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UN: Internet Summit Exposes Digital Divisions Between Rich And Poor

Some 12,000 representatives from 150 countries are gathering in Geneva this week (10-12 December) to discuss the future of the Internet. Organizers originally hoped the two-day summit would help bridge a "digital divide" that separates rich and poor states in their use of information technology. Instead, discussions ahead of the meeting have exposed deep divisions on almost all aspects of the Internet -- including who manages it and who pays for it. RFE/RL's Mark Baker spoke to the mediators, who say they've now reached compromises in key areas.

Prague, 9 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Negotiators working ahead of the 10-12 December summit in Geneva on the future of the Internet say they've reached agreement on several outstanding issues that had threatened to scuttle the meeting.

The Swiss Federal Office of Communications -- the lead mediator in four days of acrimonious talks between mostly rich and poor states -- says compromises were reached on the issues of how to safeguard media freedom on the Internet and who will manage the Internet in the future.

The UN-sponsored two-day meeting -- the World Summit on the Information Society -- had hoped to try to bridge the so-called "digital divide" between rich and poor states. Instead, talks ahead of the summit exposed deep differences between the two on many issues, including how the Internet should be managed and who should pay for spreading information technologies to the developing world.

Roberto Rivola, a spokesman for the Swiss communications office, says negotiations in the run-up to the summit were contentious, but he says significant progress was made on five key points under discussion. He spoke to RFE/RL by telephone from Geneva.

"The discussions were difficult in the last days because we had five open points, and they were very difficult -- very 'hot' -- topics to discuss," Rivola said. "But we did [make] huge progress in the last days."

In addition to ensuring free speech and managing the Internet, talks focused on safeguarding intellectual property, fighting Internet crime, and extending information technologies to poorer countries.

On the issue of media freedoms, watchdog groups had voiced concern that the topic would not be addressed. Many countries -- including China and Iran -- have placed restrictions on Internet content. Rivola says that issue is now on the agenda.

"Many countries had [originally] thought that this was a 'technical' summit -- [that it was] about technology and not about media and about content," he said. "So the countries have now agreed to speak about the [issue of free] media and to speak about the responsibility of the media and the journalists in the information society."

Reports say the final summit declaration will retain wording from the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights that ensures provisions on free speech also apply to the Internet.

The question of who should manage the Internet is not expected to be resolved at the summit. Instead, the compromise calls for a working group to study the issue and make recommendations at a follow-up summit in Tunisia in 2005.

The issue remains highly controversial. Currently, the U.S. government and a non-profit private company called ICANN (the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) make key decisions about the Internet and control the network's backbone of powerful computers. This is because many of the systems that led to the modern-day Internet were developed by the U.S. government in the 1970s and 1980s.

Poorer countries would like to change what they see as undue American influence over the Internet. They suggest turning over control of the Internet solely to an international organization like the UN's International Telecommunications Union, the group that earlier developed the system of international telephone codes for countries.

Developed countries -- led by the U.S. -- criticize that position, saying the Internet should be led by the private sector and that control by the ITU would lead to excessive bureaucracy.

Rivola said: "Now we will have a working group under the auspices of the [UN] general secretary. The working group will include all stakeholders to discuss if the Internet has to be managed by governments, by a private body, or by an international organization."

A similar compromise, however, may not be possible on the even thornier issue of who will pay for spreading information technologies to developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. African states have called for creating a "digital solidarity fund" to help pay for extending the Internet to remote areas.

"The problem there is should we have a fund -- a new fund -- in order to help those developing countries, or [shouldn't] we make use of already existing funds and perhaps use them better," Rivola said.

He says organizers still hold out hope for a last-minute agreement.
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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.