After 10 days of intense negotiations at the second preparatory meeting of the Tunis phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), negotiators have reached consensus on the financial mechanisms to bridge the digital divide. However, there is no agreement on the other substantive issue of who should run the internet. As we head to Tunis, there are still big differences, even within the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG), writes Angela Nabwowe and Roland Stanbridge of Highway Africa News Agency.

Currently, the internet is managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a private-public partnership set up by the US government .

The Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) set up a Working Group on Internet Governance with a view to preparing the ground for negotiations at the second phase of the WSIS, to be held in Tunis in November 2005. The WGIG is supposed to investigate and make proposals for action, as appropriate, on the governance of the Internet by 2005. The main task in this regard is to develop a working definition of Internet Governance; identify the public policy issues that are relevant to internet governance and to develop a common understanding of the respective roles and, responsibilities of governments, existing international organisations and other forums as well as the private sector and civil society from both developing and developed countries.

Addressing a press conference this afternoon, the president of the second prepcom, Janis Karklins announced that agreement was reached about the Digital Solidarity Fund (DSF) after lengthy and intense negotiations between the African countries and the European Union (EU) and supported by other countries as a compromise decision. The fund will operate alongside the other existing financial mechanisms.

The fund, to be based in Geneva, will rely on the voluntary commitment of stakeholders and will be financed through voluntary contributions by governments, local authorities, the private sector, civil society and international organizations.

"Examining the report of the Task Force on Financial Mechanisms (TFFM) was at the heart of our discussions. Today I am particularly happy to tell you that prepcom 2 agreed on one of the issues which we could find solutions to in Geneva at the first phase of the WSIS.The Digital Solidarity Fund (DSF) was endorsed as to compliment the existing financial mechanisms. This is an extremely positive development. This is already half way to a successful summit in Tunis," said Karklins.

He noted that discussions about internet governance continue. A preliminary report of the WGIG was released on February 21st and examined by the plenary on February 24. The final report is to be released in June, with a formal presentation to take place in mid July in Geneva.

"The issue of internet governance is very complex, and I am looking forward to the final report of the WGIG." He also commented that the first reading of the political chapeaux of Tunis and other crucial matters were completed. It is expected that the political chapeaux of Tunis will be one of the outcomes of the seocnd phase of the summit in Tunis.

Responding to queries about lack of media representation on the WGIG, Karklins said that composition of the group is a prerogative of the Secretary General of the UN but hastened to add that the consultations have an open format. He also announced that the next prepcom will take place in Geneva from the 19th to 30th September 2005.

The Secretary General of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Yoshio Utsumi re-echoed the need to create a just and equitable information society. Utsumi who constantly refereed to the Tunis phase as a construction stage said that the next prepcom will concentrate on internet governance, "once all this is done, then the concrete implementation plan of Geneva will be possible. I can say that this prepcom was quite successful, more than expected. We made big progress, I am sure the Tunis phase will be better."

Tunisian prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, responding to reports of human rights abuses by his country angrily said that the allegations are directed at diverting the world from the summit objectives. "Lets not deviate from the summit objectives, those allegations are unfounded and irrelevant to the summit. Lets keep focus on issues relevant to the WSIS."

Ghannouchi too said that this prepcom has been successful adding that Tunisia, being the host of the second and final phase of the summit, "we will spare no effort to provide a favourable and an enabling environment, we are working very hard to promote the summit in all environments."

The president of the Swiss Confederation said "internet governance is a big concern of the next prepcom, I am glad we reached agreement on the DSF to resolve the digital divide, the Tunis phase is expected to be a summit of solutions."

Bertrand de La Chapelle head of the civil society caucus on 'implementation of the WSIS Action Plan' and director of WSIS-Online, which networks all the stakeholders, says a major achievement of the WSIS process has been the successful emergence of multi-stakeholder mechanisms, which will probably become an integral aspect of any future international negotiations.

"The main challenge for civil society will now be to make sure the implementation and follow up mechanisms that will be put in place in Tunis are fully multi-stakeholder and that civil society is fully involved in their definition."

Jeanette Hofmann, of the social science research centre Berlin, and member of the civil society Working Group on Internet Governance WGIG says the major achievement for civil society at Prepcom-2 this week has been the general consensus regarding internet governance.

"It is possible now to outline general principles that we think should be included when we speak about internet governance - and I think we have reached a more global understanding of what internet governance is about and what kinds of values and principles we believe must be taken into account.

"Particularly we are agreed that internet governance must be grounded in a framework of human rights and freedom of speech. So we have come to a more political understanding of internet governance. The last ten years were dominated by a technocratic approach that of course reflects the early years of the internet, when the engineers were governing it."

"There is no question that this is important but it is not all, and a more political approach that takes into account users worldwide and not just of the western world must insist on human rights issues, and must also make clear where these are endangered."

Tracey Naughton, chair of the media caucus and co-convener of the civil society bureau agrees that significant gains have been made in the multi-stakeholder process." Governments now solicit us for input and language. Civil society is regarded with respect."

Also, for the first time in the whole WSIS process, there has been positive interaction between civil society and the business sector. "In the past it was civil society to government and private sector to government but now it is private sector - civil society reporting to government."

" I think the main task for civil society participants in the coming months is to develop their knowledge on the key issues, such as internet governance, and to come well prepared to the next Prepcom."