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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 November 2005, 05:23 GMT
UN summit aims for a fairer web
By Jo Twist
BBC News technology reporter

UN summit talks
Officials have been discussing how the internet is run
World leaders, technology leaders and campaigners are in Tunisia for a UN summit intended to help poorer nations benefit from the digital revolution.

About 10,000 participants are at expected at the three-day World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

The event is being eclipsed by a row over how the net is run and fears over freedom of expression in Tunisia.

Many developing nations say it is time control moved from the incumbent US body to a more accountable global one.

A UN-sponsored group has spent the last two years working on various proposals, without reaching agreement.

Last minute negotiations have been under way in Tunis, aimed at settling differences between the US and countries seeking a change.

The EU has been mediating between the Americans and a group of countries including China and Iran, which have been pushing for international control.

"We're two-thirds of our way to a good compromise," said EU spokesman Martin Selmayr.

Spreading the net

The Tunis summit is also a chance to see how far governments have gone in their pledges for an "inclusive information society" set out two years ago at a first summit in Geneva.

A Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action came out of Geneva as an attempt to encourage governments and stakeholders to close digital divides while tackling UN Millennium Development Goals, including the pledge to make the net accessible to all by 2015.

Image of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan
We have glimpsed only the beginning of the benefits it [the net] can provide
Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General

But worldwide only 14% of the population is online, compared to 62% in the US.

The Geneva summit disappointed many countries after the rich nations failed to back a Digital Solidarity Fund.

The fund, intended to help finance technology projects in developing countries, was formally launched earlier this year.

The voluntary fund has so far only raised $6.4m (3.68m) in cash and pledges, so the UN will be hoping to encourage more contributions.

One effort which will receive much attention is the non-profit One Laptop Per Child group, set up by Nicholas Negroponte, chairman and founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Labs.

It plans to produce up to 15 million sub-$100 laptops within a year. Professor Negroponte will unveil the prototype at the summit.

There will be hundreds of other projects, events, roundtables, high-level talks and exhibitions at the summit too.

Life-saving potential

There are other larger social justice issues to be tackled, such as how to ensure freedom of expression and information for everyone on the net, an issue which bloggers will be watching closely.

In a piece in the Washington Post earlier this month, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said the net had become an agent of revolutionary change in health, education, journalism and politics.

"We have glimpsed only the beginning of the benefits it can provide: for victims of disaster, quicker, better-coordinated relief; for poor people in remote areas, lifesaving medical information; and, for people trapped under repressive governments, access to uncensored information as well as an outlet to air their grievances and appeal for help."

Image of the MIT laptop
Ideas like the sub-$100 laptop for all will be showcased
Many fear real interrogation of these issues will be sidelined by political pressure and arguments over net governance, which many believe will result in no firm resolution.

Already, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are questioning the wisdom of holding the summit in Tunisia, a country which has a tight rein on the media.

Although freedom of opinion and expression is guaranteed by the Tunisian constitution, the government closely controls the press and broadcasting.

Net monitoring is omnipresent there, and websites containing content which is critical of the government are frequently blocked.

Some NGOs have found it difficult to get accreditation for WSIS. A separate summit, called the Citizen's Summit on the Information Society, is taking place at the same time for many groups who cannot attend WSIS.

It is organised by NGOs, with support from 80 groups, and some 400-500 participants are expected. But it suffered a setback this week when it was informed its pre-arranged venue was unavailable at short notice.

Tight grip

The key debate on net governance centres around whether governments should have more of a role in net governance.

Many outside the US argue that no one country should have authority over something that now plays such a key role in the global economy.

Police in Tunisia
Security has been stepped up in Tunisia
There are fears, however, that giving control over to a more representative UN body would mean national governments would have greater leeway in imposing restrictions on its use.

The UN has been wrangling over who should run the internet for some time and the issue divided nations at the WSIS first stage in Geneva two years ago.

The net's infrastructure has been managed in an informal way through collaboration with businesses, civil society, academic and technical communities.

Many developing countries have felt left out of this process.

A private, not-for-profit group, formed by the US Department of Commerce, called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), currently supervises the net's infrastructure.

It oversees domain name and addressing systems, such as country domain suffixes, and manages how net browsers and e-mail programs direct traffic.

Developing nations want the net and its domains shared more equally, so that everyone can benefit from the web's economic, political, social and cultural advantages.

The US is reluctant to relinquish its grip, arguing that UN proposals would shift regulation from private sector leadership, to government, top-down control.

WSIS takes place in Tunis, Tunisia, from 16 to 18 November.


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