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November 16, 2005

UN summit debates internet openness

With the tricky and relatively trivial issue of deciding who gets to oversee the internet's addressing systems behind it, the United Nations has got down to discussing what it knows how to debate better - human rights and economic development.

By CBR Staff Writer

The World Summit on the Information Society kicked off, with about 16,000 delegates, some of them heads of state from some of the 176 countries represented, gathering to discuss issues relating to internet governance and the digital divide.

Lower-level bureaucrats have already decided upon the language in documents that WSIS attendees will agree upon, so the summit proper is mainly an opportunity to vent political steam. And vent they did.

Tunisia, which is hosting the summit in its capital, Tunis, came in for early criticism, after its president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, suggested in his opening statement that some sort of control should be exercised over information available on the internet, to restrain those who would disseminate allegations and falsehoods.

These last few years have witnessed the emergence of certain types of use that shake confidence in the contents of the network and call into question the credibility of information sources and conformance with agreed-upon ethical standards, he said, through a UN translator.

While he said was eager to guarantee the free flow of information and knowledge without restrictions and constraints he said he thinks it necessary to set universal ethical standards that will stand as a rampart protecting our societies against the negative uses of modern communication.

Perhaps his comments lost something in translation. Perhaps he was referring to the evils of spam or child pornography. But many onlookers read his words as an attempted justification of Tunisia’s restrictive policies on online speech.

Tunisian human rights groups claim that a reporter, Muhammad Abou, was arrested last March and imprisoned for three years after publishing an article on a web site comparing Ben Ali to Israel’s Ariel Sharon.

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This kind of story led to conspiracy theories in Tunis recently, when a French reporter in town writing stories critical of Tunisia’s human rights record was stabbed, beaten and robbed in the street.

While Americans gear up to fight to keep network neutrality in the US, in the face of threats from their legislators and carriers, it’s easy to forget not everybody has it so good.

The Swiss president, Samuel Schmid, followed Ben Ali onto the WSIS stage minutes later, and was anything but neutral, dropping barely concealed criticisms of the host nation into his prepared speech.

It is unacceptable that the UN still has members that imprison their citizens because of what they have written on the internet or in the press, Schmid said. As far as I’m concerned, it goes without saying that here in Tunis – inside these walls as well as outside – everyone can express themselves freely.

This first locking of horns, and the resulting media coverage, was perhaps evidence of the success of the UN’s nuanced strategy, which had been criticized by commentators in the US, of holding a conference devoted to promoting the information society in a country with a questionable record on freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech was a key concern in the lead-up to WSIS, as diplomats struggled to reach consensus on what constituted internet governance and whether governance could be exercised via control of the internet’s addressing systems.

Some of the countries that were pushing for this control, currently exercised by ICANN and the US government, to be transferred to a multilateral forum of governments, are also the same countries on human rights groups’ watch-lists. China and Iran, for example.

But WSIS has already decided not to do this, mainly because the US steadfastly refused to relinquish its unilateral powers and the deal was reached by consensus, not voting. This kind of process creates a lowest-common denominator agreement.

As the leader of Chinese delegation said recently, when the final stage of the governance debate kicked off: I myself have been working in this dirty business of multilateralism for over 20 years… My understanding is that consensus is give-and-take, consensus means something that will be equally bitter and equally unacceptable for everyone.

The consensus ultimately reached in many regards endorses the status quo. The US gets to retain oversight of ICANN, and ICANN gets to make policy decisions regarding the internet’s naming and addressing systems.

With his organization out of the hot seat, left unscathed by the WSIS process, ICANN president Paul Twomey, arguably walking on political eggshells pre-WSIS, talked frankly with reporters at a midnight press conference.

ICANN came under such scrutiny in part due to a large degree of ignorance about how the internet works and what ICANN does, he said, repeating comments he made after earlier WSIS meetings. Ninety percent of what the UN does is education, he added.

He also related a couple of anecdotes he said he picked up from talking to Chinese and Iranian reporters, and from a dinner party at the Tunisian presidential residence.

It turns out the word ‘governance’ only has a clear meaning in English and French. It doesn’t translate well into other languages and it was often misinterpreted to ‘government’, he said. I think linguistics played a part.

Twomey said that he did not think WSIS was not worthwhile, however, and he said the outcome had been a good one. When, over dinner, a delegate from the private sector had asked a UN official whether the whole debate was a waste of money, the answer was interesting.

It’s all about process, Twomey said. The entire annual budget of the United Nations would cost you less than the first day of a war. In many ways, the UN process is about keeping governments talking to each other.

Given that the worst-case scenario of a failed WSIS was the economic nuclear option of countries fragmenting their networks from the rest of the internet, perhaps that observation could apply well to for WSIS too.

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