Patrice A. Lyons
Representatives from a wide spectrum of government, intergovernmental, private and what was termed "civil society" organizations met at Geneva in December 2003 at the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) to discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by information and communication technologies (ICT), in particular the Internet. In many ways, it was an effort by the world community to begin defining the digital agenda for the future. The primary focus was on use of the Internet in meeting the needs of the least advantaged and marginalized groups in society, but there may be more profound effects stemming from this endeavor. Policies adopted with an Internet agenda in mind may also have an impact on future national and international laws and policies in areas such as frequency allocations, intellectual property rights, learning environments and methodologies, provision of financial aid, cyber security, spam, privacy, trade, taxation, and, more generally, the management and dissemination of information.
The gathering was held under the umbrella of the United Nations, with Secretariat services provided by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society will be held at Tunis in November 2005 (http://www.smsitunis2005.com/plateforme/index.php).
The World Summit is unusual not only in its two phase format, but in seeking to reach out to groups that do not normally participate in United Nations meetings. From an overview and assessment of the Geneva phase posted at the ITU Internet site (http://www.itu.int/wsis), there were more than 11,000 participants, including 176 UN member states, 3,300 representatives from civil society, 514 business representatives from 98 organizations, and 1,000 media representatives. There were many activities organized in association with the first phase of the Summit, including about 300 Summit events.
A starting point in an understanding of the goals and objectives of the WSIS is the United Nations Millennium Declaration that was adopted at another Summit held in New York in September 2000 (http://www.un.org/millennium/declaration/ares552e.htm); see also, http://www.unicttaskforce.org/mdg/default.asp). This is a grand document full of fundamental statements and commitments on the part of a large group of government and private sector representatives. Some key objectives set forth in the Millennium Declaration include: (a) strengthening respect for the rule of law, in international as in national affairs; (b) making the United Nations more effective in maintaining peace and security; (c) ensuring the implementation of treaties in areas such as arms control and disarmament, and of international humanitarian law and human rights law; (d) taking concerted action against international terrorism; and (f) creating an environment at the national and global levels alike that is conducive to development and to the elimination of poverty.
There was a special focus in the Millennium Declaration on meeting the needs of the Least Developed Countries, particularly in the areas of duty- and quota-free access for essentially all exports from such countries; debt relief; and grant of generous development assistance. There was an expressed resolution "to halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world's people whose income is less than one dollar a day and the proportion of people who suffer from hunger; and also, by the same date, to halve the proportion of people who are unable to reach, or to afford, safe drinking water," and to ensure that, by the same date, "children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling; and that they will have equal access to all levels of education." A particular reference was also made to meeting the special needs of small island developing States. There are many other resolutions in the Declaration, but suffice to say that the world community assembled at the UN in 2000 took a strong stand and set milestones for the achievement of wide-reaching goals.
As noted in paragraph 2 of the Declaration of Principles adopted by the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society, the representatives assembled specifically recalled the objectives set forth in the Millennium Declaration and other relevant documents as a motivating factor in their efforts.
WSIS Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action
To understand what took place at Geneva last December, it is necessary to read the Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action adopted by the assembled representatives at the World Summit. In reviewing these documents, a basic starting point is the Common Vision of the Information Society set forth in the first paragraph of the Declaration. There was a general recognition at the first phase of the Summit, and in the various preparatory meetings leading up to that event, that the rapid advances in information and communications technologies open up real opportunities for the least advantaged to attain higher levels of development. To achieve this Common Vision, it was recognized that the specific focus of world attention should be on the needs of young people, women, marginalized and vulnerable groups of society, the poor living in remote, rural and marginalized urban areas, and indigenous peoples; and the Summit drew up a list of targets to guide the ongoing efforts. The list of indicative targets that are intended to serve as global references for improving connectivity and access in the use of ICT for meeting "internationally agreed development goals, including those in the Millennium Declaration" by 2015, may be found in Section B, paragraph 5 through 7, of the Plan of Action adopted by the first phase of the World Summit.
The fundamental principle that "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression," as outlined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html), was reaffirmed as an "essential foundation of the Information Society." This basic foundation for the work of the Summit was stressed on many occasions by the various representatives. It was also recognized that: "Everyone, everywhere should have the opportunity to participate and no one should be excluded from the benefits the Information Society offers." The importance of information and knowledge development, including culturally diverse and multi-lingual materials, with open access to such knowledge for human progress and well-being, was a consistent theme throughout the Summit, particularly in the programs organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (see, e.g., http://www.unesco.org/wsis/symposium).
In many of the Summit events, there was recognition that science played a vital role in the development and evolution of information and communications technologies, as well as of the power of these technologies to reduce traditional obstacles to learning and knowledge. An important Summit Event entitled the "Role of Science in the Information Society" (RSIS) was organized jointly by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), UNESCO, the International Council for Science, and the Third World Academy of Sciences (http://rsis.web.cern.ch/rsis). It was recognized by many speakers at the RSIS that information technology and connectivity alone are not sufficient to bridge the digital divide, and that both scientists and engineers should play an important part in determining how these technologies may best be used in many areas of endeavor, including public-health issues such as safe water, the learning process in all stages of life, and contribution of "indigenous knowledge" to the advancement of science.
There was a clear sense of the representatives assembled in Geneva that new information and communications technologies hold out the promise of changing how people access information, and a determination to use these technologies, in particular the Internet, to improve the condition of millions of disadvantaged people throughout the world. How to get there was and is a continuing challenge.
Some of the specific issues singled out for discussion at WSIS were:
Digital Solidarity Agenda
How to pay for all the recommended activities led to some interesting proposals under the heading "Digital Solidarity Agenda," including something called e-strategies. As part of the preparatory work leading up to the second phase of the World Summit in Tunis, a Task Force is to be set up under the auspices of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to review the adequacy of all existing funding mechanisms "in meeting the challenges of ICT for development." Based on the results of this review, "improvements and innovations of financing mechanisms will be considered, including the effectiveness, feasibility and creation of a voluntary Digital Solidarity Fund."
The objective of such a Fund, as stated in the Declaration of Principles, would be "to contribute to bridge the digital divide, promote access to ICT, create digital opportunities, and benefit from the potential offered by ICT for development." How this new Fund will impact private, governmental and intergovernmental assistance projects already underway or being proposed remains to be seen.
An Agenda for the Internet
In the days leading up the start of the first phase of the World Summit in December, the preparatory negotiations had largely been completed with one important exception: how to deal with what was called "Internet governance" matters. In order to move forward, there was an agreement to postpone further discussion of this issue at the Summit. The compromise reached at Geneva is reflected in paragraphs 48, 49 and 50 of the Declaration of Principles.
It was recommended that the UN Secretary General set up a Working Group on Internet Governance to explore relevant issues and make proposals for action, as appropriate, on governance of the Internet by 2005 as part of the preparatory effort leading up to the second phase of the World Summit.
The ITU convened a Workshop on Internet Governance, (http://www.itu.int/osg/spu/forum/intgov04/index.html), on February 26-27, 2004, to assist in the preparation of the ITU's inputs and position with respect to the UN Working Group on Internet Governance to be established by the UN Secretary General. There is a second meeting called the Open Global Forum that is being convened by the UN Information Communication Technology Task Force now scheduled for March 25-26, 2004 in New York (http://www.unicttaskforce.org/sixthmeeting). There will be contributions prepared in advance of this Forum; and the group will propose criteria on the operation of the UN Working Group to be established by the UN Secretary General. It is likely that there will be other gatherings of interested parties to consider this important topic and seek to influence the UN Working Group's deliberations.
Specific aspects of what some might view as Internet governance-related activities were discussed at the Summit; however, it may be questioned whether they qualify as Internet "governance" matters as such. For example, in the Plan of Action, governments, and other stakeholders, are encouraged to establish "sustainable multi-purpose community public access points, providing affordable or free-of-charge access for their citizens to the various communication resources, notably the Internet." There is also support for the development and strengthening of broadband network infrastructure, including delivery by satellite and other systems, to help in providing the capacity to match the needs of countries and their citizens, and for the delivery of new ICT-based services.
If the UN Internet Governance Working Group narrowed its focus to this and closely related issues, and proposed methods for coordinating the financial, technical and other resources required to implement such activities, it would be giving effect to the Common Vision of the World Summit on the Information Society, building on the Millennium Declaration, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other relevant documents. It may be argued, however, that this does not constitute Internet governance. To attempt to restrain the evolution of the Internet with legal and regulatory restrictions in the name of development would in fact serve to stifle the very objectives the world community seeks to foster over the next decade.
It is likely, however, that the UN Working Group will be inclined to address areas that are unrelated to the stated objectives of the World Summit. At the top of the list, appears to be a UN role in coordinating what are loosely viewed as Internet-related public policy matters, or even certain technical aspects of the Internet. This general area covers a very broad spectrum of issues.
First, it is important to consider what it means to be the Internet. A basic idea that is fundamental to an understanding of what it means to be the "Internet" is the notion of a "global information system." The Internet was recognized as a global information system in a definition of "Internet" that was carefully prepared by many of the persons responsible for the basic development and implementation of the Internet, in consultation with representatives of industry and the IPR communities (Federal Networking Council Resolution, 10/24/95, http://www.hpcc.gov/fnc/Internet_res.html).
In addition to this generally agreed definition of "Internet," the UN Internet Governance Working Group might usefully consider how the Internet was established, as background for their deliberations. A helpful article was written by a group of individuals who each played an important role in the establishment of the Internet entitled "A Brief History of the Internet." It is available at the Internet Society site (http://www.isoc.org/internet/history/brief.shtml). Anyone interested in exploring what it means to be the Internet and how it was developed should find a wealth of information in this article. It is a useful starting point in the exploration of Internet governance, if governance is indeed the right concept to apply to such a dynamic information system.
While it is tempting for some countries and groups to try to control the creation and dissemination of information itself, this would be inherently inimical to the very vision and objectives of the World Summit. Broad control of information access in the guise of Internet governance could easily undermine the implementation of the goals and targets set by the first phase of the World Summit, including support for freedom of expression, encouragement for development of local content, respect for cultural diversity and identity, and promotion of online privacy and security.
Another Internet-related issue raised at the World Summit was the need to develop "strategies for increasing affordable global connectivity, thereby facilitating improved access." In particular, it was noted that: "Commercially negotiated Internet transit and interconnection costs should be oriented towards objective, transparent and non-discriminatory parameters, taking into account ongoing work on this subject." Some may argue that such cost-related matters require governance at a global level, others prefer that it be left to private negotiations between interested parties. Whether this may be considered an Internet governance issue is not readily apparent.
Further, developing and strengthening national, regional and international broadband network infrastructure may usefully be considered by the global community, including such issues as access to orbital resources, global frequency harmonization and provision of global high-speed satellite services for underserved areas. While essential to the provision of Internet access in disadvantaged areas and to under served population groups, it would not appear that these issues are directly related to the management of the Internet itself.
There may be a constructive role for each Specialized Agency of the UN within their areas of competence to maintain a list of organizations and their respective activities that relate to the Internet in some way, and for the United Nations to coordinate such information through the UN Internet site. This would provide helpful guidance to the public on existing and, possibly, proposed efforts. Such coordination of relevant information would serve as an educational resource to individuals, organizations and government entities seeking to get involved in or to stay abreast of Internet efforts. Such information is often difficult to obtain.
There remains the issue of Internet evolution, the public interest, and its relation to the development of technical standards for the Internet. At Geneva, there was a common misperception that a key to Internet governance was the control of Internet names and numbers. While the Internet is intrinsically a global information system, certain issues associated with the technical provision of Internet services require some global coordination, such as the apportionment of IP address. This is currently handled through coordination of the various Internet address registries, which operate under the overall umbrella of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) (http://www.icann.org). The September 2003 edition of "Release 1.0," prepared by the first Chairman of ICANN, Ms. Esther Dyson, discusses issues relating to management of Internet names and numbers. She reviews the DNS as well as shares lessons learned in the context of ICANN, and then contrasts the DNS to the Handle System®. (http://doi.contentdirections.com/reprints/dyson_excerpt.pdf).
There will be many ways to identify resources in the Internet, of which the domain name system is but one. Innovations in the future from the technical community may produce capabilities whose utility can best be understood from practical application and deployment. Governments usually fail if they attempt to control the evolution of dynamically changing technology, of which computers and the Internet are two key examples. If the UN Internet Governance Working Group helps to dispel this misunderstanding about names and numbers, so the focus can be on the substantive issues that may actually require governmental involvement, it will be making a substantial contribution to furthering the discussions at the second phase of the World Summit.
If the subject of management of a globally unique address space based on the use of existing Internet Protocols, or their subsequent extensions/follow-ons, were deemed necessary to a dialogue about Internet governance, it should be recognized that the whole area of identification, structuring and management of information in the Internet environment has progressed substantially over the last decade.
To take an example: the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI) has made substantial progress on a new method of organizing data known as the "digital object architecture." This was recently recognized by Digital ID World in awarding Dr. Robert E. Kahn, President of CNRI, its 2003 Industry Award "for balancing innovation and reality in the emerging field of digital identity." Dr. Kahn, and his colleague Dr. Vinton Cerf, have been widely recognized for their work in the creation of the TCP/IP protocol, and for their ongoing efforts over the years to sustain and evolve the Internet (see, e.g., http://www.cnri.reston.va.us/award/award.html).
As an information system, the Internet should accommodate the evolving capabilities of computers and other computational facilities to identify, manage, access, locate and track information (and other resources) represented in various formats. In the early days of Internet development, the domain name system (DNS) was adopted to facilitate the location of certain resources, particularly the host computers on the Internet. The system has been quite helpful in this task and is expected to continue to be helpful going forward. However, a basic limitation of this system is that the identifiers are for specific named machines on the Net (DNS names are also used in the web context as part of URLs). It is time to move beyond this limitation, while continuing to support existing systems that restrict identifiers to specific locations.
The "digital object architecture" developed by CNRI, with support from DARPA, represents a way forward (http://www.cnri.reston.va.us/doa.html). At its essence, the system introduces the notion of a data structure, known as a "digital object," that consists of two ingredients: data and metadata (a key element of metadata is a unique identifier). The component of the "digital object architecture" that concerns the assignment, resolution and administration of such identifiers is called the Handle System®. An overview of the Handle System, as well as information about the Handle System Namespace and Service Definition, and the Handle System Protocol (ver. 2.1) Specification, were published as three separate informational Requests for Comments (RFC 3650, 3651 and 3652) in November 2003 by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Information about the Handle System is also available at http://www.handle.net. The Handle System has been operational on the Internet since 1994, and is being incorporated in many of the systems or architectures that are an intrinsic part of the Internet.
The discussion of the Handle System is included primarily to illustrate the dynamic nature of the Internet as an evolving global information system. To attempt to pin down this evolving system in a traditional UN agency structure, at this stage of its development, would serve to stifle the very resource that is of such intense interest to the governments, individuals and organizations involved in the World Summit process. If the scope of issues can be narrowed to those that are known or expected to actually require global governance, it would greatly facilitate progress in arriving at workable conclusions. A monolithic management strategy for the Internet is not advisable. This is a crucial moment in the evolution of the Internet. It can provide the essential information infrastructure for all who wish to bridge the digital divide, if it is allowed to evolve and prosper for the benefit of the global community.
Copyright © 2004 Patrice A. Lyons