NZ civil society readies net ideas for UN

New Zealand interests are gathering ideas for a "civil society" contribution to United Nations deliberations on the shape of the "information societies" of the future.

New Zealand interests are gathering ideas for a “civil society” contribution to United Nations deliberations on the shape of the “information societies” of the future.

The World Summit on Information Societies (WSIS) is to be held in Geneva in December 2003. A follow-up conference is scheduled for 2005 in Tunis.

Local interests led by Ian Thomson of the 2020 Communications Trust and Laurence Zwimpfer, New Zealand’s Unesco national commissioner, seek to raise a voice for civil society to put alongside the particular interests of government and IT and other industry sectors at the conferences.

Its immediate target is a report to the preliminary Geneva conference, PrepCom 2, which runs from February 17 to 28 (PrepCom 1, at which New Zealand was represented, was held last year).

Zwimpfer wants the Prime Minister to attend the main Geneva conference.

Representatives of community organisations, NGOs (non-governmental organisations), Maori, educational, disabled and other groups met last week in Wellington to formulate a report for PrepCom2. Discussion of priorities and possible conflicts ranged over coordination of civil society’s internet interests in New Zealand versus the traditional “anarchy” where everyone has an equal role; freedom of universal access versus preservation of national and local cultures and discouragement of “e-colonisation” from the US and Europe; freedom of information versus protection of intellectual property; and simplicity of web pages for universal speedy access versus the role of the medium as a showcase for New Zealand’s creative industries.

A representative of the Maori Internet Society, Ross Himona (pictured), disputed the validity of the much-bruited “digital divide” problem. Go to one of the poorer urban districts, he told attendees, and count the number of Sky TV dishes. People on low incomes will save to get the technology they want, he says. The problem with the internet is that people don’t want the “boring rubbish” that constitutes most of the information available; they want something that captures their interest, and that means entertainment.

He cites internet developments in American Samoa, the Solomon Islands and the island of Yap, working against formidable technology and local skills disadvantages, as evidence that successes in establishing internet infrastructure in remote areas were more successfully mediated by individual entrepreneurs or NGOs than by governments.

Distinctive cultures need to own the information about them on the internet, he says. “There are lot of people telling our [Maori] stories, or rather their versions of our stories [online] without asking us, and there’s a lot of rubbish out there. We should be producing our own content.”

He told of the unsuccessful attempt to register .ao as an internet country-code for Aotearoa.

“They told us .ao belonged to Angola. Well guess what? That wasn’t the country’s original name.”

Like New Zealand, it was bestowed by colonists — as were the internet country codes, he says.

“It’s a question of who controls the internet,” Himona says. “Access [to the internet] doesn’t concern me; diversity and control concern me.”

Himona also has no time for copyright, which he describes as an idea conceived simply to make money, and a latter-day equivalent of the fencing of common land.

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