Report about UNESCO conference St. Petersburg

By EDRi · May 24, 2005

From 17 to 19 May UNESCO organised a large conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, ‘Between two phases of the World Summit on the Information Society’. The 450 participants from all over the world were invited to the luxurious Konstantinovsky Palace.

In her opening speech Françoise Rivière, the Assistant Director-General of UNESCO, described the context of St. Petersburg conference and the special involvement of UNESCO Paris head quarters with a session on cultural diversity.

Françoise Rivière

Opening speech by Françoise Rivière

This session was the 4th of a series of thematic meetings held in 2005 in the Information for All programme. In February Paris head quarters hosted a conference on freedom of expression (see EDRI-gram 3.3), early in May the capital of Mali (Bamako) hosted a conference on multi linguism in cyberspace and on 10 May Paris head quarters debated about the use of ICT for capacity building. The Bamako conference produced as main result a clear recognition that the debate about the level of IT development must be changed and in stead of just counting internet usage equal attention should be given to lesser used languages, education and literacy programs. The third meeting in Paris was dedicated to effective use of new methods for learning, focussing on groups such as refugees, the visually impaired, rural areas and the urban poor.

Rivière added that UNESCO will round up these discussions during the second phase of WSIS in Tunis in November with a high level round table about the question what knowledge suits what society. With this initiative UNESCO clearly wants to move away from the overly technical concept of information society towards an inclusive, equitable knowledge society. Not an easy goal, she admitted with a grand smile, with 150 different tasks already lined out for UNESCO in the WSIS plan of action adopted in Geneva in the first phase. The only way to achieve concrete results was to create broad partnerships and a multi-stakeholder approach. This latter concept proved to be a hot topic during the 11 separate workshops organised the next two days, together with strong criticism of the current imbalance between intellectual property rights and access to public domain knowledge.

The session on stakeholder partnerships recommended that UNESCO should set up a new working group on multi-stakeholder partnerships, that should develop ethical standards and guidelines for these partnership and learn from the free and open software paradigm about the sharing of knowledge. This conclusion was echoed by the rapporteur from the separate round table of civil society representatives. Divina Frau-Meigs, professor at the Sorbonne university in Paris, France and representative of the WSIS science and academia Caucus, opened her contribution with a mostly negative evaluation of the present state of the WSIS process from an NGO perspective. She said most participants felt the process was moving back from the goals set in Geneva, with governments in the developed world trying to infiltrate the civil society representation with government-oriented NGOs (GONGO) and governments in the developing countries shying away from actions they supported in the first phase. On the other hand, NGOs should also look at themselves, not being democratically elected, how they can develop trust in their goals and strategies. Ideally NGOs should function as pepper in the salad and plain adversary towards plans to privatise public goods and implement new surveillance methods. In all, she concluded the NGOs should continue to participate in WSIS to represent the forgotten constituents of WSIS and its inter governmental decision making.

The session on education for knowledge societies recommended a general governance of knowledge, prevention of pure commercial development and strong policy support from UNESCO for open educational sources. This was broadened to all kinds of open content in the sharp conclusions from the workshop on infrastructure. According to rapporteur Vladimir Minkin, the chairman of ITU-Russia, UNESCO should use its influence in the United Nations to endorse a digital public lending right and promote open architectures and new methods to facilitate the global exchange of knowledge. Though national governments should take care of digitising their national patrimony and make sure it is available in the public domain, UNESCO should broaden the funding for the Information for all programme to include commercial partnerships.

Perhaps the strongest conclusions were presented by the rapporteur on the session on freedom of expression in cyberspace, Taras Shevchenko, Director of Kiev Institute of Media Law (Ukraine). Any form of self-regulation should at least involve the media and journalists and ethics should be developed by professionals themselves. Internet governance must not be a pretext to regulate Internet content, nor should considerations of ethics lead to a veiled form of censorship. The Internet should enjoy the same freedom of expression principles, Shevchenko stated firmly, and the battle against terrorism should not imperil these rights. He also reflected on the role of ISPs. They should not be held liable for content, nor should governments try to modify the technical architecture to enhance control.

The sessions on access to public domain information, on the business environment and on science were largely devoted to specific developments in Russia. In the session on science rapporteur Sergey Shaposhnik from the Institute of the Information Society warned the audience that the interest in fundamental science in Russia is waning, due to insufficient funding, absence of competition based resources and an alarming lack of access to leading academic publications. For example when it comes to nuclear research, there is not a single institution in Russia anymore that can afford a subscription to the leading academic magazine. Talking about the dangers of brain drain, Shaposhnik pointed out that it was an ambivalent problem, not just a negative process. In his view, Russia could also develop as a donor of scientific researchers, as long as this would be accompanied by open access to scientific information. To start with, Russia should develop a national policy of rights transfer from the state to the researcher. Researchers would be much more effective in using the intellectual property rights than the state currently does.

Rapporteur Alexander Yevtiushkin from the same institute painted a bleak outlook of the current business environment in Russia, with a high level of corruption and very difficult access to capital for small and medium sized enterprises. On a national level he recommended the creation of a legal environment for IT and innovation and administrative and legal measures to promote transparent interrelationships between state and businesses. Last but not least, on an international level civil servants should be trained in e-governance, possibly with the help of a new multi-language information portal.

The session on access to public domain information, in which the editor participated as speaker, did not produce very sharp conclusions. Most of the contributions focussed on the lack of access to the law in Russia, and the incredible difficulty of participating in a democratic process without any easy access to legal and policy resources. Many speakers demanded more transparency and realisation of a bill on access to governmental policy information that has been underway for over 3 years. Also, current laws make it impossible for libraries and research institutions to digitise their materials. In the conclusions presented to the general audience, this 8 hour debate was brought back to the conclusion that Russia is not a world leader in transparency of decision making. At the same time, rapporteur Victor Naumov from Ernst & Young consultants added that the level of legal protection for confidential business information should be raised to a more adequate standard. This was completely inaccurate, since the workshop participants had in majority voiced strong complaints about the excessive list of exceptions contained in one version of the draft law, focussing especially on the problem of business confidentiality hindering publications about environmental problems. In general, the rapporteur was right in concluding that the knowledge society in Russia could only be developed if a stronger legal culture was developed. He also told the audience that excessive property rights should be balanced against the general public interest.

The different recommendations will be collated by UNESCO head quarters in the next few weeks, represented at the WSIS in Tunis and sent to all the representatives of national governments.

St. Petersburg conference website

Presentation Sjoera Nas, editor EDRI-gram on access to information (18.05.2005)

EDRI-gram: Two Unesco conferences on internet and human rights (09.02.2005)