World Summit bodies debate open document formats

By Stephen Bell

Computerworld New Zealand (Online)

Open systems software could become a key topic at December’s World Summit on the Information Society. Many governments are inclining towards open source platforms like Linux, and the question of longevity of records has also arisen.

A number of governments at the recent preparatory conference for the summit, notably Korea, say records stored in proprietary formats such as Microsoft Corp.’s Word could become unreadable as new versions of software are produced and support for the old versions removed. They want a policy adopted of storing records in open source formats. The U.S. and Canada were significant dissenters from this point of view.

Archives New Zealand has discussed the question of long-term electronic document storage, but appears to favour a strategy of controlled migration to newer versions of proprietary formats as they become available rather than exploring open alternatives.

New Zealand’s civil society lobby to the summit, meanwhile, is facing an uphill battle for inclusion. A lobby on behalf of people outside government and commerce had hoped to get their point of view put forward to the summit, scheduled for Geneva in December.

Lobbyists missed a May 31 deadline to file a submission for inclusion in the working documents for the summit’s draft declaration of principles and draft plan of action, and had to be content with feeding ideas into the New Zealand government submission.

The civil society lobby had hoped to make further contributions at an “intersessional” meeting in Paris, starting July 15. But they have been excluded from that meeting because of their non-attendance at previous meetings, and will not even get a chance to file a document on their own behalf.

The New Zealand government delegation, represented by the National Library and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), will not be attending the Paris meeting either.

One alternative route is to cooperate with Australia, which has a strong civil society representation, and will hold ancillary discussions in a room of its own at the summit. The Australian cooperation idea has met with broad approval at meetings of the civil society lobby in Auckland and Wellington over the past two weeks.

Meeting convener Ian Thomson, of the 2020 Communications Trust, says that the conventional government and industry lobbies and “non-governmental organizations” are clearly having difficulty allowing a role for civil society representation, and do not seem very willing to let the lobby participate significantly.

The civil society group and local representatives of organizing body the United Nations are still lobbying locally for senior representation at the summit, preferably by Prime Minister Helen Clark.

The meetings examined topics such as the ownership of information and freedom of access to the network to more detailed questions of Internet safety, especially for children, support of indigenous culture, Pacific Island support and promotion of local content and creativity.

The lobby is now looking beyond the summit, at becoming a recognized body representative of NZ civil society in the ICT realm, optimistically one that will eventually be consulted by government in policy formation.