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Last Updated: Friday, 25 November 2005, 16:48 GMT
Voice of innovation at net summit
David Reid
By David Reid
Reporter, BBC Click Online

At the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), international diplomats turned their attention to the most important question yet to face the net: who should control it?

World Summit on the Information Society
Pressure groups at the summit condemned human rights records
Journalists like a good scrap, and with one in prospect at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia, hundreds secured themselves ring-side seats.

The internet has become an indispensable tool for communication, so it is no wonder that who oversees it has become a hot topic that everyone can relate to.

One group of countries, which included Iran, Brazil and China, was unhappy with US oversight of core net functions. Another group said there should be a more collaborative approach.

In the end there was a compromise: the US will continue to oversee the net's day-to-day running, and the forum will give others a say.

It seems delegates were adequately reassured, for now at least, that the US was not about to pull the plug on any of its enemies.

Ambassador David Gross, United States co-ordinator for international information and communications policy, said: "For us the most important thing is the reliability and stability of the internet.

"If we were to take such action it would undermine that reliability and stability. That is, people would not trust it. So in fact we have a very, very strong incentive that's been demonstrated over time."

Since 1998 the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, has been operating under a US government contract to do the internet's boring bits: granting domain names and overseeing the core address books of which site is where.

Paul Twomey, ICANN CEO and president
We're going to have a forum where people can come together and work out what works
Paul Twomey, ICANN
The compromise at Tunis means there will now be an Internet Governance Forum, where governments, business and users will be able to talk.

So what does all this mean for us? According to Paul Twomey, ICANN's president and chief executive: "There is going to be a place where we can talk a lot about that people-to-people interaction.

"There's already discussions about spam, but also identity theft. These sorts of issues really do affect users online and may require government action.

"We're going to have a forum where people can come together and work out what works."

Human rights question

One fear that might have focused minds was that letting a committee of governments oversee the internet might mean countries which limit freedom of expression for their own people could have a say on what the rest of us can see on the net.

Countries, that is, like Tunisia.

Unfortunately, the people in the room over there in the big plenary session are mostly diplomats, presidents; people who don't necessarily even know how to type
Nick Moraitis, WSIS Youth Caucus
Nice place for a holiday, but is Tunisia really the ideal host for an internet summit? Human rights groups complain that political dissidents and bloggers are routinely locked up there.

This question, and the argument over internet governance, had threatened to overshadow the main aim of the summit: bringing the internet and computer technology to the world's poor.

It is what the United Nations calls the digital divide - the disparity in access to computers between the wealthy north of the globe and the poorer south.

But not everyone at the Tunis summit was so sure that the great and good were really the right people to talk over the issue.

"It is often about how technology can change the world. Technology is an area that young people are critical to", said Nick Moraitis, of WSIS Youth Caucus.

"Unfortunately, the people in the room over there in the big plenary session are mostly diplomats, presidents; people who don't necessarily even know how to type."


On this issue private companies are often more powerful than governments, so getting the right people involved means bringing in big businesses whose knowledge of markets often means a more subtle approach.

Perhaps the $100 laptop is the sort of innovation that could make a difference.

The aim behind this so-called Green Machine is to give one to every child. It could replace all of a child's text books, and at a similar cost, as John Ryan, from MIT's One Laptop per Child project, explained.

"You can now provide an advanced text book in mathematics for a child that is really excelling in mathematics, and internet access and telecommunications and a computer that does calculations and so forth, within the existing budget."

While the simmering issue of internet governance and Tunisia's human rights record did eclipse the summit proper, and its goal of dealing with the digital divide, the projects on the summit sidelines gave some cause for optimism.

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