Last December’s worldwide conference on the “information society” was useful, say both the government and civil society lobbyists, but few hard decisions were taken and New Zealand may be falling behind other countries in using ICT as a democratic tool.
Government and lobbyists see the World Summit on the Information Society as a worthwhile exercise in creating multinational awareness of the tasks ahead in disseminating information and communication technologies worldwide. But in perhaps the most relevant question for the ICT world, the governance of the internet, no conclusion was reached at the first phase of the WSIS conference, held in Geneva. A significant lobby is pushing for government control of national internet domains and overall supervision by an inter-governmental body such as the International Telecommunication Union.
“Governance of the internet was debated at length,” says Winston Roberts of the National Library, the chief organiser of the government’s input. “The role of the private sector was recognised, within a proposal for further UN-led study of internet governance issues.”
The issue will re-emerge at the second phase of the conference, scheduled for next year in Tunisia.
“Perhaps the biggest value of WSIS was the setting of the stage for a debate about this important aspect of modern society,” says civil society representative Ian Thompson. “The process may have been more important than the outcome.”
He is, however, disappointed with some aspects of the outcome, with New Zealand’s participation and evident stage of development, and with the government’s lack of response to civil society proposals.
“It became obvious during the many presentations and demonstrations in Geneva that the rest of the world is rapidly catching up to, and in many cases has already leapfrogged, New Zealand,” Thompson says.
“Developments in many countries are very advanced in terms of gaining full benefits from ICT and there is general global debate on how to use the technology to transform all facets of society such as democracy and transparency, social capital development, local economic development, knowledge networks and lifetime learning as well as the more established areas of remote learning, tele-health and e-government” — those New Zealand typically promotes as near-future opportunities.
The event was “a fertile ground for projecting New Zealand’s profile, not only through our presence, but our participation in many of the central events”, says Roberts.
Thompson, however, thinks New Zealand could have done more: “It was noted that New Zealand did not have a stand in the accompanying [ICT for Development exhibition], whilst Samoa, Bangladesh, Cuba, Nigeria and many so-called developing nations managed to fund such activities,” he says.
However, collaboration between New Zealand and Australian civil society delegations was encouraging and will stand as a basis for future co-operation. Australia’s civil society delegation was the only one to present a report of its own to the conference.
The developing countries, and Africa in particular, set great store by a proposal for a new “digital solidarity fund”, to help finance expansion of ICT in such countries. Others, particularly potential donor countries, opposed the proposal. In the end the official conference reached “agreement … on the need for further work on funding mechanisms for technology transfer for development”, says Roberts. The creation of such a fund, though not part of the summit’s formal declarations, was despite this announced at its conclusion, with the cities of Geneva and Lyon in France offering to administer it.
“In the plan of action [ratified by the conference] there are now clear references to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly concerning freedom of expression, and the need to balance the protection of intellectual property rights with the need to provide appropriate access to information,” says Roberts.
Conference papers can be read here.