19 November 2005

Zimbabwe: Internet Governance: U.S., Developing Countries Strike Deal

Tunis, Tunisia — A COMPROMISE agreement on Internet governance has been reached between the United States and developing countries.

This development will see United Nations Secretary-General Mr Kofi Annan setting up an Internet Governance Forum, which will look at how other countries can also be involved in the management of the worldwide web.

The governance of the Internet was a bone of contention at the just ended World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, with developing countries wanting a say in how the Internet - a worldwide computer network which facilitates data transmission and exchange - is run and regulated.

President Mugabe questioned why the whole world should be beholden to a US company, which developed the Internet, over such a powerful tool which transcends national borders and impinges on sensitive State issues.

President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Mozambican Prime Minister Luisa Diogo also expressed concern at the governance of the Internet by the Americans alone.

The Internet is managed by an American company called Internet Corporation on Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) which carries out this task in consultation with the US government.

Developing countries were proposing that this function be managed by a body comprising representatives of countries from both the developed and developing world.

Africa's position was that the body governing the Internet should be a fully representative authority afforded the opportunity to actively participate in international organisations dealing with the Internet.

It also wanted the establishment of a fully participatory global consultation framework to carry out in-depth reviews of general policies on Internet governance to ensure efficiency, transparency, democracy and equitable distribution of Internet services and resources to all actors and continents.

But the US opposed these proposals and observers view this as Washington's reluctance to lose control of the information superhighway and the revenue associated with it.

The Minister of Transport and Communications, Cde Christopher Mushohwe, who attended pre-summit ministerial meetings as well the summit proper and ministerial meetings on the sidelines of the summit, expressed disappointment at the failure by the summit to fully address the issue of Internet governance.

"From Zimbabwe's and Sadc (Southern African Development Community)'s point of view, there is need for involvement of other governments in the management and governance of the Internet. But, of course, Americans would not move, so what has been agreed to is a compromise which the developing world, Zimbabwe included, very reluctantly agreed on.

"The Secretary-General of the UN Mr Kofi Annan has been tasked with setting up an Internet Governance Forum. He will be helped by a team and once the forum is put in place, it will look at how other governments can be involved.

"Zimbabwe is concerned, and I think most developing countries are concerned, about this deferment of this issue," said Cde Mushohwe, adding that most countries believed the postponement was a ploy to allow the US to remain in control of the Internet.

The minister said Zimbabwe was consulting other Sadc countries with a view to meeting and coming up with a common regional position.

He said he had spoken to communications ministers from Botswana and Zambia, who also attended the summit, and they were agreeable to a meeting to map the way forward.

Cde Mushohwe said several French-speaking African countries had formed what they termed the Afrique (French for "Africa") Group, for the purpose of speaking on their behalf on the issue of Internet governance and that the bloc would be convening soon in Egypt.

"Sadc has not taken much interest, but Francophone Africa has taken the initiative and this is why we should meet as Sadc and come up with our own position.

"If we do not do that, Afrique's position may be adopted by the African Union and our position may not be taken," he said.

Despite the issue of Internet governance, the Minister of Science and Technology Cde Olivia Muchena said the summit came at a highly opportune time in that the Government had just approved the information and technology policy framework which envisages Zimbabwe being fully integrated into the information society by 2020.

She said the policy framework also envisions electrification and the installation of fibre optic cables to be followed by computerisation.

The policy would also broaden the affordability of information communication technology tools such as computers and accessories by making the devices tax exempt.

"We need a programme to signpost where we have reached in terms of accessibility and software development and tap on the worldwide experience. There is a lot that the global village has done that Zimbabwe can tap into.

"We are not starting afresh; the summit has provided a window of opportunity to fast-track information communication technology (ICT) development," she said.

On computer education, Dr Muchena said the Nziramasanga Report on education made several recommendations geared towards ICT development, one of them being the incorporation of computer education from primary school to university level.

She said the Ministry of Education, Sport and Culture had detailed plans on how that should be achieved and was working out the groundwork for implementation.

Cde Muchena also spoke of the need to have information kiosks at growth points where farmers could access information on what type of crops to grow through programmes such as e-hurudza.

"One way of fast-tracking development in the ICT sector is through private-public sector partnerships. We have been exposed to quite a number of models and are keen to involve the private sector through a smart partnership arrangement," she said.

The issue of what goes on on the Internet also came up for discussion during the summit. Developing countries are in favour of clauses which would highlight the need to exercise freedom of the media within the context of national laws, but developed countries were in favour of unfettered freedom.

Deputy Minister of Information and Publicity Cde Bright Matonga believes there should be regulations controlling what is published on the web although these may vary from one society to the other.

"In our case, we have rules and regulations and so do most African countries, and those in the Middle East and so on. Would we allow child pornography? In some Western countries it's okay. So the issue of whatever is going onto the Internet has to be confined to that particular country," he said.

Cde Matonga said the Internet is a security tool which should not be left in the hands of one country - the US - alone.

"If they do not like you - like in our case they do not like our policies - they can easily switch you off. So it's a security issue which is open to abuse if people do not like you. It (Internet governance and control) has got to be global," said Cde Matonga.

So as the heads of delegations go back to their countries, governance and control of the now very vital information superhighway should not be the only issue to ponder.

Accessibility and affordability of information technology tools such as computers and accessories should equally be important, particularly for Third World countries like Zimbabwe.

President Mugabe and his delegation returned home from the World Summit on the Information Society yesterday and were received at the Harare International Airport by Vice President Joice Mujuru.

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