WSIS: Early row signals challenges for next Net summit

Tempers flared briefly during a recent meeting designed to define the structure of next year’s follow-up global Net summit in Tunis, Tunisia, and what the assembly should deliver in the way of action.

An unexpected human rights row on June 26 at the first preparatory meeting (Prepcom-1) for the second World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in November 2005 signalled the many challenges the world faces in bridging the digital divide and giving people, particularly in developing countries, access to information and knowledge.

Representatives of the Tunisian government, which will host WSIS II, tried to block Tunisian human rights activist Souhayr Belhassen of the Civil Society Human Rights Caucus from delivering a slightly critical statement on the government’s position on freedom of speech and the right to privacy. In the end, a formal protest by the European Union (E.U.), pointing to the active role of Civil Society groups in the Net talks, forced the Tunisian government delegation to back off and let Belhassen speak.

If blood pressures rose briefly over human rights at the first meeting, they could easily soar at the next two prepcoms or at the final summit when delegates meet to decide on the prickly issues of Internet governance and infrastructure funding — both of which were shelved at the first Net summit in Geneva at the end of last year — and on how to implement the agreed action plan.

“The human rights row showed how sensitive many of the issues are,” said Ralph Bendrath, a Civil Society representative from the German Heinrich B

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