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Debriefing on

World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)
Intersessional Meeting, Paris, July 15-18

by Georg C. F. Greve <greve@fsfe.org>


The main documents for the WSIS, namely the "Declaration of Principles" and the "Plan of Action" had become very big, sometimes self-contradicting and almost unreadable due to the many comments and contributions incorporated. Therefore, the purpose of this intersessional meeting in Paris was to go through the documents for the WSIS and get them into a more concise, clear and workable shape; so they would provide a good basis for further discussion at PrepCom-3 in Geneva, Switzerland from 15 to 26 September 2003.

With the WSIS being a UN conference, the countries were invited to send delegations for the official negotiations, civil societies, business and international organisations were admitted as mere observers.

Thanks to the intensive discussions between the German WSIS coordination circle of civil societies and the German government, one representative of both business and civil societies was incorporated into the official German delegation, which finally consisted of

Procedural Overview

After the president of the PrepCom, Mr. Adama Samassékou, opened the session, Mrs. Lyndal Shope-Mafole from South Africa was elected chairperson of the intersessional meeting.

After the statements of observers, which took place each morning at the beginning of the plenary, she sought to quickly go through the documents paragraph by paragraph and simply tag those paragraphs for later examination where any country sees need for discussion without going into the text directly.

Although she tried hard to stick to this procedure, it appears that many delegates were trying to get into the discussion of the paragraphs already, so by 16:30 of the first day, only paragraph 38 of the draft Declaration of Principles was reached.

The second day continued as slowly as the first and by the end of the day, working groups were formed to discuss issues that arose during the plenary session. The four ad-hoc working groups that were formed dealt with "Good Governance", "Communication Rights" (Chair: Canada), "Cybersecurity & Privacy" (Chair: EU) and "Internet Governance" (Chair: Kenya).

Of most interest for civil societies were the groups on Communication Rights, Cybersecurity & Privacy and Internet Governance, all of which were open at least to observers from civil societies, sometimes they were given permission to speak.

Also, Switzerland and the USA were asked to come up with a new draft of the part about Free Software and open standards after the United States had announced having problems with that particular part.

After further discussions on day three, a revised version of the Declaration of Principles, containing the results of the working groups was to be made available at 16:00 and briefly skimmed through at 17:00. This session also turned into a more lengthy discussion that was then ended rather forcefully by the chairperson at 19:00 after she had issued repeated warnings about doing so from the start.

Day four again started with some discussions -- in particular about the civil societies contribution -- and brief comments regarding the Plan of Action before another version of the draft Declaration of Principles was made available.

Outside that framework, the EU countries had a coordination meeting each morning at 8:00 and intermediate meetings after new draft versions had been given out. Also, the Western European and Others Group (WEOG) met at 9:15 on the first, second and third day for intergovernmental coordination.

The civil societies and their thematic groups had multiple coordination meetings during these four days, at which thematic issues and the statements by the civil societies were discussed and coordinated.

Besides small, informal ad-hoc meetings, the German civil societies held one coordination meeting on day two at 11:00.

There was considerable questioning of the drafting process both inside and outside the plenary, as the compromises found in the working groups did not seem to have found their way directly into the draft and some parts were without identifyable source or modified in a way that the party it was accredited to didn't feel it was treated adequately.

Also the up to four layers of square brackets in the text met some scepticism among the political delegates, who hadn't seen precedence for this in any international conference.

Overall, a sense that the version of day three was of higher quality than the version distributed on day four seems to have been almost commonly accepted.

Thematic Overview

There were several topics that dominated the discussions at the intersessional meeting in Paris -- especially those for which ad-hoc working groups were formed.

Political impressions

Regarding internet governance, a reformed ICANN seems like the most likely outcome, since the USA are taking a strong position on this and no EU country seems to be so much in disagreement to actually oppose them on this matter.

It seems that for the human rights issues, the situation is very complex, but with the exception of single countries like Brazil, no country is willing to risk going beyond what was known in 1948.

So we are currently facing the risk that the only occurence of human rights in the knowledge society will be references to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Millennium Declaration but no explicit statement.

With respect to the cybersecurity & privacy issue, it seems that the EU proposal -- which is substantially not very far from what the civil societies are proposing -- currently has found strong support.

Russia is pressing hard for a more restrictive regime, though, and it does not seem unlikely the USA will join forces with them. So given that the EU is currently very careful about alienating the USA, this situation should probably not be considered stable.

Regarding the Digital Solidarity Fund, it seems unlikely that in the event it will be created there will be resonable funds made available for it. Also its creation seems unlikely given the amount of resistance particularly among the wealthier nations.

From a civil societies viewpoint, it would seem more useful to concentrate on the systematic approach.

So focussing on making the system more just instead of pushing for a (probably insignificant) fund -- that would then have to push money against the slope created by a more inequal system -- seems like a sane strategy.

Closely related to issues of human rights, cybersecurity, industrial control of information and privacy is the Free Software question. Free Software as a paradigm provides each human being equal access to the cultural technique that software has become. It empowers the individual regardless of origin, belief or nationality and provides one seminal pillar on which informational self-determination is based.

From an economic point of view, the Free Software paradigm allows sustainable development and a system without the strong monopolising tendencies of the proprietary software system. Freedom of markets is one of the freedoms that Free Software can help uphold.

Unfortunately, the USA were quite successful in their attempt at marginalising Free Software as the "Open Source development model."

They were in fact so successful that even some civil society members were accepting that marginalisation, equally using the "Open Source" terminology to refer to Free Software.

Particularly the question of industrial control of information -- usually summarised under the acronym IPR, suitably expanded as "Intellectual Poverty Rights" -- will become crucial for the information and knowledge society.

Governments around the world seem under immense pressure by the industry to leave these issues to the WIPO and WTO, which are both strongly influenced by the industry. Although the WSIS cannot ignore these organisations, leaving the issue of industrial control of information out of the WSIS would make it useless.

Instead the WSIS would provide an excellent possibility to -- in dialog and cooperation with WIPO and WTO -- reexamine some of the established policies in the light of the information age, allowing to get rid of those that prove unsuitable for this new era.

Future options

Germany was -- to the authors knowledge -- one of three countries taking a civil society representative into their official governmental delegation (the other two were Switzerland and Denmark).

This was a visible sign of a general undercurrent which seemed to permeate a lot of the WSIS intersessional meeting. A new understanding by the governments that civil societies have substantial contributions to make to the WSIS process.

So it seems settled that the German government will hold more meetings with the governmental, business and civil society sector involved to come to a German position to the WSIS.

Something similar might be possible on a European Union scale and was raised during the intersessional meeting in Paris. Getting the European civil societies together and finding political support for that kind of interface would provide an excellent opportunity to help the WSIS do what it set out to do.

Personal remarks

While from the civil society side it is sometimes easy to overestimate the power of governmental delegates or get the impression everything was much more transparent to them, governmental representatives sometimes seem encouraged to feel civil societies don't understand the political process or make unrealistic demands.

For these reasons, participation inside the German governmental delegation was an important step as it helped building trust, understanding and confidence from both sides.

Inside the German delegation, the governmental representatives were very open, helpful and cooperative. They were always willing to answer questions about the processes, the background and the issues.

Also, once enough trust had grown to know that no unwarranted statements would be made on behalf of Germany, they encouraged to raise some of the issues with the other governmental delegates directly. This may not become immediately visible, but it did allow at times to raise the right point at the right time, which sometimes can make a big difference.

Overall, the combined and coordinated approach with one representative inside the governmental delegation and some people in the civil society coordination process worked very well and is a model worth building upon for the future.

Regarding the WSIS

From the viewpoint of civil societies, we have to make sure that human rights, privacy, industrial control of information and Free Software are put into right perspective and not left out of the WSIS.

The biggest lack that seemed to permeate the whole intersessional meeting was lack of vision for the knowledge society and lack of courage trying to create a truly visionary Declaration of Principles for it.

So it seems that the governments of this planet are currently on the brink of missing one very important and possibly groundbreaking opportunity.

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