TUNIS (IPS/GIN) - Now that the world’s powers have agreed to stop squabbling over control of the Internet (for now), the more than 10,000 people here for the recent United Nations forum focused on creating an information society for all people.
That was the goal of the week-long World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), part two of which was held in the capital of this North African nation, which ended Nov. 18. The first round of the WSIS was held in Geneva in 2003.
One example of the so-called “digital divide” between the world’s rich and poor: Roughly, the same number of people use the Internet in the world’s eight economic giants as in the other nations combined—429 million users in the former versus 444 million in the latter, says the United Nations.
Representatives of the world’s governments agreed to leave control of the technology that runs the Internet—the most potent symbol of the Information Age—in the hands of the United States, and instead to hold talks on devolving that role to an international forum. But no binding powers were established for the new body.
U.S. Ambassador David Gross says he is “thrilled” over the last-minute deal after three years of negotiations. “It reaffirmed the role of technology to the world and preserved the unique role of the U.S.,” he told a news conference as the summit’s opening ceremony proceeded Nov. 16.
Assistant U.S. Secretary of Commerce M.D. Gallaher called the deal a vote of confidence in “market principles” and the “free flow of information” that he said are hallmarks of the U.S. information society. By “engraining the use of technology for economic development,” the new approach will help narrow the digital divide, he told journalists.
The next three days of this mammoth conference site consisted of countless seminars and workshops hosted by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international bodies like the United Nations, along with demonstrations and sales pitches by private sector participants hawking the latest tech gadgets from gleaming temporary booths. All of this activity is meant to set the world on the path to start closing the digital divide by 2015, the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that aim to halve the number of people living in extreme poverty.
While the shadow cast over the WSIS by Internet governance faded, a cloud still loomed over the event. The host government of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali blocked several NGOs from participating in the conference and from meeting at various outside venues. Journalists and freedom of expression activists jailed in recent years for their writings remain in detention. On Nov. 10, representatives of some of these groups organizing a citizens’ summit in a local hotel to run parallel with the WSIS were informed that the venue was no longer available because of a sudden need for repairs.
Summit organizers agreed to meet at the Goethe Institute, a German cultural center in downtown Tunis, but were prevented from entering by several dozen plainclothes police.
According to a journalist working with the ad-hoc Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), journalists were also blocked from approaching the institute, and the police seized a camera from a Belgian TV cameraman. “They returned it 15 minutes later, but without the tape,” the journalist told IPS.
Those prevented from entering the center include Souhayr Belhassen, vice president of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights; Mahmoud Dhaouadi, a member of the Union of Tunisian Journalists, (an unauthorized organization); and representatives of Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other international freedom of expression groups.
“Eventually, some of these delegates were able to meet when a high-level German diplomat attending WSIS and a Swiss diplomat personally hosted them at a nearby cafe. However, they had to leave when the cafe owner informed them that police surrounding the building said he would have to close it if they remained on the premises,” said HRW in a news release.
Meanwhile, Pres. Ben Ali told the summit’s opening that Tunisia is intent on “protecting human rights (and) protecting political pluralism ... in harmony with the fundamental principles of the information society.”
Iranian human rights lawyer and winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, Shirin Ebadi, raised a finger of condemnation at the opening ceremony, which could have been directed at the host government. “Unfortunately, in some countries, human rights defenders, writers and translators are imprisoned; their only crime being having expressed their freedom of expression and opinion,” she said.
“I would suggest that we set up a committee under the aegis of the United Nations,” she added, “in order to monitor the problem of site filtering (Internet censorship) and to prevent states from sacrificing the interests of their people on the altar of their own political convenience.”
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