Development & Aid, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

WSIS: Private Sector Advances In Public Space

Hilmi Toros* - TerraVivaIPS

TUNIS, Nov 18 2005 (IPS) - The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) concluded Friday night with claims of success by the United Nations, governments and the private sector, but civil society refused to wholeheartedly embrace its outcome.

“Success or failure is too strong to characterise the summit,” Anriette Esterhuysen, executive director of the civil society group Association for Progressive Communications told TerraViva-IPS. “Let’s say the summit has been valuable. The impact is yet to be seen.”

Civil society achieved a breakthrough, she said, by gaining recognition as a “stakeholder” in the Forum on Internet Governance along with governments, the private sector and international organisations. But in the face of unyielding opposition from the United States, it failed in efforts to wrest control of Internet management. A Tunis Commitment at the closure of the summit had participants pledging “to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented information society” so that “people everywhere can create access, utilise and share information and knowledge.” The Commitment also stressed that “freedom of expression and the free flow of information, ideas and knowledge, are essential for the information society and development.”

“Results are very positive and balanced,” Sarbuland Khan of the UN, coordinator of the task force on information communication and technology, told TerraViva-IPS. “There is now a clear understanding that such issues cannot be solved alone, but only through alliances.”

Civil society groups said in a joint statement that the proposed forum includes them but lacks detail and has a lifespan of only five years, subject to extension. It is more known for what it cannot do rather than what it can: it has no oversight or management role.

Also under attack by civil society is the lack of any new mechanism for financing. There is a fund for Internet development, but participation in it is voluntary and there is uncertainty about any donors apart from France.

Another civil society demand is the establishment of an independent commission “to review national and international ICT regulations and practices compliant with human rights standards.”

If civil society did not get its way at the summit, the private sector appears to have done so. Big business played a role in preventing moves to place Internet management under the control of a multilateral unit. Its goods and gadgets dominated exhibitions, and contacts were made that are sure to bring additional business in due time.

As the summit concluded, the prevailing feeling is that the private sector, shut out of summits and other major inter-governmental meetings until a few years ago, is on the march to increased influence in global affairs beyond just business. It had strong and coordinated representation through the International Chamber of Commerce and other well-funded organisations, while civil society organisations lacked any unified structure.

At the same time, the private sector is also showing a more caring attitude, as multinationals, once under suspicion by the development community, now go after a slew of partnerships with governments, the United Nations and NGOs in the developing world.

“There is a strong thirst for involvement in development,” says the UN’s Khan, who spent time with executives of Siemens, Microsoft and others during the three-day summit.

“Finally, there is full and accepted realisation that the private sector should participate in development,” says Gora Datta, president of the U.S. software company Cal2Cal. He adds that it is also good for business to be able to reach much of the world’s population in emerging markets.

Gadgetry outshone the participants. There was what could be called a ‘machine of the summit’, a simple 100 dollar laptop. It is powered by a wind-up crank and consumes very little energy. It was developed by Prof Nicholas Negroponte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At the unveiling of the so-called Green Machine, Negroponte said millions could be sold in the developing world within a year. He told the summit that several thousands would be produced this year, and more than 100 million by the end of 2007. Brazil, Thailand, Egypt and Nigeria are candidates to receive the first wave of laptops starting in February or March, and each will buy at least one million units.

Security was tight at the summit, with numerous checkpoints around the conference site on the shore of the capital. Although there were no major public demonstrations, protests were directed at the Tunisian government by civil society members, the media and even the United States government over freedom of expression and human rights issues.

As the summit was ending, Steve Buckley of the Internal Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), a coalition of 14 NGOs, issued an appeal to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for a formal investigation into the treatment of journalists by Tunisian authorities, including the reported stabbing of a French journalist, the denial of entry to Tunis of others and cases of harassment within the city.

The U.S. delegation, in a press note, expressed its “disappointment” over the lack of freedom of expression and assembly in Tunis.

The summit drew, by official estimates, over 18,000 people. Civil society members were the largest group with 5,864, followed by government with 5,782. The private sector was also strong with 3,981 members present and the media had 1,218 accredited representatives.

Of 44 heads of state or government present at the summit, most were from Africa – and only one from a developed nation, Switzerland. Swiss President Samuel Schmid was blunt with his open criticism of the Tunisian government over human rights issues, and his speech was censored by Tunisian television.

 
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Development & Aid, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

WSIS: Private Sector Advances In Public Space

Hilmi Toros* - TerraViva/IPS

TUNIS, Nov 18 2005 (IPS) - The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) concluded Friday night with claims of success by the United Nations, governments and the private sector, but civil society refused to wholeheartedly embrace its outcome.
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