10 November 2005

Southern Africa: WSIS Set to Begin in Tunis As SADC Lobbies Countries To Diffuse The Dakar Paper

WITH the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) set to begin in Tunis, Tunisia, in just a few days, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) is now lobbying other countries to diffuse the Dakar paper as it was not representative of the African position.

Zambia attended a SADC Information Communication Technology (ICT) meeting on October 7, 2005 in South Africa where ministers of Lesotho, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia have been tasked to lobby other countries to diffuse the Dakar paper.

Zambia was represented by Vernon Mwaanga, Minister of Information, accompanied by Lotty Kakubo, head of international affairs, Communications Authority and National Focal point for WSIS.

The duo also attended the Geneva PrepCom from September 18-31 in Switzerland where contentious issues on Internet governance and financing mechanisms such as the Digital Solidarity Fund (DSF) remained unresolved.

Following this, there is going to be a resumed prepcom in Tunis from the November 12-15 2005 while the WSIS will run from 16- 18 November 2005.

Issues for Zambia, SADC and Africa

During the PrepCom III, Zambia joined the rest of Africa which had an African Group position on internet governance.

Kakubo said in an interview on the Geneva PrepCom III report that the African group convened by Ghana, met and discussed the resolution that had been adopted at the Dakar ministerial meeting in early September 2005.

This resolution generated a lot of discussion since it was very different from the Accra resolution, which advocated change from the status quo where Zambia participated in the Africa WSIS in Accra.

The Dakar resolutions, in the main, advocated the status quo although it did not refer to internationalisation of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

It transpired in Geneva that seemingly many of the SADC member countries did not receive an invitation or did not attend and were therefore not there when it was adopted. Further to that it was not clearer how many ministers had attended the Dakar meeting.

Questions were also raised about what constitutes an African position. The African Group did, however, create small groups to look at different parts of the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) report so as to maximise participation in the PrepCom.

Internet Governance debate

Internet governance is the development and the application by Governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.

Mwaanga explained during PrepCom III that the Internet Governance debate centered on the report of the WGIG. He said that after a slow start characterised by strongly polirised positions, the pace picked up substantially in Week-two following the release of a draft document by the chair, which saw delegates knuckle down to the task of brokering to interconnection costs and most crucially management of critical internet resources such as the domain name and IP addressing system.

He said Zambia and many other delegations from the developing world were vocal on the urgent need for new management and oversight mechanisms to better reflect the global nature of the internet, others led by the United States, had presented a relatively united front from the general supportive of the status quo.

He observed that, the scenario changed, however two days before the end of the PrepCom III, when the United Kingdom (UK) delegation, speaking on behalf of the European Union, tabled a new proposal that marked a clear departure from their earlier position.

He added that the proposal outlined a new, multi-stakeholder forum to develop public policy and most significantly- international government involvement in allocation of Internet Protocol (IP) addressing blocks and procedures for changing the root zone file to provide for insertion of new top level domain names and changes of country code top level domain name managers.

Financing Mechanism

The Digital Solidarity Fund (DSF) was proposed by President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal at Phase one of the WSIS Summit was inaugurated by President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria in his capacity as chairman of the African Union on March 14, 2005 in Geneva.

The fund is seen as a voluntary and complementary financing mechanism to supplement existing financial mechanism.

One of the most contentious issues during the negotiations concerned financing of the development of the information society, particularly in developing countries.

Discussions focused on a "Digital Solidarity Fund" based on a proposal made by President Wade, who suggested that consumers in North America and Europe be asked to voluntarily donate a small financial contribution to a specific and designated fund.

However, the main donor countries - US, Japan and Western Europe resisted the idea of such a fund, arguing that existing financing mechanisms could be better leveraged.

"Action speaks louder than words". So said the President of the DSF, Guy-Olivier Segond, who provided PrepCom-three participants with an overview of the origins and purpose of the DSF.

He said the fund seeks to fight poverty through an innovative approach to financing development, targeting principally smaller community-based projects that respect cultural diversity and local content, and help create new activities, new jobs, and new markets.

Kakubo observed that the problem of effective financial strategies to promote the development of ICTs in the world's underserved regions like Zambia was raised during the WSIS Geneva Phase. Without consensus on the best way to address the issue, the first phase of the WSIS requested UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to establish a task force on financing mechanisms.

PrepCom II final report served as a basis for the discussions as it had largely agreed on the text except for a few paragraphs forwarded for approval by PrepCom III.

PrepCom III also stressed the importance of the multi-stakeholder approach and coordination between government and business. While there was not major impediments to consensus, due to lack of time, Prep com III did not finalise.

Political Commitments

Prep Com III Tunis documents proved more difficult to negotiate than expected. Disagreements centered on weather text from the original Geneva declaration should remain unchanged or reinforced in the Tunis output, given that the first PrepCom had agreed not to re-open what had been adopted in Geneva.

Mwaanga said discussions were also intense over issues such as open source and proprietary soft ware, free access to information and handling of harmful content, the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for the information society, trade liberalisation and debt relief to bridge the digital divide, and the regulatory role of governments.

"At the close of PrepCom III, with no consensus on around 50 per cent of text, the document will again by the negotiating group for onward presentation at the resumed PrepCom in Tunis," said Mwaanga.

How does WSIS directly apply to Zambia and SADC?

Whereas the Dakar minister's meeting recommended that the status on governance remain uncharged, this position has been strongly opposed by SADC and other African ministers who prefer that Governments need to be involved at some level in the governance to make meaningful policy decisions.

"Zambia endorses the position of SADC ministers with regard to the DSF. Whereas the objective of the fund is to enhance investment in the sector, its unclear funding mechanism through the digital solidarity fund makes it difficult to access the fund," Mwaanga.

He added that in view of the foregoing, the SADC will study the issue and make a position known once the grey areas are clarified.

International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Press release indicates that WSIS is expected to welcome some 10 000 participants from UN agencies, governments, the private sector and civil society, including: Annan, heads of State, heads of government and political leaders from more than 45 countries and national delegations from more than 120 nations worldwide.

(Brenda Zulu is a journalist specialising in reporting on Information Communication Technologies for Development -ICT4D- issues)

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