February 17, 2004

Why UN's information society summit is doomed to fail

Author: Joe Barr

The United Nations World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) has been doomed to failure from the start. That may seem odd, given both the abundance of free and open source software and the apparent interest by the UN in making such tools available to the impoverished -- a combination that seems a no-brainer. But in spite of the alignment of resource, need, and interest, the WSIS plan will fail. Here's why.

There are two primary reasons WSIS is doomed. The first is the United States' position that profit -- or even the potential for profit -- is more important than the goals of the WSIS. The second reason is procedural. The United Nations prefers to operate by consensus. So as long as any one member of the WSIS objects to a portion of the plan, the plan cannot move forward. Put those two impediments together, and add the fact that the Microsoft/proprietary software/IP lobbies refuse to let the government do anything that they perceive as even a remote threat against future profits, and you have a greater barrier to WSIS success than the digital divide it attempts to span.

The background

The WSIS was established by the United Nations general assembly in a resolution passed in January 2002. Building upon the goals of its earlier Millennium Declaration, the UN set up the WSIS to "harness the potential of knowledge and technology" and to "find effective and innovative ways to put this potential at the service of development for all."

In spite of the lofty goals articulated in its formative resolutions, by the time the WSIS met in Geneva last December, it had settled for something much closer to home: business as usual. Between January 2002 and December 2003, concern shifted away from the needs of those the WSIS was created to assist to those most responsible for creating the digital divide in the first place.

During the preparatory phase prior to the meetings in Geneva, the focus of the United States team -- at least that evidenced by public comment -- was almost exclusively on the "protection of intellectual property" and an abiding insistence that the WSIS not say or do anything that might prevent profiteering on the needs of the disadvantaged, now or in the future. Nowhere in the WSIS documents was it deemed permissible to state the obvious: that free/open source software is the logical choice in achieving affordable solutions.

The United States position, formed at the behest of the Business Software Alliance, CompTIA, and other organizations dedicated to maintaining the status quo and curtailing the growth of free software, is that no software development methodology -- closed and proprietary versus open source -- be recommended over any other.

The United States position on free/open source software at WSIS is remarkably similar to the United States position on the use of generic AIDS drugs at the World Trade Organization (WTO). In the case of generic AIDS drugs for impoverished nations, our best thinking has concluded that it's better that millions perish from AIDS than the drug companies risk losing a penny on their bottom line. Our position on that issue, by the way, is still a bone of contention around the globe.

A fundamental mistake

At both the WTO and the WSIS, everything about the United States position revolves around concern for the sanctity of intellectual property rights. David Traystmand, the public affairs officer from the United States delegation to the WSIS, tried to explain to me that our position was based on IP rights.

That made no sense to me at the time. I asked to speak to someone else, because I felt Traystmand didn't understand the issues, especially in regards to free/open source software. I ended up speaking to Sally Shipman, a senior policy adviser in the Office of Communications and Information Policy at the State Department, a couple of weeks later.

But I was the one who didn't understand. I thought Traystmand had been saying that using free software to bridge the digital divide would violate the intellectual property rights of someone else, and I knew that was wrong. What he was actually saying was that using free software to achieve the WSIS goals might get in the way of an intellectual property owner's ability to make a profit.

Shipman quickly realized I was in over my head. She walked me through the basics and gave me background information on the WSIS meetings in Geneva. She described the preparatory process the United States team went through in reaching its position. She told me how they solicited and received public input, including letters from the U.S. Chamber of International Business and the Business Software Alliance. She noted that "we had public meetings throughout the preparatory process for the summit, and those were submitted to the Federal Registry, so those were open to the public."

Shipman even pointed me to the United States' own WSIS site, which includes the public records of the preparatory process, including copies of comments received from the public.

The comments, and there are only a handful of them, came primarily from groups like the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition (IACC), which is "devoted solely to promoting improved standards for the protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights."

The Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) also weighed in, telling the US WSIS team that "We are deeply concerned that the current versions of the documents do not recognize the leadership of the private sector in the information society."

Shipman told me, "The U.S. view is that we don't want to see government, or in this case, the World Summit, advocate one type of software over another."

The end of Phase One

When Phase One of the World Summit on Information Society concluded in Geneva last December, the group released a Declaration of Principles proclaiming its desire to create an inclusive 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."

Those lofty words are followed by others, such as these: "We are also fully aware that the benefits of the information technology revolution are today unevenly distributed between the developed and developing countries and within societies. We are fully committed to turning this digital divide into a digital opportunity for all, particularly for those who risk being left behind and being further marginalized."

The Declaration of Principles even mentions free and open source software, in the paragraph that concludes: "Affordable access to software should be considered as an important component of a truly inclusive Information Society." That may be considered a minor victory by some, since here in Texas, Microsoft's lobbyists have been able to stifle even a mention of free/open source software by government. In fact, the same Robert Kramer of CompTIA who spoke out against open source in Geneva was deeply involved in killing Texas's Senate Bill 1579 simply because it mentioned open source.

The magic phrase, "an important component," marks the start of the transformation of the Principles from a humanitarian plan to improve the lot of the poor into a plan for their continuing exploitation by mercenary forces. "Truly inclusive" sounds a bit like "truly pregnant" -- not quite right for a binary value. It leaves me wondering what the difference is between the inclusive goals of the WSIS and "truly inclusive."

Regardless of what that difference may be, the entire notion of being inclusive got demoted in that phrasing. It's fallen to only "an important component" for the WSIS now, not the reason for its being.

Careful reading of the rest of the Principles reveals there is now something more important to the WSIS than an inclusive information society. The Principles aver that "Facilitating meaningful participation by all in intellectual property issues and knowledge sharing through full awareness and capacity building is a fundamental part of an inclusive Information Society."

Given that an inclusive information society is one in which the poor and the marginalized are able to participate, it follows that access to it must be affordable. But the Principles say being affordable is only "an important component." The real goal of the Principles is now just as the special interest groups in the United States wanted: the protection of intellectual property.

That's a real tragedy. Free software might help put an end to the Petri dish of poverty and ignorance which is the breeding ground for AIDS. But we can't say that. It offends the sensibilities of corporate lobbyists whose moral compass points at nothing but the bottom line.


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