United Nations

In Tunisia, the World Summit on the Information Society sets global goals

TUNIS, Tunisia — Declaring that the free flow of information and ideas can greatly strengthen social and economic development, governments at the World Summit on the Information Society here approved a global agenda for making information and communications technologies more open, accessible, and available.

“We recognize that freedom of expression and the free flow of information, ideas, and knowledge, are essential for the Information Society and beneficial to development,” said world leaders in one of the Summit 's two main outcome documents.

Held in this North African capital on 16-18 November 2005, the Tunis Summit was the second part of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), and its focus was on acting to ensure access and openness in information and communications technologies, or ICTs.

The Summit 's first part was held 10-12 December 2003 in Geneva , Switzerland . It focused on making a declaration of principles and plan of action to guide humanity's progress towards a global “information society,” which many people see as an inevitable outcome of the revolution that comes with new technologies like the personal computer and the Internet.

In that context, both sessions of the WSIS as a whole had a huge symbolic value, in that it brought into the international mainstream the idea that new information and communications technologies have a huge potential for development.

“The WSIS reflects a dawning recognition by the world community that information technology is an integral part of social and economic development — and that it can in fact speed up and make more efficient such development,” said Laina Raveendran Greene, who represented the Bahá'í International Community at the Tunis Summit.

“ICT is a tool that cuts across all issue areas and can be used to improve human rights, gender equality, the environment, education, health, the protection of indigenous cultures, and so on,” said Ms. Raveendran Greene.

High level of participation

The degree of interest in ICTs for development and as an increasingly important feature of global society was reflected in the high level of participation by governments and civil society in the Tunis Summit.

According to the United Nations, 19,401 people participated in the event, representing 174 national delegations, 92 international organization (like UNESCO or UNICEF), 606 non-governmental organizations, 226 business entities, and 642 media outlets. These totals rank with some of the best-attended UN world conferences of the 1990s.

“Our meeting today represents a summit for the ‘global village' created by the new virtual realities, whose networks have been established, and whose components have been connected, through information and communication technologies,” said Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in opening remarks on 16 November.

Other speakers likewise pointed to the growing impact of new technologies.

“ICTs are changing our society in ways which are as fundamental as the changes wrought by steam engines in the 19th Century or motor cars in the 20th Century,” said Yoshio Utsumi, the secretary general of the International Telecommunications Union, the UN agency that served as the Summit 's secretariat. “As those machines did, ICTs help us to be more productive and efficient than ever before in order to fulfill our desire for a better life.”

Several hundred workshops, panel discussions, and other side events were held in parallel with the main Summit meeting, hosted by UN agencies, non-governmental organizations, technical bodies, and corporate representatives.

Bahá'í representatives were directly involved in two such events specifically: a presentation on “Corporate Social Responsibility” by the European Bahá'í Business Forum and a workshop on the contribution of the information society to a culture of peace, held by the NGO Caucus on Values and Ethics, of which the Bahá'í International Community is an active member.

“At the Tunis Summit in particular, every country presented case studies of how the Internet and ICTs have impacted their countries,” said Ms. Raveendran Greene, who participated in the Values and Ethics Caucus event.

“In the past, countries might have said: ‘We need to build more schools,' only to realize they don't have enough books or teachers. But now they are realizing how they can use ICTs to make schools more effective by giving them access to books and libraries and teachers that are located elsewhere.

“Now ICTs are being seen not as a luxury item but as something that can be used to more quickly scale up projects for health and education and so on,” said Ms. Raveendran Greene.

Beyond the general discussion of the importance of ICTs for development, the Summit addressed three key issues that dominated the preparatory process in the lead-up to the Tunis: Internet governance, financing strategies to bridge the “digital divide,” and implementation mechanisms for the Action Plan developed in Geneva.

In the area of Internet governance, the Tunis Summit created a new non-binding “Internet Governance Forum” (IGF), to be convened by the UN Secretary-General, to foster and enable multi-stakeholder dialogue on public policy and development issues.

Designed to provide a platform for discussion of crosscutting public policy issues not adequately addressed by current mechanisms, the Forum will not however replace the role currently held by existing Internet governance institutions, such as the quasi-independent organization that manages domain names, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

“This represents a major compromise,” said Ms. Raveendran Greene, who is also a specialist in field of telecommunications and ICT. “There were some countries who were not happy with what they perceived as United States control of ICANN, and who talked of creating an alternative Internet. But the whole power of the Internet is that it is one entity, enabling people to communicate anywhere. This preserves that, and gives the world a new forum for coordination and consultation on the Internet.”

Although the outcome documents upheld the concept of ensuring a free flow of information, it also stated that “policy authority for Internet-related public policy issues is the sovereign right of States,” an obvious compromise between those governments that wish to restrict Internet access in their own countries and those that proclaim freedom of information.

The problem posed by the so-called “digital divide” – the gap between the developed world and the developing world in terms of access to and the use of computers, the Internet and other ICTs – had been a major point of discussion in Geneva, and it was hoped that new financial mechanisms for closing that gap would be found in Tunis.

While no new government funding mechanisms were agreed upon, the Tunis Summit gave its stamp of approval to the Digital Solidarity Fund, a voluntary fund open to interested stakeholders who wish to contribute to ending the digital divide.

“We agree that the financing of ICT for development needs to be placed in the context of the growing importance of the role of ICTs, not only as a medium of communication, but also as a development enabler, and as a tool for the achievement of the internationally-agreed development goals and objectives, including the Millennium Development Goals,” stated the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society, the Summit's second main outcome document.

The Tunis Agenda established a specific list of possible moderators and/or facilitators for each of the 11 “action lines” established in Geneva .

As well, the importance of public/private partnerships in follow-up and implementation was stressed.

To this end, much was made of an announcement of the development of a prototype US$100 laptop by Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab, which backers hope can be sold by the millions to governments for distribution to school children and teachers in developing countries.

“As the PC and the internet have leveled the playing field the competitive rules have changed,” said Craig Barrett, chairman of the Intel Corporation, in a plenary address to the Summit . “One has only to look at young children in the poor districts of Sao Paulo, Cairo, or Bangalore when given access to and instruction in PC/Internet to realize that every child on the face of the earth now has the potential to succeed.”