[spectre] notes on the world summit on the info society (geneva, dec. 2003)

geert lovink geert@xs4all.nl
Sun, 29 Dec 2002 10:31:38 +1100

Swiss Coalition News, Nr. 33, December 2002

World Summit on the Information Society

A vessel adrift

For lack of leadership, clear vision and real political will, preparations
for the World Summit on the Information Society are off to a difficult
start. Although frustrated, civil society is getting organized. In
Switzerland, a platform has just been created bringing together media
professionals and NGOs.

The countdown has started. The first phase of the World Summit on the
Information Society (WSIS) will take place on 10-12 December 2003 in Geneva
and the second is scheduled for 2005 in Tunis. An important topic:
information and communication technologies (ICTs) - the Internet first and
foremost - are not only the drivers of economic and financial
globalisation, but also powerful vehicles for ideas and images that are
shaping our vision of the world and our consumption patterns. Hence the
substantial stakes involved, in terms of access (digital divide), power
(concentration of the media), democracy (freedom of expression), and
cultural diversity (macdonaldisation). These issues become even more
crucial considering the great chasm between the info-rich and the info-
poor, and that information as a commodity most often wins out over
information as a human right or a public good.

Yet, one year before the Summit, the mix still seems all wrong. States are
lacking in political will, enterprises are just beginning to wake up, civil
society is struggling to mobilize beyond specialized circles, and media
professionals on the whole are spectacularly indifferent or apathetic. It
is as if the Summit were coming too early or too late. Too early because
the political terrain is still lying fallow and public awareness is almost
nonexistent. Too late, because the sector is in the grip of an economic
downturn and the positions of strength of certain groups and countries -
such as Microsoft and the United States - well established.

Three questions now arise concerning the Summit. First, will Geneva 2003 be
anything other than a major curtain-raiser for the Tunis Summit in 2005?
The Swiss and Geneva authorities, which have been keen to hold this high
mass and plan to invest SFr. 20 million in it, are obsessed by the fear
that it could turn out to be just that. Yet the risk is real, for there is
no true leadership, no strong emblematic organization or figure capable of
galvanizing energies and embodying a forward-looking vision. The United
Nations agency responsible, the very technically-oriented International
Telecommunication Union (ITU) has neither the requisite stature nor
capabilities. The upshot is that in the absence of a real brain, the Summit
looks like a many-headed hydra - the ITU, the host country secretariat and
the Summit's executive secretariat - each with its own perspectives and
agenda. The result is a somewhat paralysing strategic vagueness and
institutional complexity.

Alarmed by the situation, Switzerland finally spoke out at the European
Preparatory Conference held in Bucharest from 7 to 9 November. The head of
the delegation and Director of the Federal Communications Office (OFCOM),
Marc Furrer, shook things up somewhat, at the same time berating
the «scepticism or even sarcasm» of some European countries. Is this a sign
of stronger and more courageous commitment? So far, Switzerland has not
really dared or been capable of seizing the opportunity offered by this
Summit to raise its international profile and play a pioneering role in a
field where much remains to be invented.

Second question: what will the Summit to be discussing? According to the
official discourse, it should focus more on content rather than channels.
The reality is much less clear. Bearing the marked imprint of the ITU, the
official documents thus far published place more emphasis on infrastructure
development (for the South) and potential markets (for the North) than on
the rights and real needs of human beings. Most often reduced to ICTs, the
vision of the information society strangely overlooks the media. As States
are on the whole poorly prepared, much more substantive work will have to
be done if the Final Declaration and Plan of Action are to be any
different. Switzerland, precisely, has decided to concentrate on some
topics that are yet to be determined amongst the federal offices, which do
not always speak the same language. The OFCOM specifically mentions access,
cultural diversity and freedom of expression, the Swiss Agency for
Development and Cooperation (SDC) speaks of the fight against poverty, and
empowerment. By comparison the United States is interested primarily in the
growth of telecommunications, IT training and security on Internet (fight
against terrorism).

Third question: Will the Summit be of a «new kind» - as has been trumpeted
for the last year - in other words open to greater civil society
participation, amongst other things? The answer is almost certain: no. To
quote Daniel Stauffacher, the delegate for the Federal Council, «NGO hopes
have been raised too high and some governments have been made overly
fearful.» In fact, it is only the large enterprises that could gain
influence thanks to their privileged links with ITU. This is not preventing
civil society from organizing and putting up a fight, having been
galvanised by the CRIS (Communication Rights in the Information Society)
international campaign and strongly supported by UNESCO. A platform for the
information society was just created in Switzerland, bringing together NGOs
and media around a vision and some shared claims. The objectives? To
mobilize and coordinate forces so that the Swiss Government will better
take account of the interests of civil society. The Swiss Coalition and
Bread for All are participating in this initiative, which strives to be
open. This is worth keeping an eye on.

Contact: Michel Egger