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Last Updated: Friday, 18 November 2005, 10:08 GMT
Preserving the essence of the net
Technology commentator Bill Thompson wonders whether the choice of Tunisia to host the UN net summit was designed to make a wider point.

Tunisian police
Tunisian police were much in evidence during the summit
Last time I wrote that I hoped that the coverage of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) would not be too dominated by discussion of who runs the internet and whether the US should retain overall control of the domain name system.

It didn't quite work out like that, as anyone who has followed the story will know.

But at least there was an agreement instead of a row, thanks to some careful diplomacy in the final hours before the event began by the team from the International Telecommunication Union, the UN agency that is officially behind the summit.

And in public everyone from the government delegations expressed their satisfaction with the plan to leave the current system unchanged, set up a new government talking shop, and hope that gradual change will take place.

It was probably the best outcome we could hope for.

Summit immunity

Fortunately the first public exhibition of a prototype of the $100 laptop turned the focus from domain names to development issues.

It got people talking about how realistic it is to try to give every child their own laptop and whether the communications infrastructure will ever be in place to support internet access for them all.

And the people thronging around the ICT4All exhibition which runs in parallel to the summit were able to make contacts, find out about new projects and start building the personal networks that are, when it comes to development, far more important than computer networks.

Bill Thompson
The internet is not coping well with its new position as the core technology of the information society

There are certainly enough people here for anyone who wants to make new friends, with around 20,000 of us here, including delegates from 170 countries, exhibitors and summit participants from the private sector and civil society.

And of course we're here, the journalists with our green badges giving access to a dedicated media centre with free coffee, fast network access and enough high-energy drinks to ensure that deadlines are met.

Inside the summit we are protected by immunity granted to the UN, and although there have been moments when the strain of hosting us shows, by and large it has all gone smoothly.

On Thursday Reporters Without Borders staged a protest in the main exhibition area and stuck a large poster showing which countries do most to censor the internet, Tunisia among them, to the floor in the centre of the show.

And an afternoon seminar entitled Expression Under Repression organised by Hivos, a Dutch development NGO, was almost a flashpoint after the authorities tried to cancel it.

But even here, after some robust negotiation, things were resolved and the event went ahead.

Internet under strain

It is less comfortable outside the Kram centre, as French journalist Christophe Boltansk found out when he was beaten up and stabbed in the centre of Tunis at the weekend.

And the few Tunisians I have managed to talk to for any length of time tell me that the situation in their country is far from easy.

Senegalese leader Abdoulaye Wade
Senegal's Abdoulaye Wade called on the West to do more
Those who write weblogs have to be very careful to stay away from contentious issues, and of course many websites are blocked by the government, and traffic is carefully monitored.

But perhaps the feeling of being part of a privileged group, inside a closed society which would not normally grant us these freedoms if we were visiting as tourists or working here, can help us appreciate what is happening to the internet at the moment.

The net is, in many ways, the distilled essence of liberal democracy, designed to support free expression and open communication, allowing all voices and - at a technical level - all applications to be heard as equals.

You don't need permission to speak or share or write a new program and make it available.

But the internet is not coping well with its new position as the core technology of the information society.

The technical discussions about domain names and addressing, which were the core of the argument over Icann, quickly became politicised when it was realised that closed societies like China, Iran and Saudi Arabia saw control of the domain name system as a way to control content and access too.

As the net's population grows to include more people from less developed countries the argument over how it retains its democratic nature will become even fiercer.

Preserving freedom

Hosting WSIS has not made Tunisia freer or more open. In fact, the endorsement we have provided by being here may even help sustain the government of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

But in the long-term, if every time we talk about Tunisia we remind people that it hosted a summit dedicated to free expression, and point out its failure to live up to its international obligation, then it may help those who want to reform Tunisian politics.

Reporters Without Borders demo
Reporters Without Borders highlighted net censorship
In the same way, having so many net activists here with the politicians has not done a great deal to persuade them that the internet's values are ones that they must work hard to preserve.

The final statement of the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society is as much a framework for control of the ways the net is used as it is a call for "the freedom to seek, receive, impart and use information".

But perhaps, just perhaps, those delegates from open societies will reflect that their experience inside the UN bubble at Tunis parallels the internet's position within the political system generally.

And if we remind them why the net's core qualities of openness and freedom are fundamental to its success, now and in the future, they may be a little more willing to listen to our arguments.

The net embodies certain values and ways of thinking that many societies, even the UK, find difficult to deal with.

These values are worth preserving, but that will not happen automatically. It takes political will. And although they can be contained within a bubble for a bit longer, that can't last forever.

Let's hope that as the politicians head out of Tunisia, they have a little more insight into what really makes the net work, and that they ensure that it is preserved as the information society develops.

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


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