it braces for the Summit later this month. (See NGOs Complain of Summit Host Tunisia's Rights Record, Inter Press Service [Johannesburg], Sept. 28, 2005, at http://allafrica.com/stories/200509290003.html.)


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