WSIS : Internet too US-centric, say summit delegates

New Zealand Associate IT Minister, David Cunliffe, is leading his country’s delegation to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), in Geneva.

The last preparatory stages before the conference proper, which began in earnest on Wednesday have already sparked controversy and irritation when Paul Twomey president of Internet co-ordinating body ICANN, was reportedly excluded from a meeting of government representatives discussing future Internet governance and management.

This underlines the discontent felt by some governments, particularly in the “third world”, at what they see as a continuing U.S.-centric and private-industry-dominated Internet.

Talal Abu-Ghazaleh, the Jordanian vice-chairman of the UN Information and Communication Technology Task Force, says that “the world should be grateful to Uncle Sam for creating the Internet” but that it was time for the rest of the world to have a larger voice in its governance.

Some delegates expected, before the conference, that the push for increased government input into the running of the Internet might be shelved until the second WSIS conference, scheduled for 2005 in Tunisia. But plainly it’s already out in the open. In addition to more government input into international Internet governance, a number of delegates to preparatory meetings have suggested national governments take over administration of their local Internet domains.

Abu-Ghazaleh presented his own proposal for a new, more international management of Icann at a private meeting on Tuesday.

He proposes that Icann be placed under the umbrella of the UN communications task force, which gives equal status to government, private sector and non-governmental organizations.

Under his plan, the United States would have permanent presidency of an ICANN oversight committee. The International Telecommunication Union – the United Nations agency organizing the summit – and the International Chamber of Commerce would also have permanent membership, as would the World Intellectual Property Organization and the UN Conference on Trade and Development.

Each of the world’s five continents would have one representative on the committee, elected “by the countries from the continent they represent”. Abu-Ghazaleh proposes. Icann itself would continue to be based in the United States, governed by U.S. law, “and the same people who now carry out the technical work would continue to do so.”

But according to an IDG reporter at the summit, quoting an ITU spokesman, others are still trying to diffuse the situation and push decisions over to Tunis by asking the UN to establish a committee to investigate Internet management and report back to the second part of the summit in 2005.

Twomey, as reported by the New York Times in a phone interview, said “At ICANN, anybody can attend meetings, appeal decisions or go to ombudsmen, and here I am outside a UN meeting room where diplomats – most of whom know little about the technical aspects – are deciding in a closed forum how 750 million people should reach the Internet. I am not amused.”

New Zealand’s delegation also includes Winston Roberts of the National Library, responsible for coordinating much of the government’s preparatory work, Tim Caughley New Zealand’s permanent representative to the UN and John Schuyt, a counselor in the country’s permanent UN mission.

New Zealand’s civil society grouping is represented by Ian Thomson of the 2020 Communications Trust, who is also part of the official NZ delegation. Thomson, who has co-ordinated much of NZ’s civil society deliberation in preparation for the conference was elected by online “acclamation” of contributors to the civil society mailing list.

The conference’s declaration of principles has shed a number of contentious alternative wordings, though the whole document is “in square brackets”, awaiting ratification.

A paragraph originally championing the use of open-source software has retained its later, more ambivalent wording. It recommends “increasing awareness among all stakeholders of the possibilities offered by different software models, including proprietary, open-source and free software, in order to increase competition, access by users, diversity of choice, and to enable all users to develop solutions which best meet their requirements.

“Affordable access to software should be considered as an important component of a truly inclusive information society,” the declaration adds.

In the face of resistance from some governments, the draft text also includes the full “freedom of information” clause from the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

“This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers,” the UN declaration says.

The draft WSIS text adds that “communication is a fundamental social process, a basic human need and the foundation of all social organization. It is central to the information society. Everyone, everywhere should have the opportunity to participate and no one should be excluded from the benefits the information society offers.”

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