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WSIS: Internet Governance Forum Endorsed by World Leaders
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Posted On November 21, 2005
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Late last week, dignitaries attending the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis, Tunisia, endorsed a plan to create—under the auspices of the U.N.—a global forum to discuss public policy matters and other issues related to the deployment of the Internet worldwide. This new "Internet Governance Forum," which will not be limited just to the participation of governments, will be launched early next year, according to the Summit resolutions. Greece has offered to host the first meeting in Athens. Information Today has been following the WSIS discussions on Internet governance closely. This report discusses how world leaders finally reached an agreement last week in Tunis.

It was literally the 11th hour on the eve of the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis last week when dignitaries finally—after 2 years of debate—reached consensus on the topic of Internet governance. In a final, 12-hour session last Tuesday, the assembled delegates managed—somehow—to remove all the square brackets indicating contested text in the official Summit statement on Internet governance.

Gone from the official texts were any direct references to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). And even the name International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the organization that had steered the WSIS process, was expunged from a casual reference in a key paragraph out of concern that a reference to any organization might be perceived as a recommendation to select a single entity to be in charge of the Internet.

The end result was startling, given where the negotiations stood at the end of the suspended PrepCom-3 meetings in Geneva in September and the obstacles to consensus that had greeted the delegations upon their arrival to resume talks Nov. 13 in Tunis.

Not one of the four Internet governance models recommended last summer by the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) was adopted, not even the one that was called "no change." But the separate WGIG recommendation to create a forum for the global discussion of Internet-related matters, including public policy maters, was indeed adopted by consensus in Tunis, with implementation recommended for early next year.

The new Internet Governance Forum (IGF) has been given no authority to control, oversee, or dictate anything. Yet, chartered broadly, it will have the capability to influence many things.

Winners and Losers

Who won and who lost this great—and quite possibly historic—debate is moot. It doesn't matter now where the process started or how it evolved. But, for the record, governments that obstinately favored a top-down, government-centric oversight function for the Net somehow found common ground with those who favored less heavy-handed approaches.

And the U.S., whose official position was not to relinquish any control of core Internet functions, somehow played well enough with others to finalize a text that dances around the points of U.S. opposition to achieve a perceptive, cohesive, and logical conclusion.

The final document text stands as an elegant expression of what the world sees as common Internet ground. In articulating that common understanding, the Canadian delegation is credited with having played a pivotal role.

But much of the credit is also given to the man who led PrepCom-3's Subcommittee A on Internet Governance, Nitin Desai, ambassador of Pakistan and special WSIS advisor to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

In the official words of many delegations, it was Desai's diplomatic skills—some even said his sense of humor—that made it possible to reach any consensus. In fact, the final documents might not exist at all if the first draft had not been offered by Desai himself last Monday, before the Summit was set to open on Wednesday.

But Desai did not weave the document from whole cloth. He made the delegates help. At the end of the first day of the resumed PrepCom-3 meetings, Desai appointed a special group to work together and itemize any and all areas of commonality that existed in the positions of the Summit delegations. The group included Singapore, Uruguay, Ghana, Senegal, Iran, Brazil, China, India, the U.S., and Saudi Arabia—all nations that had voiced strong opinions during the debates. Desai told Canada, which was put in charge of the group, to "come back with a list of items on which there is a possible agreement."

Canada came back with a list of 10 points, which clearly served as the basis for the draft document that Desai crafted. Two days of word-smithing and four drafts later, the nations finally ended up on the same page. Every paragraph had the word "Agreed" written at the end.


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Dick Kaser is Information Today, Inc.'s vice president of content.

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