World Summit on Information Society (WSIS): “Connecting the World”
Summit Breaks New Ground with Multi-Stakeholder Approach
Concrete Steps Taken in Plan of Action to Bridge the Digital Divide
Geneva, 26 September— Concrete targets have been set to overcome the global digital divide; many issues have appeared on the international agenda for the first time, and government representatives and other stakeholders have made progress on drafting the WSIS Plan of Action to be presented to Heads of State and Government.
The third Preparatory Conference (PrepCom-3) for the first-ever global summit on the information society, met from 15 to 26 September 2003. PrepCom-3 forged ahead with a common vision expressed in a Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action to connect the world and help to bridge the digital divide between developed and developing countries. The two documents will be submitted for the approval of Heads of State attending the first phase of the Summit from 10 to 12 December 2003 in Geneva. The second phase will be held in Tunisia from 16 to 18 November 2005.
“The Summit will be successful if it achieves three goals—raising awareness among world leaders of the implications of the information society; getting their firm commitment to tackle the injustice of the digital divide; and developing new legal and policy frameworks appropriate to cyberspace” said Mr. Yoshio Utsumi, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the lead UN organizing agency of WSIS. “The importance of communications and access to networks is no longer just a technical matter, but a fundamental policy goal for every nation”, added Mr.
WSIS heralds a radical departure from previous UN global conferences. Those who have a stake in the information society have come together to shape a common future based on information and communication technologies (ICTs). Governments, civil society, the private sector, non-governmental (NGOs) and international organizations and the media are all active players in this innovative process. This multi-stakeholder process is a bid to foster social inclusiveness and reflects the universal nature of an interconnected society. Representatives of stakeholder groups will participate with Head of States and Governments at roundtable sessions and will have an opportunity to report directly to the Plenary about their Summit-related activities.
In a groundbreaking development, non-governmental stakeholders were allowed to express their priorities in all meetings of the Plenary and its Subcommittees. Adama Samassékou, President of the Preparatory Committee, asked the participants to move from “input to impact” in working towards the construction of a real “world summit of solidarity”. Despite their frustrations with parts of the process, the positive engagement of the non-governmental stakeholders “is exerting a greater and concrete influence on the course of the debates”.
The State Secretary of Switzerland for WSIS and Director General of the Federal Office of Communications (OFCOM), Marc Fürrer, also hailed this as a positive development. “It is most important that the multi-stakeholder process is in place. We have had substantial and difficult discussions at PrepCom, and we have made progress on some fronts. Political negotiations have to start now to improve the Declaration”.
Some 1,600 delegates from UN Member States, intergovernmental organizations, civil society, the private sector and media attended the preparatory committee meeting for the two-phase Summit. More than 50 Heads of State and Government are expected to participate in the first phase of the Summit in December.
Plan of Action Targets Aligned with Millennium Development Goals
The WSIS Plan of Action sets out specific development targets aimed at extending access to ICTs to all, especially in the context of the internationally agreed development goals in the UN Millennium Declaration. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said that information technology should be used to improve quality of life, and promote peace and democracy. This is recognition that ICTs can improve the chances of poor countries to leapfrog the crucial missed stages of development by allowing them to reroute onto the digital expressway.
The Draft Plan of Action sets indicative targets improving connectivity and access in the use of ICTs in promoting the objectives of the Plan of Action, to be achieved by 2015:
a) to connect villages with ICTs and establish community access points;
b) to connect universities, colleges, secondary schools and primary schools with ICTs;
c) to connect scientific and research centres with ICTs;
d) to connect public libraries, cultural centres, museums, post offices and archives with ICTs;
e) to connect health centres and hospitals with ICTs;
f) to connect all local and central government departments and establish websites and email addresses;
g) to adapt all primary and secondary school curricula to meet the challenges of the Information Society, taking into account national circumstances;
h) to ensure that all of the world's population have access to television and radio services;
i) to encourage the development of content and to put in place technical conditions in order to facilitate the presence and use of all world languages on the Internet;
j) to ensure that more than half the world’s inhabitants have access to ICTs within their reach.
The Plan of Action also foresees the establishment of indicators to measure the goals set at the Summit, recognizing the need to establish international monitoring and benchmarking through comparable statistical indicators and other research.
The Road Ahead
As PrepCom-3 winds up, the major issues are on the table, ready to be taken up by Heads of State and Government at the December Summit meeting. These issues, identified by stakeholders of the information society represented at PrepCom-3, will call for the political commitment of the world’s highest level decision-makers as WSIS moves towards harmonizing its global vision.
Issues that are still to be resolved following PrepCom-3 include financing, Internet security and Internet governance.
Under review are ways to stimulate investment and fund development. Views differed on whether to use existing financing mechanisms or to create new ones. Developing countries in particular are strongly supporting the creation of a “digital solidarity fund”, but many also feel that existing financing mechanisms can be better leveraged.
The role of different software models in ensuring access for all to information and knowledge has raised intense debate. Many countries feel that “proprietary” software solutions—that are copyright protected—are not the optimum solution to meet all users’ needs, as they often entail higher costs and may restrict options. The importance of striking a balance between ensuring freedom of access to information, and protecting and stimulating innovation has also been recognized. The debate around international intellectual property rights (IPRs) relating to Internet content is still going strong.
Several countries raised Internet governance and security as fundamental issues calling for global cooperation. However, there is considerable disagreement regarding the ways in which this should be done. In recent years, the roles of intergovernmental, i.e. with multilateral cooperation between governments, and international bodies, i.e. organizations of international scope, in managing international-level Internet policy issues have been the subject of much international debate. This Summit is helping to focus international attention more firmly on this issue, with the involvement of all stakeholders.
Delegates will reconvene in Geneva from the 10th to 14th November 2003 to continue negotiations on the Draft Declaration of Principles and Draft Plan of Action, pending resources.
PREPCOM ROUND-UP : A SUMMARY OF ACHIEVEMENTS
Construction of a real “Summit of Solidarity”
A strong common will to harness ICTs for the benefit of all of humanity have been given concrete form in the Draft Declaration and Plan of Action. The Declaration sets out principles in line with the UN Millennium Development Goals and UN Charter, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Plan of Action contains more than 140 action items including on:
· Access to information and knowledge
· Capacity building
· Confidence, trust and security
· Building confidence, trust and security
· ICT-applications, including e-government, e-business, e-learning, e-health, e-environment, etc.
· Cultural and linguistic diversity
· Ethical dimensions
· International and regional cooperation
Making Technology More “Human”
Initially considered by some to be “technical” in approach, the two documents have been redrafted to contain numerous additions on the family, disadvantaged groups, developing country, rural and remote communities, capacity building, training and education, and local content development adapted to indigenous cultures.
Participants called for action lines that would further the empowerment of women and benefit the least developed countries (LDCs) through the use of ICTs. Stakeholder groups and Member States also stressed the importance of learning and skills acquisition, in particular for young people, girls, women, developing country populations and vulnerable groups. These aspects are reflected in particular in the sections of the Plan of Action dealing with capacity building, applications and cultural and linguistic aspects.
Concrete Action Points to Ensure “Access for All”
Proposed text for the Draft Plan of Action includes plans to encourage greater activity on the part of governments and other players to increase user access to ICTs. “Governments should … actively promote the use of ICTs as a fundamental working tool by their citizens and local authorities” states the text. Governments, along with other stakeholders, are also called upon to “establish sustainable multi-purpose community public access points, providing affordable or free-of-charge access for their citizens to the various communication resources, notably the Internet”.
But access points alone are not enough. “Sufficient capacity to provide assistance to users, in libraries, educational institutions, public administrations or other public places, with special emphasis on rural and underserved areas should also be offered, states the Plan.
Reflected in the Draft Declaration and Plan of Action is the need to strengthen global knowledge for development, the central role of universities, research institutions, libraries and archives in the dissemination of knowledge in the information society. Scientists and others called for greater access to scientific knowledge, which makes technical advances possible, and furthers human and social development.
Member State representatives also recognize the need for other stakeholders, not only those working at national government level, to promote e-governance. Included therefore, is the provision that “the international community and other stakeholders should support capacity building for local authorities in the widespread use of ICTs as means of improving local governance”.
Capacity Building for Vulnerable Groups – Stemming the “Brain Drain”
A major problem facing developing countries is that ICT-trained professionals are frequently “lost” to more developed economies. In answer to calls for the promotion of ICT enterprise, the Declaration of Principles recognizes the importance of enterprise to boost employment and local economic environments.
“Partnerships between developed and developing countries in research, manufacturing and marketing of ICTs are crucial for promoting capacity building and global participation in the information society. The manufacture of ICTs presents a significant opportunity for creation of wealth”, states the current Draft.
Dynamic International Dialogue on Difficult Topics
With a hugely diverse world population, and over 200 world economies represented at government level, the WSIS process has successfully brought all players round the same negotiating table to discuss even the most difficult topics.
Internet governance, the role of the media, financing mechanisms and security of information are among the most difficult areas identified during Summit negotiations. Not only have Member State and non-governmental stakeholders sat down together for long hours to debate the issues, but they have entered into real dialogue.
For instance, while the WSIS process has not sought to find any definitive answers on the question of international Internet governance, the current drafts of the Draft Declaration of Principles and the Plan of Action offer a number of proposals aimed at reflecting the ongoing debates.
Delegations have agreed on the fundamental sovereign right of countries on policy authority on Internet-related issues. They are also prepared to make the dialogue on international Internet governance an ongoing one. If PrepCom-3 negotiations do not resolve this issue, delegates are prepared to continue consideration of the issue with a view to seeking common ground by the 2005 phase of the Summit in Tunis.
Infrastructure and Enabling Framework for Development
Participants determined to work together to increase access to information and develop better communication infrastructure, including access to broadband; to build capacity; widen ICT applications; and foster cultural diversity.
Connectivity was also recognized as a central enabler in building an inclusive information society, for which affordable access remains a primary challenge to overcome. The Plan of Action explicitly states that infrastructure is “an essential foundation for the Information Society”, and lists actions conducive to improving these infrastructure and connectivity.
The Declaration encourages governments to foster a transparent and pro-competitive policy, legal and regulatory framework. Participants highlighted the need for the information society to support good governance; protect intellectual property; promote sustainable development; harmonize standards; and ensure effective management of the radio frequency spectrum in the public interest.
The World Summit on the Information Society provides a unique opportunity for all key stakeholders to develop a common vision and understanding and to address the whole range of relevant issues related to the Information Society.
It aims to bring together Heads of State, Executive Heads of the United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations, civil society entities, industry leaders and media representatives to foster a clear statement of political will and concrete plan of action to shape the future of the global information society and to promote the urgently needed access of all countries to information, knowledge and communication technologies for development.
The Summit has been endorsed by the UN General Assembly and will take place under the high patronage of Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, with the International Telecommunication Union taking the lead role in its preparation.
The Summit will be held in two phases: Geneva (10-12 December 2003) and Tunisia (16-18 November 2005).