WSIS - Head of US delegation talks shop

US influence holds sway at Geneva meeting

Many eyes have been fixated on the U.S. delegation during the three-day World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) here in Geneva and, in particular, during the numerous rounds of difficult preparatory talks.

On several of the summit's key issues, such as Internet governance, funding for Internet expansion in developing countries, software and intellectual property, U.S. envoys bargained hard. And some would say they got their way.

Wording in the official documents reflects an expressed U.S. interest to either uphold the status quo on such issues as Net governance and funding or, in the case of software, ensure that the interests of major U.S.-based suppliers -- notably Microsoft Corp. -- are represented.

In a highly guarded hotel housing diplomats near the United Nations (U.N.), which is hosting WSIS, IDGNS spoke to David Gross, head of the U.S. delegation to WSIS. Gross is a political appointee of President Bush, carrying the title "Ambassdor" on his business card.

IDGNS: Delegates agreed to have the Secretary-General of the United Nations (Kofi Annan) establish a committee to study the issue of Internet governance. Was it too difficult to reach any hard decisions on this issue in Geneva?

Gross: It was an excellent decision to have the Secretary-General of the U.N. establish a working group on Internet governance. The mechanism for creating the committee will be an open process; it will not just be a governments-only organization. In addition to governments, the committee will be open to the private sector, Civil Society and other inter-governmental organizations. In effect, it will be open to everyone and anyone.

IDGNS: What is the primary focus of this committee?

Gross: The group is to do one very limited thing -- to create a report. One thing we learned during the preparatory talks is that there is a great deal of misunderstanding of the issues, including Internet governance. If you have five people in a room and ask them to define Internet governance, you get five different views. Some people think that Internet governance is synonymous with ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). Others think of Internet governance in a much broader sense, to include a host of other issues. So the objective of the report is to help define the term Internet governance and identify the public policy issues associated with it.

IDGNS: Some think ICANN could take on the role of an international, inter-governmental body governing the Net. Do you agree?

Gross: What impact the working group will have on ICANN in the future is impossible to predict. ICANN plays a very important role but a very carefully defined role with regard to Internet governance. One of the functions of that role, for instance, is top-level domain name allocation. ICANN is not an organization designed to address Internet governance issues as many broadly define that term.

IDGNS: Do we need a new body then?

Gross: We think the key to this issue is through a multi-stakeholder approach. Muti-stakeholders include governments, Civil Society and the private sector. We have long believed and continue to believe that (efforts to manage the Internet) should be private sector led for a number of reasons, perhaps the most important being that Internet technology and issues are changing so rapidly that (Internet governance) really needs to be led by the private sector because of its ability to change and modify things so quickly.

IDGNS: Funding was another thorny issue. The delegates also agreed to push this issue to a committee. Good move?

Gross: We agree to the need to study the feasibility of a new fund and determine if such a fund is needed as compared to modifying existing funding schemes. We have a presidential initiative -- the digital freedom initiative. It focuses on countries that are investing in their people and that have the right regulatory and legal environment. The initiative is a public-private partnership, which provides a combination of money and capacity support. By capacity support, I mean groups like the Peace Corp. teaching people.

IDGNS: The U.S. delegation was opposed to early wording in the declaration of principles document on promoting free open-source software. Proprietary software has since been added to the list of software models. Are you content with the final wording?

Gross: Since these documents (the declaration of principles and the action plan) are forward-looking, it is important to reflect in them the opportunities that different types of software have for governments, both as users and what they promote for people. In our view, there is an appropriate role and place for all types of software. It's not a zero-sum game. The U.S. government itself uses a wide variety of different types of software, such as proprietary and open source. The document reflects that different types of software have a time and place, depending on application and cost. Our view is that all types of software should be available.

IDGNS: The group negotiating intellectual property rights (IPR) supposedly met the most often and argued the most intensely. The final wording of the paragraph on IPR in the declaration of principles avoids concrete details. Is this what you want?

Gross: We are pleased with the paragraph on intellectual property. It does two things: first and foremost, it explicitly recognizes that intellectual property rights are an important component to the information society; and second, it explicitly recognizes that diffusion of information is a critical element in the information society. It's about people around the world having access to information, which they may pay for or which may be provided to them.

IDGNS: Why no mention of the international agreements on IPR?

Gross: The issues surrounding existing IPR are being actively decided in appropriate technical forums, such as the WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) and WTO (World Trade Organization). We believe that existing intellectual property agreements appropriately reflect the interests of both users and content producers. The declaration of principles is designed not to address existing agreements of any nature. It is a forward-looking document that should focus on things that will withstand the test of time. The details, such as particular agreements, are important, but they are the details. They are not the vision, which is the primary purpose of the declaration. The declaration of principles is supposed to be visionary -- not an encyclopedia.

IDGNS: Freedom of expression was another key issue of the summit. Has it been given sufficient attention?

Gross: It's right up front in the document. We think the agreement on freedom of expression is critically important, and we are pleased with the role that media plays in the information society.

IDGNS: Some say the Civil Society hasn't been given sufficient attention by the summit. Would you agree?

Gross: I can't speak for the Civil Society. I'm told by others, however, that this has been the most open summit preparatory process in the history of U.N. summits.

IDGNS: So how do you feel on the closing day of the summit (on Thursday) compared to the opening day on Wednesday?

Gross: I'm even more pleased because I've had time to walk around and see a lot of people and feel their excitement and energy about using technology to help people in developing countries and not only them, but also other disabled people. Ultimately, this is as important as anything else.