World Summit on the Information Society
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The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was a pair of United Nations-sponsored conferences about information, communication and, in broad terms, the information society that took place in 2003 in Geneva and in 2005 in Tunis. One of its chief aims was to bridge the so-called global digital divide separating rich countries from poor countries by spreading access to the Internet in the developing world. The conferences established 17 May as World Information Society Day.
In January 2002, the United Nations General Assembly endorsed a proposal for a global summit on Information and Communication Technology (ICT) issues. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) took the lead in organizing the event, which included the participation of more than 50 heads of state. WSIS is also related to UNESCO.
In November 2002, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a Challenge to Silicon Valley to create nearly up-to-date computers and communications systems that would enable villages to afford Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D). Some examples from around the world were:
- the Simputer movement in India
- Pocket PC from Microsoft in Redmond, Washington, United States
- free metropolitan wireless systems
- the MIT Media Lab program to create a $100 laptop
- localization of Linux into languages not supported by commercial vendors
The Summit's first phase took place in December 2003 in Geneva. The summit process began with the first "Prepcom" in July 2002. The last Prepcom, held from 19-30 September 2005 in Geneva, ended without securing final agreement on Internet governance, with the U.S. rejecting a European Union proposal to relinquish control of ICANN.
An issue that emerged was Internet governance and the dominant role that the USA in policy making. The most radical ideas about devolving this authority were those supporting a civil society approach to Internet governance.
At Geneva, 2003
In 2003 at Geneva, delegates from 175 countries took part in the first phase of WSIS where they adopted a Declaration of Principles. This is a road map for achieving an information society accessible to all and based on shared knowledge. A Plan of Action  sets out a goal of bringing 50 percent of the world's population online by 2015. It does not spell out any specifics of how this might be achieved. The Geneva summit also left unresolved more controversial issues, including the question of Internet governance and funding.
When the 2003 summit failed to agree on the future of Internet governance, the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) was formed to come up with ideas on how to progress.
Civil Society delegates from NGOs produced a document called "Shaping Information Societies for Human Needs" that brought together a wide range of issues under a human rights and communication rights umbrella. 
The second phase took place 2005-11-16 to 2005-11-18 in Tunis, Tunisia. It resulted in agreement on the Tunis Commitment and the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society, and the creation of the Internet Governance Forum.
At Tunis, 2005
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Just on the eve of the November 2005 Tunis event, the Association for Progressive Communications came out with its stand. (APC is an international network of civil society organizations — whose goal is to empower and support groups and individuals working for peace, human rights, development and protection of the environment, through the strategic use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), including the internet).
APC said it had participated extensively in the internet governance process at the World Summit on Information Society. It says: Out of this participation and in collaboration with other partners, including members of the WSIS civil society internet governance caucus, APC has crystallized a set of recommendations with regard to internet governance ahead of the final Summit in Tunis in November 2005.APC proposed specific actions in each of the following five areas:
- The establishment of an Internet Governance Forum;
- The transformation of ICANN into a global body with full authority over DNS management, and an appropriate form of accountability to its stakeholders in government, private sector and civil society;
- The initiation of a multi-stakeholder convention on internet governance and universal human rights that will codify the basic rights applicable to the internet, which will be legally binding in international law with particular emphasis on clauses in the universal declaration of human rights specifically relevant to the internet, such as rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association and privacy.
- Ensuring internet access is universal and affordable. APC argued: "The internet is a global public space that should be open and accessible to all on a non-discriminatory basis. The internet, therefore, must be seen as a global public infrastructure. In this regard we recognize the internet to be a global public good related to the concept of the common heritage of humanity and access to it is in the public interest, and must be provided as a global public commitment to equality."
- Measures to promote capacity building in "developing" countries with regard to increasing "developing" country participation in global public policy forums on internet governance.
The summit itself attracted 1500 people from International Organizations, 6200 from NGOs, 4800 from the private sector, and 980 from the media.
A dispute over control of the Internet threatened to derail the conference. However, a last-minute decision to leave control in the hands of the United States-based ICANN for the time being avoided a major blow-up. As a compromise there was also an agreement to set up an international Internet Governance Forum, with a purely consultative role.
French reporter Robert Ménard, the president of Reporters sans frontières, was refused admission to Tunisia for phase two of the Summit because of his participation in the occupation of the Tunisian office of tourism in Paris in 2001. The occupation was organized in protest of the arrest in Tunisia of human-rights activist Sihem Bensedrine. Ménard was told that he was not welcome in Tunisia. He is reportedly under judicial instruction and can enter the country only if called by a magistrate.
The summit itself was marred by criticism of Tunisia for allowing attacks on journalists and human rights defenders to occur in the days leading up to the event. A French journalist for Libération was stabbed and beaten by unidentified men after he reported on local human rights protesters. A Belgian television crew was harassed and forced to hand over footage of Tunisian dissidents, while local human rights defenders were roughed up and prevented from organizing a meeting with international civil society groups.
United States priorities
In a document released on 3 December 2003 the United States delegation to the WSIS advocated a strong private sector and rule of law as the critical foundations for development of national information and communication technologies (ICT). Ambassador David Gross, the US coordinator for international communications and information policy, outlined what he called "the three pillars" of the US position in a briefing to reporters 3 December.
- As nations attempt to build a sustainable ICT sector, commitment to the private sector and rule of law must be emphasized, Gross said, "so that countries can attract the necessary private investment to create the infrastructure."
- A second important pillar of the US position was the need for content creation and intellectual property rights protection in order to inspire ongoing content development.
- Ensuring security on the internet, in electronic communications and in electronic commerce was the third major priority for the US. "All of this works and is exciting for people as long as people feel that the networks are secure from cyber attacks, secure in terms of their privacy," Gross said.
As the Geneva phase of the meeting drew closer, one proposal that was gaining attention was to create an international fund to provide increased financial resources to help lesser-developed nations expand their ICT sectors. The "voluntary digital solidarity fund" was a proposal put forth by the president of Senegal, but it was not one that the United States could currently endorse, Gross said.
Gross said the United States was also achieving broad consensus on the principle that a "culture of cybersecurity" must develop in national ICT policies to continue growth and expansion in this area. He said the last few years had been marked by considerable progress as nations update their laws to address the galloping criminal threats in cyberspace. "There's capacity-building for countries to be able to criminalize those activities that occur within their borders...and similarly to work internationally to communicate between administrations of law enforcement to track down people who are acting in ways that are unlawful," Gross said.
Many governments are very concerned that various groups use U.S.-based servers to spread anti-semitic, nationalist, or regime critical messages. This controversy is a consequence of the American position on free speech which does not consider speech as criminal without direct appeals to violence. The United States argues that giving the control of Internet domain names to international bureaucrats and governments may lead to massive censorship that could destroy the freedom of the Internet as a public space.
A great number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), scientific institutions, community media and others are participating as "civil society" in the preparations for the summit as well as the WSIS itself. They try to establish the broadest possible participation of civil society groups at the summit and to push civil society issues onto the agenda, including human rights, people-centered development, freedom of speech and press freedom.
At the same time, there is plenty of WSIS-related discussion outside the official conferences. Workshops on the themes of the summit were held e.g. at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, and plans are shaping up for alternative events outside and parallel to the official WSIS summit.
In Germany, a WSIS working group initiated by the Network New Media and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, has been meeting continuously since mid-2002. This group has gradually developed into a broader Germany-wide civil society coordination for the WSIS.
Some civil society groups expressed alarm that the 2005 phase of the WSIS was being held in Tunisia, a country with serious human rights violations.  A fact-finding mission to Tunisia in January 2005 by the Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), a coalition of 14 members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, found serious cause for concern about the current state of freedom of expression and of civil liberties in the country, including gross restrictions on freedom of the press, media, publishing and the Internet.
The coalition published a 60-page report that recommends steps the Tunisian government needs to take to bring the country in line with international human rights standards. At the third WSIS Preparatory Committee meeting in Geneva in September 2005, the TMG launched an update to the report that found no improvements in the human rights situation.
The Digital Divide
Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, defined the information society as that through which “human capacity is expanded, built up, nourished and liberated, by giving people access to the tools and technologies they need, with the education and training to use them effectively.” It is this kind of a society that the World Summit on the Information Society set about to create.
Yoshio Utsumi, Secretary General of the International Telecommunication Union, declared that with the emergence of such a society comes the risk of widening the existing digital divide. The Holy See (Vatican) reaffirmed this position in its address to the summit members given by Archbishop John Foley. “This summit,” he said, “is a unique opportunity to connect and assist those living in the poorest and most isolated regions of the world… [I]f this process creates only new opportunities for those who already enjoy a good living standard and excellent communications possibilities, then our work will have been a failure.”
On the issue of narrowing the digital divide, the Holy See and the whole of the United Nations stand hand-in-hand. It was the direct goal of the Summit to create a way to provide information to all people in every nation. A joint-effort needed to be made on behalf of the entire international community to assist in providing access to digital communications to those citizens of less developed regions so that they might also share in the bounty of information available through digital mediums. “For far too many people, the gains remain out of reach,” Annan said. “There is a tremendous yearning, not for technology per se, but for what technology can make possible.” Annan continued by urging the Summit members to respond to that thirst and to make the necessary preparations and take the first steps towards the accomplishment of a society where all people have equal access to information. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, president of the Republic of Tunisia, also called on the international community to aid in the efforts of helping all peoples, “particularly the least developed ones, to gain access to technological progress and to benefit from the scientific and digital revolution witnessed in the world today." The Vatican also reaffirmed the need for help from the international community.
Secretary General Utsumi said that in order to bring about the changes recommended, and new “pact” will need to be achieved between the information “haves” and the “have-nots.” The development of a new arrangement between developed and under-developed nations would not, he said, “obey the normal rules of negotiation of give and take” but would, instead, be based on mutual self-interest. “The value of information,” Utsumi said, “increases when it is shared. If we are able to create a new generation in the developing world, it will be to the benefit of information-producing countries.”
The overall intent of the World Summit on the Information Society was to bring about a feasible way to eliminate the ever-gaping digital divide. Members of the international community have recognized that an end to the divide must be sought in order to bring about equal information opportunities to the citizens of the less developed countries. Archbishop Foley ended his statement by stating, “It is our responsibility to fill these gaps of humanity and solidarity for the benefit of millions of people and for the next generation.” It is the responsibility of the countries of the international community to implement plans they made at the Summit to make information more accessible to all nations.
Digital Divide and Digital Dilemma
Two main concerns seemed to be the issue and talk of the UN World Summit on the Information Society held in Tunis, which were one the digital divide and two the digital dilemma. Not only did several countries comment on one or both of these issues in light of the Holy See's statement by Archbishop John P. Foley the Church seems to agree and furthermore elaborate on these issues.
First the digital divide, which not only is addressed in Archbishop John P. Foley's address before the WSIS but also in a Vatican document, Ethics in the Internet. According to Archbishop Foley the digital divide is the current disparity in the access to digital communications between developed and developing countries and it requires the joint effort of the entire international community. The digital divide is considered a form of discrimination dividing the rich and the poor, both within and among nations, on the basis of access, or lack of access, to the new information technology. It is an updated version of an older gap that has always existed between the information rich and the information poor. The term digital divide underlines the reality that not only individuals and groups but also nations must have access to the new technology in order to share in the promised benefits of globalization and not fall behind other nations.
In a statement delivered by Senator Burchell Whiteman from Jamaica he stressed that Jamaica realizes the importance of bridging the digital divide which he sees as promoting social and economic development for 80% of the countries that are still struggling with this gap and the impact that it has on them. In a statement given by Mr. Ignacio Gonzalez Planas, who is the minister of Informatics and Communications of the Republic of Cuba, he also talked about the concern of only a few countries enjoying these privileges. Mentioning that over half of the world population does not have telephone access, which was invented more than a century ago. With more than 50% of those using cell phones and internet servers are found in developed countries. In a statement by Vice Premier Huang Ju, the State Council of the People's Republic of China, he stated that the information society should be a people centered society in which all peoples and all countries share the benefit to the fullest in greater common development in the information society.
Second the digital dilemma, which the Holy See emphasized as a disadvantage to the information society, because of this one must approach it with concern and caution to avoid taking the wrong steps. Not only what is being considered as digital opportunities could result in digital dilemmas. It is a real and present danger with technology especially the internet. The Holy See strongly supports freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas but provided that one respects the moral order and common good. One must approach it with sensitivity and respect for other people's values and beliefs and protect the distinctiveness of cultures and the underlying unity of the human family.
Whiteman from Jamaica agreed on the issue of facing digital dilemmas as well. He stated that information resources combined with technology resources are available to the world and they have the power to transform the world for good or ill. In a statement made by Mr. Stjepan Mesic, President of Croatia, it was stated that we are flooded with data and we think that we know and can find everything about everyone but we also must remember that we don't know what so easily accessible is like. He states that although the information society is a blessing one should not ignore the potentiality of it turning into a nightmare.
The Holy See's caution of the information society is being heard and echoed by other countries especially those that were present at the WSIS in Tunis. Echoing the statement made in Ethics in the Internet, "The internet can make an enormously valuable contribution to human life. It can foster prosperity and peace, intellectual and aesthetic growth, mutual understanding among peoples and nations on a global scale."
In a press statement released 14 November 2003  the Civil Society group warned about a deadlock, already setting in on the very first article of the declaration, where governments are not able to agree on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the common foundation of the summit declaration. It identified two main problems:
- On the issue of correcting imbalances in riches, rights and power, governments do not agree on even the principle of a financial effort to overcome the so-called "digital divide", which was precisely the objective when the summit process was started in 2001. But the 'digital divide' concept was also under criticism of the civil society. Groups such as FFII rejected the term.
- In its view, not even the basis of human life in dignity and equality, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, finds support as the basis for the Information Society. Governments are not able to agree on a commitment to basic human right standards as the basis for the Information Society, most prominent in this case being the freedom of expression.
Selected media responses
A report by Brenda Zulu for the The Times of Zambia explained that the (Dakar) resolution "generated a lot of discussion since it was very different from the Accra resolution, which advocated change from the status quo where Zambia participated in the Africa WSIS in Accra. The Dakar resolutions, in the main, advocated the status quo although it did not refer to internationalization of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)."
The Jamaica Observer had a column which saw Cyberspace as backyard for the new 'Monroe Doctrine'. The Monroe Doctrine, expressed in 1823, proclaimed that the Americas should be closed to future European colonization and free from European interference in sovereign countries' affairs. The Doctrine was conceived by its authors, especially John Quincy Adams, as a proclamation by the United States of moral opposition to colonialism, but has subsequently been re-interpreted in a wide variety of ways, including by President Theodore Roosevelt as a license for the U.S. to practice its own form of colonialism.
From India, The Financial Express interviewed Nitin Desai, who is special advisor to the United Nations Secretary General. Desai is quoted saying, "Our main goal is to find ways for developing countries to gain better access to the Internet and information and communication technologies (ICTs), helping them improve their life standards right from their knowledge base to their work culture, and spread awareness about diseases and other crucial issues. This will aim to bridge the huge communication technology and infrastructure gap existing currently in the world. This will include connecting villages, community access points, schools and universities, research centers, libraries, health centers and hospitals, and local and central government departments. Besides looking at the first two years of implementation of the Plan of Action after the Geneva summit, the Tunis episode will seek to encourage the development of content meant to empower the nations."
He says: "The way India has made use of IT, fetching the country not only profits, but a huge percentage of employed people, it has been really impressive." My view: it's a shame that we in India have so many IT professionals, but these skills get used so much for the export-dollar, and hardly at all (except in a spillover manner) to tackle the huge issues that a billion seeking a better life have to daily deal with.The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), had a Reuters report titled 'Rights groups says Tunisia is not right for WSIS' , citing the position of the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group. It said:
As thousands of delegates and InfoTech experts gathered in Tunisia this weekend for a UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), human rights and media freedom groups were asking: Is this meeting in the wrong place?" and points to both the positions critical of the Tunisian government on free speech, and the administration's defense of its record. Finally, when it comes to reporting on the unfair global village, and communication rights we have within it, isn't it ironic that the awareness and ability to keep up with the issue -- of information -- is itself so unfair?
- Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement
- Development Communication
- Digital rights
- Global Cybersecurity Agenda
- Information freedom
- International Telecommunication Union
- Internet Governance Forum
- RIPE NCC
- World Intellectual Property Organization
- World Intellectual Wealth Organisation
Notes and references
- ^ Perspective: Kofi Annan's IT challenge to Silicon Valley November 5, 2002
- ^ WSIS Declaration of Principles
- ^ WSIS Plan of Action
- ^ Henrik Spang-Hanssen. Public International Computer Network Law Issues DJØF Forlag 2006 ISBN-13: 978-8757414868
- ^ United Nations General Assembly Document 687 session 60 Report of the World Summit on the Information Society page 3 on 16 March 2006
- ^ U.S. Outlines Priorities for World Summit on the Information Society December 3, 2003
- ^ "Bush administration annexes internet". The Register. July 1, 2005. http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/07/01/bush_net_policy/.
- ^ "Power grab could split the net". CNET. October 3, 2005. http://news.com.com/2010-1071_3-5886556.html. (Includes discussion.)
- ^ Essential test for UN net summit - BBC News
- ^ Tunisia: Political Prisoners Held in Solitary for Years July 7, 2004
- ^ Tunisia Monitoring Group releases report on state of free expression February 22, 2005
- ^ Civil Society Statement at the End of the Preparatory Process for the WSIS November 14, 2003
- ^ Brenda Zulu — identified as a journalist specializing in reporting on Information Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) issues — WSIS Set to Begin in Tunis As SADC Lobbies Countries To Diffuse The Dakar Paper.
- ^ Cyberspace as backyard for the new 'Monroe Doctrine' November 13, 2005
- ^ Rights groups says Tunisia is not right for WSIS November 13, 2005
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Official Sites & Organizations
- WSIS - Official site by the ITU
- UNESCO and WSIS Official site by UNESCO
- WSIS Tunis 2005 - Official site by Tunis
- WSIS ICT discussion - Development Gateway community focusing on Millennium Development Goals
- WSIS Civil Society Meeting Point - Mailing lists
- Worldsummit2003.org - Official WSIS site by Heinrich Boell Foundation, maintained by the German WSIS Civil Society Coordinating Group
- Tunisia Monitoring Group - Official TMG WSIS site by IFEX
- WSIS? WE SEIZE! - Anti-WSIS group from December 2003, supported by the Information Program of the Open Society Institute
- Citizens' Summit on the Information Society
- The World Summit in Reflection - compendium of submission to Information Technologies and International Development
WSIS News & Blogs
- WSISBlogs.org - a multilingual coalition of bloggers attending WSIS; includes text, photos, podcasts and video.
- WSIS: Internet Governance Forum Endorsed by World Leaders by Dick Kaser, Information Today.
- WSIS WIRE - latest news on the World Summit - en, fr, de
- i-Witness | journalists shaping the information society - debate, news and resources for journalists creating a fairer information society
- The Daily Summit - WSIS (2003 only) and similar World Summit coverage by the British Council Science Team
- The German netzpolitik.org - Blog has a huge coverage on the WSIS in German language
- David Weekly's Tunis PBwiki - a wikiblog of the Summit & Tunisia
- Choike - WSIS in depth report has information on the Geneva and Tunis phases of WSIS
- A transcript of Richard Stallman's WSIS 2005 presentation
Articles & Reports
- Information Society for the South: Vision or Hallucination? A book by the WSIS Papers Project (Instituto del Tercer Mundo, ITeM) with Southern perspectives on the Information Society
- Visions in Process II A brochure collecting female perspectives on WSIS
- Orientation kit on WSIS A booklet for civil society representatives on WSIS development just before the Tunis Summit
- "Information Society: The Next Steps" - Development Gateway Special Report
- Tunisia, host of WSIS and destination of choice for IT Outsourcing - Economist Advertisement Feature