There is something about UN summits that makes one lose the will to live. All that fly-blown cant about Declarations of Principles and Plans of Action. All those delegates from countries of which one has never previously heard, unable to believe their luck at getting abroad on expenses and determined to make a speech to justify them.
All those corporate sleazeballs, circling the delegations like flies round dung-heaps, hoping for Heads of Agreement and laying the groundwork for contracts, not to mention the associated kickbacks generally required to do business in parts of the world where dysentery is an occupational hazard.
The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) held in Tunis last month was Phase Two of the event held in 2003 in Geneva. Then, 175 countries solemnly approved a "Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action."
It begins: "We, the representatives of the peoples of the world, assembled in Geneva from 10-12 December 2003 for the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society, declare our common desire and commitment to build a people-centered, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life, premised on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the UN and respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights..."
Continued on page 94, as they say.
The Tunisian meeting was supposed to focus on efforts to put the Plan of Action into motion. But it will be remembered mainly for two things: a major row over Internet governance, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab director Nicholas Negroponte's laptop.
The governance argument was a black comedy of misconceptions and realpolitik. It was widely portrayed in the media as a battle about "who controls the Internet," but underpinning it were two corrosive misapprehensions -- about the role the US government plays in the oversight of the Domain Name System (DNS) and about the nature of the network itself.
The DNS issue arises because, for historical reasons, mainly the fact that the US largely financed the development of the Internet, the authoritative databases which match domain names to machine addresses have always been maintained by organizations contracted by the US Department of Commerce.
Although these DNS "root servers" are at the heart of the network, to extrapolate from that to the thesis that US President George W. Bush "controls" the Internet is absurd. Given the expansion of the network from its US origins, in an ideal world it might make sense for the Root Zone operators to be overseen by a global authority. But no appropriate such authority yet exists, and the UN -- despite its pretensions -- is just about the least qualified body in the world for the job.
Why? Basically because many of its most powerful members are top- down control freaks. The governance row was so acrimonious not just because of resentment of the US' allegedly dominant role, but also because many regimes throughout the world cannot abide the notion that something as powerful and pervasive as the Internet should not be controlled.