Mobilising African Civil Society around the importance of ICT policy for the development of the continent

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Internet governance, security and media freedom at the heart of discussions.

09/23/2003, Ngathie Diop: CATIA

Finalizing documents is not an easy task for delegates participating in the third prepatory meeting for the World Summit on the Information Society. As discussions keep on going during the first week, it is difficult for them to reach a consensus on certain issues like Internet governance, security and media freedom that appear to be ones of the conflicting points between delegates. The main point of contention is who should govern Internet. While some delegations support the idea of a governmental governance of Internet, others say the private sector should play the key role in Internet governance.

The rapid growth of Internet in terms of innovation has brought many delegations at the third meeting of the Prepatory Committee to voice their concerns about the issue of Internet governance and security.
During the ad hoc group discussions on Internet governance chaired by Kenya, the delegations of China, Tunisia, Brazil, South Africa, India and Bangladesh expressed their wish for the coordination of international Internet issues by “appropriate intergovernmental organizations under the United Nations framework”. Other delegations among which, the United States, Canada, the European Union, the African group and Mexico side for the governance of such issues by “appropriate international organizations”. The fundamental issue being the involvement or the lack of government involvement in Internet Governance, each group of countries did the best to defend their views.

Governments should have full control of Internet is the message of China who stated that in face of growing insecurity in Internet, governments have the duty to handle national and international security issues. To do so, they should be able to “ negotiate these within an intergovernmental forum of body”. But many countries expressed their fear to see the rapid pace of innovation slow down if Internet Governance is put under the control of governments. Speaking on behalf of the African group, Mohamed DIOP, who is also a board member of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), gave two reasons why governments should not control Internet. He first said, “Internet is moving very fast in terms of innovation because it is an open area where all stakeholders can interact. With Government control, Internet will slow at the pace of governments”. The second reason he put forward is that it will give more potential to some countries where human rights are not respected to limit people’s rights to have direct access to information. This means that some governments can have access to people’s E-mail and control the information they deliver and receive. They can set rules to restrict the free flow of information, which is a threat to democracy. This view is defended by many delegations including those of the United States, Canada, the European Union, Mexico and the African group who think that the private sector should play the key role in Internet Governance to ensure that everyone has access to information regardless the social, political and economic situation of his country.

It is important to mention that at its early stage Internet was a project of the US Department of State but it has evolved into a more opened area where “the private sector has had and will continue to have an important role”. But as the number of users is increasing, many delegations expressed the need for greater implication of the civil society and international organizations when dealing with Internet issues. There was also a broad agreement among delegates at the ad hoc group meeting that “policy authority for Internet related public policy issues should be the sovereign right of countries”.

Another issue under discussion is Internet security. Many delegates voiced their concerns about the growing insecurity in Internet saying that actions need to be taken by governments to curb child pornography, pedophilia, xenophobia, the trafficking of women and other forms of “cyber crimes”. One delegate from the African group said that given the growing number of users, the different networks and devices involved in Internet, solutions should address “physical protection, privacy, reliability and trust in the providers of equipment”. Internet offers a great number of opportunities and can play a key role in the development process if information security is guaranteed. With the absence of laws to guide the quality of information, Internet security should be contained with international coordination. But while most delegates conquer that Internet security is essential for the success of the Information society, there remains the crucial question to know who should regulate Internet content and how. For many media persons, the control of content appears to go against the principles of the freedom of expression and media freedom. The issue was under discussion in the media caucus meetings. As part of their proposal for text to be
included in paragraph 51 of WSIS Declaration, the media caucus clearly states: “security and other considerations should not be allowed to compromise freedom of expression and media freedom”. They go on to say “formulation of professional and ethical standards in journalism are the responsibility of media professionals themselves”, they should not be dictated by “the legal system of any country”. The issue of Internet security and freedom of expression, which is under debate in the ad hoc working group chaired by Switzerland, is at the heart of the contention between government delegates and the media group. The fundamental issue is how to ensure Internet security while protecting individual rights to access to information and knowledge.

Cultural diversity is also an issue on debate. Delegates broadly agree that cultural diversity is important in the information society and should be respected by all ICT users. They mostly acknowledge that efforts to preserve and promote cultural diversity are required in order to avoid standardization of the content in favor of the developed world. During discussions of the ad hoc group chaired by India, many delegates from developing countries emphasis the need for development of local content to boost local culture and heritage. Since more than 69% of the web sites are in English, the use of local languages is essential to provide everyone one with full information and knowledge that are essential for an inclusive information. “Cultural diversity will help narrow the digital gap and fight cultural imperialism,” said a delegate from Soudan.

Internet governance, security and media freedom are areas that require consensus among stakeholders. They are left pending and further discussions will continue this week to reach an agreement before finalizing the declaration of principles and plan of action documents that are essential for the World Summit on the Information Society.

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