WSIS: Net summit ends but talks continue

As the first-ever global Net summit ended Friday evening in Geneva five years after the idea was hatched in Minneapolis, Minn., some are calling it a success, others are labeling it a failure while still others view it as a bit of both.

Some 13,000 people participated in the consensus-driven policy-making process of the United Nations (U.N.), which hosted the three-day World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

Government delegates adopted two documents, a declaration of principles and an action plan, designed not only to ensure freedom of speech in the information society and bring computers and Internet access to remote villages in poor nations but also to open broader debate about sensitive issues, such as Internet governance and a digital solidarity fund.

The summit was a “success” in view of the documents adopted, the number and variety of participants who helped craft them and the quality of their dialog, Pascal Couchepin, the president of Switzerland, said in a news conference.

Success was the word used by Yoshio Utsumi, secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), to describe the first phase of the two-phase summit. The event, he said, was the “first time in the history of the world” when all governments shared several key principles of the information society and agreed to an action plan.

Less willing to heap words of praise on the summit were numerous members of the Civil Society representing a wide range of interests from human rights to free software. Although invited to participate in a U.N. summit for the first time, many felt left out of the policy-making process and voiced some frustration with the outcome.

“We thought we would be able to help formulate public polices on the Internet,” said Adam Peake, a spokesperson for the Civil Society caucus on Internet governance. “Although we were invited to submit papers, we were given only minutes to present our positions. The governments hopped right into policy-making behind closed doors.”

Peake referred to the Geneva summit as a “missed opportunity” and the declaration of principles and the action plan as “sterile” documents. Admitting that a U.N.-organized summit is a give-and-take process, Utsumi said that “not all states are satisfied with the results; no one can be 100 per cent satisfied in this consensus-making environment.”

The head of the ITU also conceded that the second summit, scheduled to take place in Tunis, Tunisia, in 2005, needs some changes. “The first summit was a really long process involving not three preparatory talks but six and many other meetings that consumed hours,” Utsumi said. “The entire process has to be more efficient and faster.”

Asked if WSIS was a failure because governments couldn’t agree on funding Internet expansion in poorer nations, Nitin Desai, special advisor to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said no. “At all the U.N. conferences I’ve attended over the past 10 years, financing has always been an issue,” he said. “But the U.N. doesn’t write checks. No U.N. conference is a pledging conference.”

For the most part, U.S. delegates are satisfied with the outcome of the first summit. So are the European Union and many other industrialized nations. Less happy are many of the developing nations, particularly in Africa, whose Internet needs were initially meant to be the primary focus of the summit. Their hope to receive a commitment in Geneva from the developed nations for a digital solidarity fund will have to wait for the Tunis summit — or longer still.