December 16, 2003

RMS covers WSIS

Author: Richard Stallman

The World Summit on the Information Society is supposed to formulate
plans to end the "digital divide" and make the internet accessible to
everyone on Earth.  The negotiations were completed in November, so
the big official meeting in Geneva last week was more of a trade show
and conference than a real summit meeting.

The summit procedures were designed so that non-governmental
organizations (mainly those that promote human rights and equality,
and work to reduce poverty) could attend, see the discussions, and
comment.  However, the actual declaration paid little attention to the
comments and recommendations that these organizations made.  In
effect, civil society was offered the chance to speak to a dead mike.

The summit's declaration includes little that is bold or new.  When it
comes to the question of what people will be free to do with
the Internet, it responds to demands made by various governments to
impose restrictions on citizens of cyberspace.

Part of the digital divide comes from artificial obstacles to the
sharing of information.  This includes the licenses of non-free
software, and harmfully restrictive copyright laws.  The Brazilian
declaration sought measures to promote free software, but the US
delegation was firmly against it (remember that the Bush campaign got
money from Microsoft).  The outcome was a sort of draw, with the final
declaration presenting free software, open source, and proprietary
software as equally legitimate.  The US also insisted on praising
so-called "intellectual property rights."  (That biased term
promotes simplistic over-generalization
; for the sake of clear
thinking about the issues of copyright law, and about the very
different issues of patent law, that term should always be avoided.)

The declaration calls on governments to ensure unhindered access to the
public domain, but says nothing about whether any additional works
should ever enter the public domain.

Human rights were given lip service, but the proposal for a "right to
communicate" (not merely to access information) using the Internet was
shot down by many of the countries.  The summit has been criticized
for situating its 2005 meeting in Tunisia, which is a prime example of
what the information society must not do.  People have been imprisoned
in Tunisia for using the Internet to criticize the government

Suppression of criticism has been evident here at the summit too.  A
counter-summit, actually a series of talks and discussions, was
planned for last Tuesday, but it was shut down by the Geneva police,
who clearly were searching for an excuse to do so.  First they claimed
that the landlord did not approve use of the space, but the tenant who
has a long-term lease for the space then arrived and said he had
authorized the event.  So the police cited a fire code violation which
I'm told is applicable to most buildings in Geneva -- in effect, an
all-purpose excuse to shut down anything.  Press coverage of this
maneuver eventually forced the city to allow the counter-summit to
proceed on Wednesday in a different location.

In a more minor act of suppression, the moderator of the official
round table in which I spoke told me "your time is up" well before the
three minutes each participant was supposed to have.  She later did
the same thing to the EPIC representative.  I later learned that she
works for the International Chamber of Commerce -- no wonder she
silenced us.  And how telling that the summit would put a
representative of the ICC at the throttle when we spoke.

Suppression was also visible in the exclusion of certain NGOs from the
summit because their focus on human rights might embarrass the
governments that trample them.  For instance, the summit refused
to accredit Human Rights In China
, a group that criticizes the
Chinese government for (among other things) censorship of the

Without Borders was also excluded
from the summit.  To raise
awareness of their exclusion, and of the censorship of the Internet in
various countries, they set up an unauthorized radio station in nearby
France and handed out mini-radios so that summit attendees could hear
what the organization had been blocked from saying at the summit

The summit may have a few useful side effects.  For instance, several
people came together to plan an organization to help organizations in
Africa switch to GNU/Linux.  But the summit did nothing to support
this activity beyond providing an occasion for us to meet.  Nor, I
believe, was it intended to support any such thing.  The overall
attitude of the summit can be seen in its having invited Microsoft to
speak alongside, and before, most of the various participating
governments -- as if to accord that criminal corporation the standing of
a state.

Copyright 2003 Richard Stallman
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted
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