The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)
December, 2003
Geneva, Switzerland

Sylvia Caras, PhD

The WSIS process began in 1998 when the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) formally proposed a summit. In December of 2001 the UN General Assembly adopted an authorizing resolution underscoring how society is being transformed by the information revolution and concerned with the digital divide and sanctioning ITU to organize a global conference in Geneva to include governments, industry, and civil society. At such a summit, with so many decision makers in one place, the possibility exists for coordinated political action at a truly global scale..

Geneva is on the Rhone river, too wide to easily cross before the industrial age. There is a large rock island in the middle of the river, allowing briding without technology, by laying a log across. Thus Geneva connected the lands, became a crossroads, an international trade center. And developed into a humanitarian Protestant city which led Woodrow Wilson to chose it for the site of the League of Nations and the natural successor the United Nations. The Rhone collects here into the largest lake in Western Europe. A fifth of Geneva’s land is public parks. Of the 44 roads out of Geneva, 42 go to France, only two to Switzerland, and only 4 kilometres of the canton of Geneva’s borders are actually with Switzerland. Land is scarce, buildings are tall, even the very early ones have several floors.

Sometime in 2002 I found out about the WSIS meeting, knew how well it matched my interests, and made a note to try to attend. Ever since I learned Boolean algebra (1) I’ve been interested in the applications and development of technology and the internet. I kept looking at my reminder note and thinking about logistics and, prompted by an air fare sale and the discovery of modestly priced lodging, I made reservations, applied for People Who ( to be accredited to the meeting (we were) and started to follow the preparatory negotiations. In the last month I found there would be a strong disability presence, indeed a Global Disability Forum.

I also have been fortunate to join several hundred attending a preliminary meeting, The Role of Science in the Information Society (RSIS) at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), the home of the world wide web.

CERN was formed 50 years ago, has 20 member states, employs 9000 people including 6500 scientists. CERN has a 2500 PC computing farm and projects need for too many more to be practical. With Oracle, there a a project being readied for the Grid, the next iteration of the internet (central databases and computer power with smaller personal systems). CERN has robot_controlled data storage handling; robot_driven carts retrieve data tapes.

During the two days of RSIS sessions:

Esther Dyson focused on ICANN (International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). ICANN’s job is the management of unique identifiers, protocols, and other technical and operational matters. There are currently 55 million domain names, there exist enough domain addresses for 20 years, with the upcoming system, there will be enough IP (Internet Protocol) addresses for each atom of the known universe. Dyson urged that ICANN should not be expected to handle policy. But a participant suggested that domain names are more than technical, and that there is a real policy, government issue. Dyson urged a system without borders and an active role for scientists in the future of the internet.

Ismail Serageldin, Director_General of the Library of Alexandria, presented a vision of universal access to all knowledge for all people at all times.

It was noted that low quality data is often used to make policy and that this is a worse problem in developing countries.

Nico Stehr defined knowledge as the capacity to act. Science is a source of uncertainty, of hypotheses and probabilities, and hence it becomes politicized. In this time of social fragility, he predicted a new field, knowledge policy.

It was suggested that in developing world already existing power lines can be used for both narrow and broad band connectivity

Juergen Renn addressed the professional journal crisis, noting that print distribution dissemination is failing because the costs of scholarly journals are too high. He wished for open access, free journals, free university courseware.

Tim Berners_Lee described the semantic web, using standards to tag items that appear across records, for instance zip codes, so that then web information can be sorted or grouped in new ways by each individual user. And he described global governance (2) as horizontal and interactive, wondering how many contributors have been affected by an intervention, how can we better construct partnerships.

My sense of the thrust of the two days: scientists and researchers must get involved in regulatory regimes, in selling the impact of their work, in establishing national alliances; they must continue to push for openness.

The digital divide is only a small part of the divide caused by poverty.

The word governance means very different things in the construct global governance and in the construct internet governance.

Researchers and scientists must become involved in the political, in local policy.

Luciano Maiani. CERN Director General summarized some of the results that emerged from the five parallel sessions.

1. Education: there is consensus that education is necessary for development, that South_South cooperation can play a key role and that ICTs are essential in the learning process in all stages of life.

2. Health: ICTs can help in priority public_health areas such as safe water, for example in capacity_building.

3. Environment: planners and decision makers need accurate and timely information; scientific North_South collaboration is essential to ensure the accessibility of data.

4. Economic Development: open_source software should be made available; the exchange and use of scientific data could be a model for the rest of society.

5. Enabling technologies: it is important for scientists to engage in the policy arena and define projects with clearly visible benefits, for example the GRID.

Several general themes have emerged as guidelines and have received clear support at RSIS:

_ That fundamental scientific information be made freely available;

_ That the software tools for disseminating this information be also made freely available;

_ That networking infrastructure for distributing this information be established world_wide;

_ That training of people and equipment to use this information be provided in the host nations

_ That general education is an indispensable basis for the Information Society.

These are reflected in the WSIS draft Action Plan which aims to:

_ Promote affordable and reliable high_speed Internet connection for all universities and research institutions,

_ Promote electronic publishing, differential pricing and open access initiatives,

_ Promote the use of peer_to_peer technology to share scientific knowledge,

_ Promote the long_term systematic and efficient collection, dissemination and preservation of essential scientific digital data,

_ Promote principles and metadata standards.

20,000 attend the many related WSIS sessions and events and 800 exhibits over the next three days at Palexpo, a huge convention center next to the Geneva airport, while at the same time the heads of state met in plenary and closed sessions.

Yesterday the doors to the wheelchair accessible bathrooms were locked. I checked today and they are open. I also found some other bathrooms labeled wheelchair accessible _ at the foot of a flight of stairs.

Because it can take five days for a runner to carry letters from one end of Bhutan to the other they have created an epost project which enables a sender to write an electronic letter at one post office, have it sent to the nearest recipient post office electronically, and from there delivered to the recipient. Faster.

The Israel Internet Association in 2002 established a web accessibility task group. "The real victims (of the digital divide) are those with special needs: children with learning difficulties, senior citizens and people with disabilities." There’s a broad understanding of access including ability to stop animations, change colors, enlarge fonts, change spacing, design with variable fonts.

The creativity of some of the micro_projects, mostly with cell phones and wireless, delighted me. A letter carrier also carries a phone and sells usage to those on his route. A woman in a rural village buys a phone and service and sells usage to all those in the village. Fishermen use cell phones to find which pier has the best prices for their catch. Farmers find the going rates for produce before going to the buyer auction houses. A person buys a digital camera and sells/sends digital images from villages to families far away.

But there is considerable tension and dismay as the summit veers in directions that exclude some of the specifics that have been proposed.

The Bolle society materials (3) and the Charter of Civil Rights for a Sustainable Knowledge Society capture the sense of this:

"During the WSIS process the discussions on ICT security have shifted from the need for infrastructure integrity to a politicised agenda, characterised by military language and a stress on safeguards against possible terrorist threats. ... national security concerns rather than by concerns for the protection of privacy standards."

"Strife for political power and economic advantages has pervaded the discussion of single issues, from internet governance to intellectual property rights, and from proprietary software to media beyond ICTs."

"Knowledge as a common good must have a higher status in the hierarchy of social values than the protection of private claims."

"Limited intellectual monopolies, of which copyright is the best known, are powerful tools _ and as such they should be used with great care. They wee invented for a different age and with different issues at stake; today’s information societies should therefore not simply reuse them _ they will have to find new and appropriate forms. ... For thousands of years human creativity fared rather well without monopolies."

"Free software does go a long way towards making informaton societies equitable, non_discriminatory, inclusive, and open to all. ... Languages are the standards."   (We don't copyright English, charge for using the alphabet, ... S.)

"Community radio, television, and print media represent basic, but highly effective means to bridge the information and communication divide, as they apply appropriate local technology and knowledge to development and poverty reduction."

WSIS addressed internet governance, security, free and open software, communication rights, intellectual property, human rights, finances.

Communication rights are comprised of a set of positive rights that go beyond the right to free speech. They include a right to access to media and education to be able to communicate to others and to the broader society.

WSIS presents an opportunity to strengthen rights associated with information and communication.

The themes I especially was aware of were the digital (and other) divides, information privacy, micro_projects especially using cell phones, and finally, or arguably first, whose society is it?

 "Building the inclusive information society envisioned at WSIS will require a multi-stakeholder approach. The challenges raised - in areas like Internet governance, access, investment, security, the development of applications, intellectual property rights and privacy - require a new commitment to work together if we are to realize the benefits of the information society."

 Links, references, and more information:


1.  An electrical interpretation of Boolean algebra is what underpins computer design binary logic.

2.  From a newspaper article at the conferences: "Global governance refers to the mutual relationship and horizontal interaction between the United Nations and other intergovernmental organisations on the one hand and civil society organisations, the different institutions of knowledge production, the business community, the media, local and regional authorities, and parliamentarians on the other. ... On the whole it can be said that innovative formulas of consultation and the presentation of views have moved international negotiating processes from intergovernmental diplomacy to becoming increasingly global political processes with decision_making exposed to concrete inputs from non_governmental and non_state actors and stake_holders."

3.  Visions in Process, Henrich Boll Foundation, Ed