Preparatory talks clear way for Internet summit

Government negotiators from nearly 200 countries narrowed their differences on how to manage the Internet and protect freedom of expression online in an important round of preparatory talks over the weekend in Geneva, but failed to agree on how to fund the Internet’s expansion in developing countries.

The envoys met to discuss several key issues to be tackled at the three-day World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which begins Wednesday in the Swiss city. Shortly after midnight on Saturday, they reached agreement on two draft texts — a declaration of principles and an action plan — which will be put to government delegates for approval.

In a move to diffuse one of the more explosive issues, the negotiators agreed to ask the United Nations (U.N.) about establishing a committee to investigate Internet management and report back by 2005, when a second summit is scheduled to be held in Tunis, Tunisia, according to a spokesperson of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the U.N. agency that is organizing the event.

Several governments are seeking broad controls over the Internet, and are demanding that an international agency, such as the ITU, take control of Internet management. However, industrialized countries, led by the U.S., oppose the idea. They want the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to remain responsible for controlling many of the Internet’s core systems.

Negotiators also agreed to include in the draft documents wording that maintains a commitment to freedom of expression, according to the ITU spokesperson. Countries such as China, which have clamped down on Internet media, have been eager to restrict references to press freedom.

Despite agreeing to clear some hurdles ahead of the summit, negotiators failed to clear all of them. A key stumbling block in a summit initially organized to help bridge the “digital divide” remains funding. At issue is whether richer nations should subsidize Internet expansion in poorer nations and if so, how much.

In particular, African countries are calling for the creation of a “digital solidarity fund” to pay for extending the Internet into remote villages, but most European nations, Japan and the U.S. prefer to use existing development aid money.

The declaration also calls on governments to collaborate more closely in such areas as improving Internet security and finding means to deal with spam and junk e-mail.