Group agrees on voluntary digital solidarity fund

A working group of the UN-supported Net summit has agreed to a voluntary digital solidarity fund.

Negotiators at a meeting in Geneva last week appear to have defused one of the contentious issues looming over the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) later this year. They agreed to make contributions to a "digital solidarity fund" voluntary and not mandatory as demanded by a number of developing countries at the first phase of the summit in 2003.

"We have a go-ahead for a voluntary digital solidarity fund," said WSIS spokesman Sanjay Acharya. "The whole issue of financing is now pretty much decided."

Like the first Net summit in Geneva, the second one -- to take place in Tunis, Tunisia, from November 16 to 18 -- is hosted by the United Nations.

The working group on funding delivered a report at the second meeting of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom-2), which took place in Geneva from Febuary 17 to 25. The report calls for a mix of voluntary financial mechanisms, including the digital solidarity fund, to support the deployment of communications infrastructure mostly in developing countries.

Under the solidarity fund, suppliers of IT and telecoms equipment can volunteer to contribute 1 percent of their contract revenue in exchange for the right to advertise their support of the fund, according to Acharya.

The fund will be managed under Swiss law but is not an initiative of the Swiss government, he said.

Two other contentious issues, Internet governance and open source software, will be the focus of PrepCom-3, which is scheduled for September.

"There's still a lot of debate about Internet governance," Acharya said.

Many experts warn of making hasty decisions that could jeopardize the Internet's stability, he said.

The Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) presented a draft report at the Geneva meeting last week. The document broadly outlined what issues could fall into the governance definition. WGIG has been assigned the task of creating a working definition of Internet governance to support the talks.

With an eye to the role currently played by the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the group said in its document that Internet governance includes "a wider range of conditions and mechanisms than IP (Internet Protocol) numbering and domain name administration."

"Some people say the Internet needs a much more encompassing body than ICANN to deal with the more political issues of the Internet," Acharya said.

Also, a number of countries, especially those at odds with the U.S., are uncomfortable with the power ICANN, which is based in Marina del Rey, California, has over allocating IP addresses and assigning top-level domains. WGIG identified the need to improve global involvement on issues such as address management.

The group will hold two more meetings, in April and June, before delivering a final report in July.

Attendees at PrepCom-2 pushed debate on free open source software to the September meeting, according to Acharya. "This remains a complex issue," he said.

Although the U.S. succeeded in having proprietary software added as a software model in the "declaration of principles" at the first phase of WSIS, numerous poor countries view open source as a means to develop their own technology instead of having to import it at a price many can't afford.

At the preparatory meeting, which was attended by 1,700 international experts, the World Bank presented a report saying telecoms services to poor countries are growing rapidly, thus helping to close the "digital divide."

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