Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 15 December 2003


BLURB:     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 our lives.

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 countries.

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 Fund.”

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 information society.

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 issue.

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 life.”

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 were emphasized.

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 formats.

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.