Forward, backwards: ITU summit

Forward, backwards: ITU summit

Robert Clark

In the end, not much happened. The ITU’s World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) last month had shaped up as a showdown between rich developed nations and the developing world over issues on issues as diverse as Internet governance and the digital divide.

Yet, almost inevitably, the Geneva conference–intended to be an IT and telecoms version of the high-profile UN environmental summits–finished with a closing statement long on intentions but short on detail.

The event began by deferring one of the most contentious questions, a bid to place Internet governance under UN or ITU control, to a UN working party. (At present, US-based non-profit ICANN [Internet Committee on Assigned Names and Numbers] administers Web and email addressing.) The working group is asked to report ahead of the next WSIS, to be held in Tunisia in 2005.

The other big topic, plans for a digital development fund, foundered for lack of agreement on how to finance it.

In his closing remarks, ITU secretary-general Yoshio Utsumi identified Internet governance, access to technologies, investment, security, the development of applications, intellectual property rights and privacy as the key issues to be addressed.

Little visible progress was made in tackling any of these. Delegates contented themselves by with a final declaration that aimed to bring ICTs (to use ITU jargon) to within the reach or half the world’s population–and with all schools, villages, governments and hospitals–by 2015.

While the event boasted of the presence of “54 heads of state, prime ministers, presidents, vice-presidents and 83 ministers and vice ministers”, the summit failed to attract the support of the key G7 governments, in particular the US. Among the leading economies, only France was represented at head of government level through Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

Additionally, among the 10,000 delegates were few people who actually build and run networks and ICT businesses.

Pressure from countries like China, where dozens of Internet democracy activists languish in jail, prevented the declaration of principles of Internet freedom.

An activist group, Civil Society, criticized the outcome and also the decision to hold the next summit in Tunis, with its poor record on censorship and human rights.

The one success of the meeting was that it did place digital divide issues on the international agenda, if only fleetingly. The ITU did manage to secure a series of minor partnerships with Cisco, Microsoft and others for training, e-learning and similar projects.

The summit was also distracted by minor controversies, such as an attack on media representatives by a bodyguard for Zimbabwe Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, and the eviction by ITU officials of ICANN chief Paul Twomey from a meeting on Internet governance.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Advanstar Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group