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Berkman Briefing: WSIS – Conference Hype or Lasting Change?

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In terms of size alone, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was a stunning achievement: 11,000 official participants representing 176 nations convened in Geneva for four days to discuss the future of information and communication technologies (ICTs).  More than fifty heads of state and 970 press people attended, making it a benchmark in Internet history.  But now that the diplomats have returned home and trade-show representatives have repacked their wares, it is time to consider whether WSIS was simply an exercise in summit formalities or an event that left a lasting impact on future of the Internet.

1.0 The Documents

In order to assess the legacy of WSIS, the most obvious place to turn is its paper trail – the record of official UN agreements.  While specific committees at the Summit produced a number of written reports, the only two documents that received approval by the entire body are the Declaration of Principles and the Plan of Action.

The Declaration establishes a foundation of common goals among participants.  It is not a selective foundation: the list encompasses nearly every human-rights related theme supported by the UN, including goals like alleviating poverty, expanding education, combating AIDS, promoting environmental sustainability, and advancing peace.  In fact, the list is so far-reaching that no single message or clear set of priorities emerges. 

The purpose of the Plan of Action is to translate these goals into specific steps, but its provisions are also far from concrete.  Governments are encouraged to begin “structured dialogue involving all relevant stakeholders” and to “encourage initiatives to facilitate accessibility of ICTs.”  At its most specific, the Plan calls on the UN Secretary General to “set up a working group on Internet governance” – a task force to examine the structure of ICANN and its contractual ties to the U.S. Department of Commerce.  In each of these cases, rather than providing implementation guidelines, the Plan refers issues to a committee for further study.

2.0 The Dissent

Not surprisingly, the declarations left many participants and guests unsatisfied.  Representatives of NGOs, health organizations, religious groups, and other nonprofits banded together under the umbrella of “Civil Society” to issue a counter-statement entitled “Shaping Information Societies for Human Need.”

The Civil Society statement places stronger emphasis on the perspective of the individual, rather than the government or other institutions, and focuses on concerns like the “Digital Divide” and the need to respect human diversity.  One might expect the Civil Society agreement to propose a more aggressive agenda for guiding ICT development and to criticize the ambiguity of the Declaration of Principles.  But the Civil Society statement shares the same weaknesses as the Summit agreements: it establishes broad goals like promoting gender equality, non-discrimination, the eradication of poverty, the advancement of workers’ rights, education of children, and international justice through the use of ICTs without offering clear strategies to achieve these ends.

3.0 The Reality

The agreements create a blurry picture for the future of ICTs.  No single priority or set of concerns emerge in the historical record of the Summit.  But the lasting impact of WSIS is likely to be more subtle and varied than any of these documents suggest.

Simply by bringing so many stakeholders to the same place, WSIS helped stimulate partnerships.  Colin Maclay, a Berkman Center Fellow and Summit attendee, recalls one such interaction when he bumped into the former president of the Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernández, in the lobby of a hotel.  As Maclay explains, “We had worked together in the past, and he asked us to play a role in their future ICT planning.”  Though this type of international collaboration is not reflected in the official paper trail, WSIS helped facilitate ground-level connection that will bring ICTs to a more prominent place on the world stage.

As the dust from Geneva settles, a difficult question clouds the Summit’s future: will Tunis in 2005 become simply another exercise in committee meetings and proclamations of unfulfilled goals, or can WSIS justify its status as an attention-getter and move the world closer to achieving its established objectives?

Different Perspectives on the Summit

In partnership with the Berkman Center, the journal Information Technologies and International Development (ITID) is dedicating a special issue to a discussion of the Summit.  The goal of the issue is to offer different viewpoints about WSIS that will help chart a course toward Tunis in 2005.  Read the Call for Submissions.

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