When it comes to the Internet, the U.S. wields a powerful voice. Some would say too powerful.
But if delegates from nearly 175 countries gathered here in Geneva at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) expect the U.S. to take a back seat in plotting the Internet policy roadmap in the decades ahead, they're in for a surprise.
To keep the summit from grinding to a halt even before it started, delegates agreed after several rounds of preparatory talks to defer decisions on two key issues -- Internet governance and funding for Internet expansion in developing countries -- to the second part of the two-phase summit, in 2005.
The move to delay a decision on a solidarity fund came Tuesday, one day before the official opening of the three-day summit and nearly two days after the decision to delay action on Internet governance.
For the U.S., which opposes the idea of an international government-led body managing the Net and of a digital solidarity fund, these decisions essentially mean upholding the status quo. The most-recognized Internet governance body will remain, at least for the next few years, a U.S.-based organization -- the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. And any country or organization that wants to spend money on extending the Internet to remote villages can do so -- voluntarily.
David Gross, head of the U.S. delegation in Geneva, referred to the summit's draft declaration of principles and action plan as "exciting documents" at a news conference Wednesday.
Both documents were unanimously endorsed by the delegates on Monday afternoon only after they agreed to set up a committee to study the feasibility of a digital solidarity fund. The policy papers will be put to heads of state on Friday for government endorsement.
"We need to know more before we can make any decisions on a digital solidarity fund," Gross said. "Who will run it? Who will benefit from it? How will the funds be allocated? And is there really a need for such a fund?"
Unanswered questions like these prompted the delegates to agree to establish a group to study the feasibility of a digital solidarity fund.
"There was a general consensus to give the funding issue special attention and have a group of experts study the possibilities and submit a report before the second summit in Tunis," a summit spokeswoman said Wednesday at a news conference. "This is clearly an issue that requires more discussion."
Indeed, delegates failed to resolve the funding issue during their earlier pre-summit talks over the weekend, when they diffused another contentious issue by agreeing to establish a committee to investigate Internet management and report back by 2005.
At issue is whether richer nations should subsidize Internet expansion in poorer nations and if so, to what degree. Many developing countries, particularly in Africa, have lobbied intensively for the creation of a digital solidarity fund to pay for extending the Internet into remote villages, but most European nations, Japan and the U.S. prefer to use existing development aid money.
On Wednesday, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), a U.S. government agency, announced a US$400 million program to encourage U.S. investments in telecommunications and IT projects in 152 developing countries. OPIC President and Chief Operating Officer Peter Watson called the program a "support facility" to promote technology partnerships in these markets.
Representatives of the United Nations (U.N.), which is hosting the event, are keen to put a positive spin on the talks that are under way. Nitin Desai, who is U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan's special advisor to WSIS, said at a news conference that the Net summit is a "unique" event. While many U.N. summits are focused on global threats, this one is focused on "global opportunities," he said.