World Summit on the Information Society

At WSIS, in a climate of suppression of dissent, the score is 0-0.

The World Summit on the Information Society is supposed to formulate plans to end the “digital divide” and make the internet accessible to everyone on Earth. The negotiations were completed in November, so the big official meeting in Geneva last week was more of a trade show and conference than a real summit meeting.

The summit procedures were designed so that non-governmental organizations (mainly those that promote human rights and equality, and work to reduce poverty) could attend, see the discussions, and comment. However, the actual declaration paid little attention to the comments and recommendations that these organizations made. In effect, civil society was offered the chance to speak to a dead mike.

The summit's declaration includes little that is bold or new. When it comes to the question of what people will be free to do with the internet, it responds to demands made by various governments to impose restrictions on citizens of cyberspace.

Part of the digital divide comes from artificial obstacles to the sharing of information. This includes the licenses of nonfree software, and harmfully restrictive copyright laws. The Brazilian declaration sought measures to promote free software, but the US delegation was firmly against it (remember that the Bush campaign got money from Microsoft). The outcome was a sort of draw, with the final declaration presenting free software, open source, and proprietary software as equally legitimate. The US also insisted on praising so-called “intellectual property rights.” (That biased term promotes simplistic over-generalization; for the sake of clear thinking about the issues of copyright law, and about the very different issues of patent law, that term should always be avoided.)

The declaration calls on governments to ensure unhindered access to the public domain, but says nothing about whether any additional works should ever enter the public domain.

Human rights were given lip service, but the proposal for a “right to communicate” (not merely to access information) using the internet was shot down by many of the countries. The summit has been criticized for situating its 2005 meeting in Tunisia, which is a prime example of what the information society must not do. People have been imprisoned in Tunisia for using the internet to criticize the government.

Suppression of criticism has been evident here at the summit too. A counter-summit, actually a series of talks and discussions, was planned for last Tuesday, but it was shut down by the Geneva police who clearly were searching for an excuse to do so. First they claimed that the landlord did not approve use of the space, but the tenant who has a long-term lease for the space then arrived and said he had authorized the event. So the police cited a fire code violation which I'm told is applicable to most buildings in Geneva—in effect, an all-purpose excuse to shut down anything. Press coverage of this maneuver eventually forced the city to allow the counter-summit to proceed on Wednesday in a different location.

In a more minor act of suppression, the moderator of the official round table in which I spoke told me “your time is up” well before the three minutes each participant was supposed to have. She later did the same thing to the EPIC representative. I later learned that she works for the International Chamber of Commerce—no wonder she silenced us. And how telling that the summit would put a representative of the ICC at the throttle when we spoke.

Suppression was also visible in the exclusion of certain NGOs from the summit because their focus on human rights might embarrass the governments that trample them. For instance, the summit refused to accredit Human Rights In China, a group that criticizes the Chinese government for (among other things) censorship of the internet.

Reporters Without Borders was also excluded from the summit. To raise awareness of their exclusion, and of the censorship of the internet in various countries, they set up an unauthorized radio station in nearby France and handed out mini-radios, so that summit attendees could hear what the organization had been blocked from saying at the summit itself.

The summit may have a few useful side effects. For instance, several people came together to plan an organization to help organizations in Africa switch to GNU/Linux. But the summit did nothing to support this activity beyond providing an occasion for us to meet. Nor, I believe, was it intended to support any such thing. The overall attitude of the summit can be seen in its having invited Microsoft to speak alongside, and before, most of the various participating governments—as if to accord that criminal corporation the standing of a state.