Secretary-General Kofi Annan has arrived in Tunis to attend the United Nations information society summit aimed at bridging the digital divide between poor and rich countries, decrying a "growing chorus of misinformation" that the world body is seeking to take over 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. 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," he declared.
In an opinion piece published in the 5 November issue of The Washington Post and picked up subsequently by newspapers around the world ahead of this week's World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), Mr. Annan conjured up a vision of the "dramatic, even revolutionary, change in realms ranging from health and education to journalism and politics" that should be shared with poorer nations.
"Far from plotting its capture, the UN wants only to ensure the Internet's global reach," he wrote regarding Web governance. "That effort is at the heart of this summit."
For historical reasons, he noted, the United States, which "deserves our thanks for having developed the Internet and made it available to the world," has the ultimate authority over some of its core resources.
"It is an authority that many say should now be shared with the international community," he added. "The United States, which has exercised its oversight responsibilities fairly and honourably, itself recognizes that other governments have legitimate public policy and sovereignty concerns, and that efforts to make the governance arrangements more international should continue."
But of all the options for future oversight arrangements drawn up by the Working Group on Internet Governance ahead of the Summit, which opens Wednesday and runs through Friday, "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," Mr. Annan stressed.
"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. Everyone acknowledges the need for more international participation in discussions of Internet governance issues. The disagreement is over how to achieve it. So let's set aside fears of UN 'designs' on the Internet."
He emphasized the Internet's role as an agent for change. "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, lifesaving medical information; and for people trapped under repressive governments, access to uncensored information, an outlet to air their grievances and appeal for help," he wrote.
But at the same time he noted potential risks involved, while pleading the cause of an uncensored Internet.
"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," he wrote.
"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."
Today, Mr. Annan met with the Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
The current draft outcome document for the 16-18 November Summit recognizes that existing arrangements have worked well and that the security and stability of the Internet must be maintained. At the same time, it acknowledges that current mechanisms do not adequately address international public policies and that there is a need to evolve towards a multilateral framework involving governments, the private sector, civil society and international organizations.
The draft calls for the strengthening of specialized regional internet management institutions and for greater participation by developing countries in decisions regarding Internet governance. It also invites the Secretary-General to establish, in early 2006, the Internet Governance Forum, which would work to find solutions to Internet issues without replacing existing structures. The Forum would have no oversight function.