Logic is Variable

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Digital divide

Before the WSIS, I wrote about who will control the internet and funding issues. I had predicted "nothing." Unfortunately, I was right. It is noting, at least as for as Internet governance and or bridging the digital divide is concerned. Here is a follow up column that appeared in Dawn.

Sponsored by the United Nations, the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) concluded in Tunisia on Nov 18.

Two key issues — who will control the internet and how to finance efforts aimed at bridging the digital divide — were frustratingly contentious from the very beginning, as anyone who has followed the story will tell you. However, at the end of phase II of the summit, the main issues remained largely untouched, just as they were at the beginning.

The UN General Assembly had endorsed the proposal forwarded by the International Telecommunications Union in 2001 to hold the WSIS in two phases. The first phase was held in Geneva in 2003, and the second was held in Tunisia. The second phase was attended by leaders from more than 100 countries — including 44 heads of state or of government, mostly from developing countries.

The outcome is that the United States remains in charge of the internet’s addressing system, averting a United States-European Union showdown. Of course, this was notwithstanding a general resentment over perceived American control. The US-based Icann (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) will continue to technically manage the internet. However, a new Internet Governance Forum has been formed to further look into the issue of control.

One of the original objectives of the WSIS was to raise consciousness about the divide between the haves and have-nots, and to raise money for projects aimed at better linking the developing regions, particularly Africa, Asia and South America. Unfortunately, the event was overshadowed by a persistent antipathy about who should control the internet and technical issues which allow people from Pakistan to Peru to surf the World Wide Web for information, news and various other activities. More promises, further meetings, and partnership programmes materialized on financing the expansion of access around the world so that the digital divide could be narrowed.

In short, the Tunis Commit- ment and a Tunis Agenda for the Information Society was adopted at the end of the second phase of WSIS in order to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society. This would give people all over the world an opportunity to create access, utilize and share information and knowledge.

The adopted documents stressed that freedom of expression and free flow of information, ideas and knowledge were essential for an Information Society. Given that such issues cannot be solved through alliances alone, results are very positive and balanced.

However, some countries and civil society groups were heard grumbling over the outcome. Under attack is the lack of a new mechanism for financing. Even though, a fund for internet development has been established, it does not seem to be of much consequence since participation has been kept voluntary.

Checks and balances were also demanded. It was suggested that an independent commission should be established in order to review national and international ICT regulations and practices.

The private sector also came under fire. It was generally felt that the sector was spreading its wings beyond the parameters of business. Their presence was greatly felt within the chambers of commerce and their influence was quite visible.

On a brighter note, the summit did bring about a pragmatic solution to one of the many problems facing the have-nots: a $100 laptop, which will be shortly marketed in many Third World countries. The laptop consumes a minimum of energy and is user-friendly. This one step will certainly assist in eradicating IT-ignorance in many developing, and underdeveloped countries. Egypt and Nigeria are candidates to receive the first wave of the laptops, starting in February or March, and each will buy at least 1 million units.

Apart from the fact that there is a consensus on “internet for everyone”, the WSIS, which was called a Summit of Solutions, was declared a success by the United Nations. But many stakeholders refuse to wholeheartedly embrace its outcome. Words like “success” or “failure” are too strong to describe the summit. Let’s just say the summit has been valuable.

The impact is yet to be seen. And remote villages in Punjab have to wait until 2015 to get connected to the internet.


Tags: WSIS, Digital Divide, Society

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posted by S A J Shirazi @ 3:39 PM,

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