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December 3, 2003

U.S. Outlines Priorities for World Summit on the Information Society

Commitment to private sector, rule of law critical for infrastructure development

By Charlene Porter

Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The U. S. delegation to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) is advocating a strong private sector and rule of law as the critical foundations for development of national information and communication technologies (ICT). Ambassador David Gross, the U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy, outlined what he called "the three pillars" of the U.S. position in a briefing to reporters December 3.

Gross will head the U.S. delegation to the December 10-12 event in Geneva, Switzerland. Presidential Science Advisor Dr. John Marburger will deliver a speech on behalf of the president. The U.N. General Assembly-sanctioned event is set to conclude with multinational agreement on a declaration of principles and a plan of action, documents that participating nations have been negotiating for almost two years.

As nations attempt to build a sustainable ICT sector, commitment to the private sector and rule of law must be emphasized, Gross said, "so that countries can attract the necessary private investment to create the infrastructure."

A second important pillar of the U.S. position is the need for content creation and intellectual property rights protection in order to inspire ongoing content development.

Insuring security on the Internet, in electronic communications and in electronic commerce is the third major priority for the United States. "All of this works and is exciting for people as long as people feel that the networks are secure from cyber attacks, secure in terms of their privacy," Gross said.

The U.N. General Assembly endorsed the proposal for a global summit on ICT issues in January 2002. The International Telecommunications Union took the lead in organizing the event in which more than 50 heads of state will participate.

"The modern world is undergoing a fundamental transformation as the industrial society that marked the 20th century rapidly gives way to the information society of the 21st century," according to background documents compiled by the WSIS Secretariat (http://www.itu.int/wsis/basic/about.html ). "We are indeed in the midst of a revolution, perhaps the greatest that humanity has ever experienced. To benefit the world community, the successful and continued growth of this new dynamic requires global discussion."

WSIS is set to unfold in two stages. After this December 2003 meeting, a second phase of the summit is set for November 2005 when nations will gather again to assess how effectively governments have worked to implement the plan of action.

As the Geneva phase of the meeting draws closer, one proposal that is gaining attention would create an international fund to provide increased financial resources to help lesser-developed nations expand their ICT sectors. The "voluntary digital solidarity fund" is a proposal put forth by the president of Senegal, but it is not one that the United States can currently endorse, Gross said.

"The goal is undoubtedly, extraordinarily important. What we're in active discussion about is the best method to get there," Gross said. He added that the United States is already engaged in "very active support" programs for countries that are creating solid legal and regulatory environments to nurture ICT development. Introduced earlier this year, President Bush's Digital Freedom Initiative now assists three nations in building greater ICT infrastructure, and will expand to include as many as 12 nations. A program launched by the U.S. Agency for International Development in the mid-1990s has helped bring Internet access to an estimated 2 million Africans.

As the negotiations have unfolded, Gross has seen a broad agreement among nations that the WSIS Declaration should speak clearly on freedom of expression. "I'm very optimistic that we will have a strong statement in the document that will affirm the importance of freedom of expression," Gross said. He said the United States has many allies in that position among other nations and among U.N. organizations.

Gross said the United States is also achieving broad consensus on the principle that a "culture of cybersecurity" must develop in national ICT policies to continue growth and expansion in this area. He said the last few years have been marked by considerable progress as nations update their laws to address the galloping criminal threats in cyberspace. "There's capacity-building for countries to be able to criminalize those activities that occur within their borders ... and similarly to work internationally to communicate between administrations of law enforcement to track down people who are acting in ways that are unlawful," Gross said.

As negotiators meet in the days ahead to resolve these remaining outstanding issues, the U.S. ICT coordinator urges a focus on the larger issues and recognition of the "remarkable change" in world thinking that this summit represents. Even just a few years ago, the Internet and sophisticated information and communication technologies were considered the domain of the elites and academics. Now, Gross said, almost every government recognizes that these technologies are very important to their national development.

"It is an extraordinarily powerful and positive development," Gross said. "That's why the summit is so important."