by Martin Khor
UN SUMMIT ADOPTS PRINCIPLES FOR THE INFORMATION AGE
A World Summit on the Information Society held in Geneva last week adopted
a declaration and action plan aimed at a people-oriented information society
where everyone can create, access and share information and knowledge.
It had many of the right principles and action proposals. But due to
basic disagreements, decisions were postponed on two key issues (global
internet governance and creating a Digital Solidarity Fund) whilst another
key issue (intellectual property) was hardly addressed.
The “information society” was
the subject of a United Nations world conference last week in Geneva.
Fittingly so, as the use of computers, e-mail and the internet is so rapidly
changing the way society works. And how we, as individuals, organize
In fact there were two parallel
events at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) on 9-11 December.
The first was the official
meeting of government leaders and policy makers, which included several
heads of government, especially from Africa, and many Ministers. On Friday
night, they adopted a Declaration and a Plan of Action, aimed at providing
the future global framework on information.
The second was a range of seminars,
forums and exhibitions by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), international
agencies, and companies. These raised all kinds of issues including the
role of information and communications technology (ICT) in poverty reduction,
setting up of community-based radio stations, and empowering indigenous
people, young people, and women to use ICTs.
The rise of the internet has
of course given rise to a thriving civil society. Some of its representatives
were there, espousing the cause of the poor, defending cultural diversity,
and the need to curb the growing powers of the transnational companies
that own and control the levers and instruments of ICTs.
Malaysia was prominent at the
Summit, with exhibits in a large Malaysian pavilion,
sessions on its ICT policy
and applications and the Energy, Communications and Multimedia Minister
Datuk Amar Leo Moggie, involved in a special BBC television panel discussion.
The Malaysian impact was also
spread by the status and activities of the Global Knowledge Partnership
(GKP), a network of a hundred private organizations and government agencies,
that has its international secretariat in Kuala Lumpur.
The GKP co-organised with the
Swedish Agency for Development the biggest event of the Summit – the ICT
for Development Platform, which brought together many hundreds of forums
and seminars and over a hundred exhibits for people to showcase their
work and ideas.
The executive director of the
GKP, Rinalia Abdul Rahim, gave a young, dynamic and very Malaysian image
to the GKP and the Platform, for example speaking forcefully while reporting
on the GKP activities at the official Summit’s packed last plenary session.
Malaysians are in quite a good
position to take part in the debates on the good and bad effects of ICT,
and on what the world and each society can or should do about it.
The Geneva Summit is only the
first leg. There will be a second phase of the Summit in Tunis in 2005,
with a preparatory meeting in 2004. So the debates and policy wrangles
will go on.
Wrangling over some controversial
issues at one stage threatened the Summit outcome. They remained unresolved,
to the bitterness of many developing country leaders. But they will continue
to the debated and decided on at the Tunis Summit of 2005.
One major issue was governance
of the internet. At present, the issuance of internet domain names is
administered by a private organization, ICANN, based in San Francisco.
Many developing countries argued that the administration of domain names
and other aspects of global internet management should come under an inter-governmental
body, such as the International Telecommunications Union.
This was strongly resisted
by some developed countries, and by the big corporations, that would rather
that the private sector continue to run the show.
In the end, the Summit decided
to postpone taking a decision, and instead asked the UN Secretary General
Kofi Annan to set up a working group to propose “appropriate action” on
internet governance by 2005 so that the Tunis meeting can make a decision..
The group will develop a “working
definition” of internet governance, identify public policy issues, develop
a common understanding on the roles and responsibilities of governments,
existing international agencies, and other forums, and the private sector
and civil society.
The second major contentious
issue was how to finance the many fine proposals in the Summit’s action
plan to bridge the digital divide and upgrade facilities in the poorer
The developing nations proposed
the concept of a Digital Solidarity Agenda to mobilize resources for inclusion
of all men and women in the emerging Information Society. This was accepted.
But their proposal for a Digital
Solidarity Fund to finance the Agenda was turned down by the donor developed
countries, some of which claimed that existing amounts and channels of
aid were enough.
This caused many Third World
leaders and diplomats to complain that the fine sentiments of the Summit
Declaration and Action Plan would eventually mean nothing concrete for
their countries, since the financial means of implementing the proposed
actions would not be there.
Again, a final decision on
this divisive issue was turned over for the 2005 Tunis meeting to make.
And again, the UN Secretary General was asked to set up a task force,
to review the adequacy of existing financial mechanisms to meet the challenges
of ICT for development.
Based on this review, improvements
and innovations of financing mechanisms will be considered, including
the effectiveness, feasibility and creation of a “voluntary Digital Solidarity
A third contentious issue,
which did not get as much play as the other two, is how the increasing
levels of intellectual property rights are curbing the dissemination of
information as well as raising the cost of information and communications.
This of course affects the access of the public, especially of the poor,
to information and to the use of ICT.
Some NGOs and research organizations
are increasingly taking up this issue, pointing out that the principles
and actions promoted by the Summit on access to all and participation
by all to the information society were being undermined by the monopolizing
power of corporations making use of existing and new intellectual property
rights regimes such as copyright. This has enabled the high prices for
software and may lead in future to restrictions on and increasing costs
of data transmitted through the internet.
In the official Declaration,
the subject is inadequately treated. Paragraph 42 states that intellectual
property protection is important to encourage innovation and creativity
in the information society but similarly the wide dissemination, diffusion
and sharing of knowledge is important to encourage innovations and creativity.
It adds that facilitating participation
by all in intellectual property issues and knowledge sharing through full
awareness and capacity building is a fundamental part of an inclusive
The Declaration thus tries
to strike a balance between intellectual property protection (which grants
monopoly and restricts access) and the need for dissemination and sharing
of knowledge, and asks that everyone be empowered to debate and decide
on these issues. Needless to say, this issue will return in a bigger
way in future as questions are raised whether the Summit’s aims and plans
are being hindered.
The Declaration and Action
Plan touch quite comprehensively on various aspects of the information
Under “our common vision”,
the government leaders declare their common commitment to build a “people-centred,
inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone
can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, enabling
individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in
promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of
The Declaration reaffirms the
right to freedom of opinion and expression, and that communication is
a basic human need central to the information society.
It says that ICTs are tools
and not an end in themselves, that the benefits of information technology
are unevenly distributed, and the digital divide should turn ointo a digital
opportunity for all. The needs of marginalized and vulnerable groups
The Declaration then states
eleven key principles, including: the shared roles of governments and
all atskeholders in promoting ICTs for development; the need to develop
ICT infrastructure including to reach to remote areas; and the ability
for all to access and contribute information (stressing the need for a
rich public domain, and affordable access to software).
Other principles include capacity
building (where skills to take part in the information society and made
available to all); building confidence and security in the use of ICTs;
creating an enabling environment (including through regulations, fair
competition, standards and proper internet governance).
ICT applications should benefit
all aspects of life (such as government operations, health, education,
business, agriculture, environment, culture, poverty eradication); there
should be respect for cultural identity and cultural and linguistic diversity
and the creation and dissemination of content in diverse languages and
The Declaration reaffirmed
freedom of the press and information, stressed the ethical dimensions
of the information society (with all actors asked to prevent abusive use
of ICTs motivated by racism, hatred, violence, child abuse, etc.) and
urged international and regional cooperation.
The other document, the Plan
of Action, contains 147 action proposals, following closely the 11 principles
of the Declaration.
No doubt these Summit documents
will be widely used as reference points for the rights, principles and
actions agreed to by governments in relation to the information age.
But there are many critical
unresolved issues, as touched on above.
And civil society groups are
not satisfied with the results of the official meeting. They issued their
own Declaration, "Shaping Information Societies for Human Needs”,
which was also presented to governments at their final official session.
The NGOs said the Summit documents over-stressed business interests.
They were especially critical of adverse effects of intellectual property
regimes which "monopolized knowledge and information".
The vast majority of humankind has no access to the public domain of global
knowledge. Yet, instead of extending and strengthening the global domain,
recent developments are restricting information more and more to private
hands with patents being extended to software for example.
The NGOs called for free software
to be promoted, with its freedoms of use for any purpose. The UN should
carry out a review of the impact on poverty and human
rights of current arrangements for recognition and governance of monopolized
knowledge and information, including the work of the World Intellectual
Property Organisation (WIPO) and the World Trade Organisation.
They added that efforts should
be made to limit intellectual monopolies, stimulate innovation and reward
initiative, rather than keeping knowledge in private hands
until it is of little use to society.
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