WSIS – better late than never

by Maria on December 16, 2003

First off, apologies that the guest blogger I’d promised, Gus Hosein, didn’t manage to post. Gus had trouble logging in from Geneva, and as he’s no slouch with IT, I put it down to the dodgy wireless connections at the conference. (and yes, it’s pretty wild that a World Summit on the Information Society couldn’t get this right.)

Anyway, I’ve been mulling over the world summit for days now, trying to decide for myself what, if anything it all meant. I’ve even checked out the world summit blog by several young journalists imaginatively sponsored by the British Council, and some other accounts of the event. But the disparate nature of all that went on there means attempts at synopsis keep slipping through my fingers.

The difficulty in pinning down a result may be because most parties to the summit went there with the aim of checking the moves of their opponents. And everyone pretty much succeeded.

(Warning; it’s a very long post. Maybe you had to be there…)

The US government sent a tiny delegation, the UK delegation was smaller than expected, and the major IT company CEOs didn’t show at all. The vast majority of national delegates were from developing countries. Nothing wrong with that per se. Clearly the developing countries have a lot more to gain by turning up, and also a lot more work to do on ICT (information and communications) policies. However, I couldn’t help but suspect that the most developed countries were in Geneva primarily for damage control.

The developing countries, led by Senegal, came to the table wanting a Digital Solidarity Fund, and went away with their begging bowls empty. I have a lot of sympathy with the idea that developed countries should help roll out the infrastructure that heralds all the promised benefits of ICT. But setting up another UN agency – with all the administration costs, redundancy and politicking that go with it – was never going to give value for money. Perhaps the Senegalese would have gotten further if they’d pushed for better co-ordination or pooled allocation across UN agencies of existing funds for ICTs, a formal reporting and matching mechanism for public-private partnerships, or just about anything other than converting cash into bureaucracy. But they didn’t, and many of the developing countries are understandably bitter that the solidarity proposal got nowhere.

I’d love to write in detail about what transpired on internet governance. But, and I’m not trying to be coy here, my work is a little too close to that issue for comfort. All I can say is that I personally believe a proposal to control the DNS which both China and Egypt can agree on is not something those who value freedom of communication could support. Also, and there’s no way to say this without being condescending, many of the developing country delegates just did not seem to get what ICANN does. ICANN’s decisions can be and often are ‘political’ – in that they do have repercussions on how and what you find on the internet – but what it does is technical management, not ‘governance’, whatever that is. The internet is very important, and technical decisions matter. But that does not mean that every government in the world needs to weigh in on a naming and numbering system that, by and large, works. Ironically, the very kind of people the Swiss were intent on keeping out of the summit – the ones with sandals, long hair and attitude problems – are the ones who make the internet work every day, and not just when there’s a junket to Geneva in the offing.

Finally, freedom of expression. Well, here’s where I lost my remaining patience for the WSIS as a worthwhile political process. The final summit declaration was a wash-out which you can read for yourselves (page 8). But let me describe a high level round table I attended which gives an idea of just how these things run. It was called ‘diversity in cyberspace’(list of participants available here) and was chaired by the president of Latvia and moderated by BBC newsreader Nick Gowing. President Freiburga said the 2 hour session would cover three aspects of diversity; cultural diversity (preserving and digitalizing cultural heritage, diversity of languages), freedom of expression and media ownership, and law and ethics on the internet (censorship).

After an hour or so on cultural heritage and language diversity, Gowing said that he’d get to the other two topics in 20 minutes. He didn’t. No one objected. At the 90 minute mark, he still hadn’t. And, with 20 minutes to go, Gowing finally introduced the broad area of freedom of expression as one topic, at which point the Chair left the room and skipped half the remaining discussion. The discussion consisted of the journalists’ federation piping up on press freedom, and the governments of Morocco, Tunisia and Uganda rejoining that it was all very well, but just not for them, thank you. So a three-topic round table was chaired to ensure there was no meaningful discussion on two key topics that might prove uncomfortable to the country delegates. No one apart from civil society representatives spoke in favour of freedom of expression. A shaft if ever there was, and a telling one too.

There were of course some highlights; experiences and testimony that you could go a lifetime and not hear elsewhere. You don’t have to be a policy wonk to listen, rapt, as ministers from Lesotho and Iceland compare detailed notes on how to build communications infrastructure in countries where the terrain practically forbids it. I got pretty misty listening to Benin’s communications minister, Gaston Zossou, deliver a cry from the heart for lesser-spoken languages, arguing in perfect French that fluency was one thing, but the most intimate human thoughts can only be expressed in one’s mother tongue. And the Egyptian minister of communications responded so warmly to Lawrence Lessig’s description of the creative commons, that I thought he was going to bound over the table and kiss him.

All in all though, if you didn’t want to come home from the WSIS a hardened and cynical hack, the only thing for it was to avoid the empty political wrangling and head downstairs to the exhibition space where you could meet real people doing real things (or their bosses at least). ICT 4D was particularly impressive and, plug plug, the Irish government was there in force to launch the global e-schools initiative which has been spearheaded by the indefatigable Brendan Tuohy. It was much more heartening to hear about the projects linking ICT to development than to listen to the vacuous posturing upstairs. Though I couldn’t help suspect that much of this work goes on spite of, rather than thanks to, the policy process we’d all spent months on.

Would I do it again? Well, we all kind of have to. Roll on Tunis 2005.



Maria 12.16.03 at 6:08 pm

Andy Oram has written an excellent article on ICANN and the WSIS. He talks a lot of sense.


Mary Kay 12.16.03 at 8:37 pm

That ever doubtful source the Washington Times had a report of a discovery of RFID chips implanted in badges which I could have sworn I blogged about, but can now no longer find. Am I hallucinating? Is it a conspiracy? Did anything of the sort actually happen?

I did find the report online


Abusabletech 12.17.03 at 4:31 pm


Thought this might interest you (assuming you aren’t already aware of it!).

Abusable Technologies Awareness Center (ATAC) aims to provide current and accurate information about technology that oversteps its bounds. Whether the concerns relate to unexpected privacy violations or inappropriate security, ATAC serves as a clearinghouse for informed discussions. The panelists, all respected Computer Scientists introduce topics as new disclosures are made, and the forum is open to the public for discussion. This site is hosted at the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins University. or click the link below


Maria 12.18.03 at 9:49 am

Thanks very much abusabletech, I’ll check that out.

Mary Kay – you’re right, it turns out there were RFID tags in the I.D. badges we had to have. Privacy nut that I am, I’m amazed I never challenged the registration process with a query for how they were going to use my information. There were no privacy policies available, and I signed nothing to allow my personal data to be passed onto third parties. Judging from the amount of spam I’ve received from organisations tangentially connected to the WSIS, it’s plain that my email at least has been passed on without my consent – a clear violation of the Swiss data protection law.

This stuff may be of theoretical or relatively trivial interest to me, but for some of the NGO people there it would be very worrying that their personal data is passed along to, for example, the Tunisian government. I know some NGO people were planning to bring to the summit a Tunisian who had been jailed for posting political comment on the internet – for this guy, it would be no joke at all if his personal info was passed along.

Here’s the report on the issue which EPIC circulated in its newsletter yesterday;

“Privacy protection of civil society representatives attending the
Summit was called into question by a study highlighting technology
used in Summit security. Independent researchers attending the event
revealed security and privacy flaws in the security system used to
control access to the Summit. Security badges issued to participants
contained SmartCards and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). Such
technology can be triggered remotely without the cardholder noticing
and allowed cardholders to be tracked in their attendance at the
Summit. When participants were required to obtain security badges,
they were not informed of the possible surveillance and were not
provided with any information on privacy policies and procedures. “

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