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French Version

The United Nations and the World Wide Web

'To defend the internet is to defend freedom itself'
By Kofi Annan


The main object of the World Summit on the Information Society, to be held in Tunis, is to ensure that poor countries get the full benefit that new information and communication technologies including the Internet can bring to economic and social development.

But as the meeting draws nearer there is a growing chorus of misinformation about it.

One mistaken notion, heard with troubling frequency of late, is that the United Nations wants to take over, police, or otherwise control the Internet. Nothing could be further from the truth. Far from plotting its capture, the UN wants only to ensure its global reach. That effort is at the heart of the summit.

Strong feelings about protecting the Internet are to be expected. In its short life, the Internet has become an agent of dramatic, even revolutionary change in realms ranging from health and education to journalism and politics. In the UN's own work for development, we have glimpsed only the beginnings of the benefits it can provide: for victims of disaster, quicker, better coordinated relief; for poor people in remote areas, life-saving medical information; and for people trapped under repressive governments, access to uncensored information, an outlet to air their grievances and appeal for help.

There are also legitimate concerns about the use of the Internet to incite terrorism or help terrorists, disseminate pornography, facilitate illegal activities or glorify Nazism and other hateful ideologies. But censoring cyberspace, compromising its technical underpinnings, or submitting it to stringent governmental oversight, would mean turning our backs on one of today's greatest instruments of progress. To defend the Internet is to defend freedom itself.

To date, governance of matters related to the use of the Internet, such as spam and cyber-crime, is being dealt with in a dispersed and fragmented manner, while the Internet's infrastructure has been managed in an informal but effective collaboration between various institutions, with private businesses, civil society, and the academic and technical communities taking the lead. But developing countries find it difficult to follow all these processes and feel left out of Internet governance structures.

The United States deserves our thanks for having developed the Internet and making it available to the world. For historical reasons, the United States has the ultimate authority over some of its core resources and many say this authority should be shared with the international community. The U.S., which has exercised its oversight responsibilities fairly and honorably, itself recognizes that other governments have legitimate public policy and sovereignty concerns, and that efforts to make the governance arrangements more international should continue. The need for change is not a reflection on the past or even the present; rather, it is a reflection of the future, when Internet growth will be most dramatic in developing countries.

What we are seeing is the beginning of a dialogue between two different cultures: the nongovernmental Internet community, with its traditions of informal, bottom-up decision-making; and the more formal, structured world of governments and intergovernmental organizations. The Internet has become so important for almost every country's economy and administration that it would be naive to expect governments not to take an interest, especially since public service applications in areas such as education and health care will become even more widespread. They need to be able to get their Internet policies right, and to coordinate with each other and with the Internet community. But governments alone cannot set the rules. Governments must learn to work with nonstate stakeholders. They, after all, are the ones that have played critical roles in building and coordinating the Internet; and they will remain the driving force of further expansion and innovation.

At the previous summit, two years ago in Geneva, discussions on Internet governance reached a stalemate. So the UN's member states asked me to establish a working group to examine the issue further. This Working Group on Internet Governance presented its findings in a report which reflects the views of its members, but not of the UN. It proposed the creation of a new space for dialogue; a forum that would bring all stakeholders together to share information and best practices, and discuss difficult issues, but would not have decision-making power.

The Working Group also offered several options for future oversight arrangements, with varying degrees of government involvement and relationship to the United Nations. None says the UN should take over from the technical bodies now running the Internet; none proposes to create a new UN agency; and some suggest no UN role at all. All say that the day-to-day management of the Internet should be left to technical institutions, not least to shield it from the heat of day-to-day politics. These, and other, suggestions are now being considered by the UN's member states.

Everyone acknowledges the need for more international participation in discussions of Internet governance issues. The disagreement is over how to achieve this. So let's set aside fears of UN "designs" on the Internet. Much as some would like to open up another front of attack on the United Nations, this dog of an argument won't bark. The United Nations wants only to promote dialogue and consensus among all stakeholders, and ultimately to see that all people share in the Internet's benefits.

Pre-Summit proceedings have reaffirmed the human right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. I urge all stakeholders to come to Tunis ready to bridge the digital divide; ready to build an open, inclusive information society that enriches and empowers all people; ready to take this remarkable gift from the 20th century fully into the 21st.

Kofi Annan is secretary general of the United Nations.

NY,11 21 2005
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