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WIPO, WSIS Meetings Highlight Growing Digital Policy Divide

Appeared in the Toronto Star on September 19, 2005 as World Faces Internet Fork in the Road
Appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on September 22, 2005 as Worlds Apart

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which focus on global policy and standard setting for telecommunications, patents, copyrights, and trademarks, are situated directly across from each other on a Geneva street in the heart of the United Nations district of the city.  As visitors leave the buildings, the road that separates the two agencies forks in several directions.

Over the next two weeks, the ITU and WIPO will serve as ground zero for intense discussions on the future of policies that will greatly impact on the Internet.  Negotiators at both meetings will also face a fork in the road.  Pressure is mounting to turn in a new direction, away from a U.S.-centric approach toward one that better addresses the technological needs of the developing world.  

Starting today, the ITU will host a two-week preparatory conference on the World Summit on the Information Society. While the summit itself is scheduled for mid-November in Tunisia, this preparatory conference is tasked with laying the groundwork for a global agreement on Internet governance issues.

Although most Internet users pay scant attention to Internet governance issues, in recent years there has been growing dissatisfaction with the current system under which the United States retains ultimate control over the Internet’ s core technical functions.  

There are several reasons for this dissatisfaction.  First, the importance of the policy issues associated with Internet governance has become increasingly clear.  Many experts engaged in Internet policy are unhappy with how key issues, including privacy protection for domain name owners, the free speech implications of domain name dispute resolution, and the failure to introduce internationalized domain names that would allow Internet users to create domains in their local language, are being addressed.  

Second, many observers are frustrated by the lack of transparency associated with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California non-profit corporation mandated by the U.S. government to lead the Internet governance issue. Critics argue that ICANN’ s decision-making lacks transparency, that it has ignored commitments to incorporate Internet users into its board governance structure, and that it has bungled crucial issues such as the development of new domain name extensions.

Third, and most important, much of the world is no longer comfortable with surrendering defacto control over the domain name system to the U.S. government.  That discomfort has led to proposals to internationalize ICANN or to alternatively strip away from its mandate those activities that have a direct impact on national sovereignty.

Although the U.S. has thus far indicated that it is unwilling to yield control to an international body, negotiators will be seeking a compromise to foster ongoing dialogue that may eventually lead to a framework that better addresses the interests of the global community.

Across the street, WIPO will be hosting its annual general assembly, a gathering that charts a course for the future work of the organization.

The WIPO Development Agenda, introduced by Brazil and Argentina last fall to focus on developing country concerns, will take centre stage.  Over the past year, the Development Agenda quickly gained momentum, garnering support from developing countries throughout South America, Asia, and Africa. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winning economist, recently confirmed the developing world’ s concerns, concluding that “intellectual property is important, but the appropriate intellectual property regime for a developing country is different from that for an advanced industrial country.”

Last year’ s approval of the WIPO Development Agenda set in motion two sets of activities.  First, civil society groups began work on an Access to Knowledge Treaty, which could include provisions on access to medicines and globally funded research, open access to scholarly research, as well as exceptions to patent and copyright laws that serve the interests of the developing world.

Meanwhile, WIPO hosted several meetings to decide whether to continue the Development Agenda.  After much discussion, the European Union voiced its agreement with the concerns of the developing world, and recommended continuing the agenda as a standalone project.  The primary opponent was the United States, which, with support from Japan, argued that existing technical initiatives are sufficient to meet the developing world’ s needs.

While the ITU and WIPO meetings are distinct, both reflect the developing world’ s increasing frustration with global rules that have an enormous impact on technological development everywhere yet were crafted primarily with the developed world in mind.  With the importance of the Internet and new technologies readily apparent to all, those countries are clearly no longer content to sit on the sidelines as their interests go unrepresented.

Moreover, the two events have unfortunately reduced Canada’ s role to that of a bit player on the global Internet stage.  Despite Prime Minister Paul Martin’ s repeated commitments to the developing world, Canada has quietly backed the United States on both the Internet governance and WIPO Development Agenda issues.  

That position puts Ottawa at odds with the developing world and fails to recognize that the national interest lies with a globalized approach that benefits countries both the rich and poor.  ITU and WIPO negotiators may be facing a fork in the policy road over the next two weeks, but Canada sadly appears to be unsure of which direction to turn.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at

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