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Last Updated: Friday, 11 November 2005, 11:59 GMT
Development matters more than domains
Next week's World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis is about more than domain names, argues technology commentator Bill Thompson.

Computer users in Africa
African countries asked for money to pay for computers
The advance teams are already gathered in Tunisia ahead of next week's second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) and those of us on the press list are being deluged with announcements, releases, notices and invitations to meetings.

The event, which runs from 16-18 November, is an opportunity to look at the progress that has been made since December 2003, when representatives and heads of state gathered in Geneva.

Two documents came out of that meeting, a grand Declaration of Principles and a plan of action, which tried to set out a series of practical steps that could be taken to help build what they call "an inclusive Information Society".

I was there in Geneva, and at the time I wrote about the general disappointment felt in the development community about the lack of ambition of these two documents.

Calling for an internet link for every village in the world by 2015, or trying to ensure that at least half the world's population has "access to information communication technologies (ICT) within their reach" is hardly a radical programme of action.

And no funding was allocated for implementation, with a proposed Digital Solidarity Fund turned into a digital solidarity "agenda".

Urgent matters

After two years in which the process was largely neglected in the media, there has been a lot of coverage of WSIS in the press so far, even though UK newspapers do not normally pay a lot of attention to development issues, with the notable exception of The Independent.

Sadly, very little of this coverage has been about the development agenda or the UN's millennium goals.

Bill Thompson
We have a chance to put pressure on politicians and international organisations to do more, to make a serious, committed effort, and to spend some money
Instead it has focused almost entirely on the fact that a report from a UN Working Group on Internet Governance will be debated, and that the US is at odds with other countries over the way DNS, the domain name service, and internet address allocation is managed.

Forget about computer literacy for three billion people, or providing the infrastructure for telemedicine and improved health services. The only important issue, it seems, is whether Icann, the body the US government established to run DNS, is accountable to the United Nations rather than the Department of Commerce.

I admit that this matters to me, because I think net governance is a vital political issue and one that we need to resolve as a matter of urgency.

Countries like China and Saudi Arabia seem to think that putting oversight of domain name allocation will give them a way to assert control over the content or availability of websites, and they need to be reminded that this is not the intention.

And the US needs to accept that it is not universally liked and that the values it seeks to assert over Icann, like freedom of speech but no .xxx domain to identify pornographic websites, are not shared by all.

But WSIS is about far more than how the net is managed, and it is unfortunate that a real discussion about the lack of any real action to implement the Action Plan has been sidelined by a debate on a minor issue in the larger development agenda.

Global projects

It is easy to dismiss ICT as less important than water or shelter, and certainly it would be foolish to think that a computer and internet connection will solve every problem.

But being connected to the global information society is increasingly vital for economic survival, and access to health or sanitation information can make a real difference to isolated rural communities.

Mobile phone
People are increasingly accessing the web on mobiles
It can also help in times of trouble.

Just think how the situation for the people in Kashmir would have been transformed if every village had had a local telecentre, perhaps powered by solar power, and a wireless connection to the internet.

When the earthquake hit some of these would have been destroyed, but it would only take someone with a laptop and some battery power to send an e-mail alerting rescuers and providers of aid. Perhaps the area would not now be facing such awful prospects as winter approaches.

WSIS has done what it can to promote those projects that have been started, and in October 2004 it launched a stocktaking plan, asking governments, companies and agencies to record details of their activities in a public database set up for the purpose.

As of 5 October, the database contained details of 2,394 activities. Over half of them were from governments and around a quarter from international organisations like the UN itself.

Almost half were national rather than international or local/regional projects, and more than a third of the submissions came from Western Europe and North America.

Two thousand projects is not much if you are trying to change the world, and national e-strategies from Australia, Benin and Bulgaria are at best a good starting point rather than a serious demonstration of a commitment to deliver the inclusive information society that WSIS calls for. We can, and must, do better.

Next week in Tunisia we, the people of the world, have an opportunity to hold our governments to account and to ask what they have done to promote the goals agreed two years ago.

We have a chance to put pressure on politicians and international organisations to do more, to make a serious, committed effort, and to spend some money, building the wired world and ensuring that it supports the principles of freedom and social justice.

But we will not be able to do that if all the attention focuses on the internet and how it is managed.

DNS is important, but it is not the most important thing that will be happening over the three days of the summit.

I hope that my fellow net enthusiasts and the world's press realise this.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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