updated 7/28/2005 10:32:04 AM ET 2005-07-28T14:32:04

A United Nations organization created to settle disputes between the world’s broadcast and telecommunications giants is preparing this summer for one of its most important, and possibly most contentious meetings in decades: an Internet summit aimed at giving the world a greater voice in the governance of the World Wide Web, which to this point has been handled primarily by the United States.

Yet even as battle lines are drawn between those who seek greater “democracy” in doling out addresses on the Web and the U.S.-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Addresses (ICANN), advocates for free speech and the Internet are attacking the summit for a different reason: its location.

“Putting a summit on the future of Internet in society in a country like Tunisia is like holding an environmental summit in a nuclear power plant,” says Alexis Krikorian, director of Freedom to Publish, International Publishers Association in Geneva. “We believe it is a very inappropriate place for such a meeting to take place.”

Krikorian’s group and 12 other advocates for free speech and uncensored Internet access have banded together to bring pressure on both the U.N. and the Tunisian government, arguing that this is precisely the kind of incongruous decision that winds up discrediting the world body.

Brenden Varma, a spokesman for the U.N. at its New York headquarters, acknowledged the U.N.'s system sometimes causes results "that don't fit with the values of the United Nations."

Varma says he does not know all the details about why the U.N. agency, the Geneva-based International Telecommunications Union, chose Tunisia to host the November meeting. But, he noted, such decisions are taken by votes of the member states, "and if the member states want something, it is their right to vote for it." He also noted that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is currently lobbying for changes that would make such situations far less likely in the future.

[An ITU official, Sanyay Acharya, responding to MSNBC.com's questions on Thursday, a day after the story was first published, says the summit will focus strictly on Internet governance. "The Summit in Tunis is not at all about Tunisia, even though it is being held in Tunisia," he said via email. "The onus, if anything, is on the Tunisian government to set the record straight and answer queries about its functioning."]

Calls to Tunisia's U.N. office and its embassy in Washington were not returned.

U.S. influence at issue
The Tunis meeting, billed as the World Summit on Information Society, takes place rom November 16 to 18. The main item on the agenda is getting some influence, if not outright control, of the process by which ICANN and its predecessor has structured the World Wide Web since the 1980s. ICANN, which severed its final links to the U.S. government last year, is a non-profit that decides such issues as what a country’s Internet suffix should be (.ca for Canada, for instance, versus .cn for China).

While supporters argue that ICANN has performed well in keeping the sprawling World Wide Web stable, ceding such power to an organization that grew out of an American government agency has proven controversial, particularly among non-English speaking nations.

In a report issued last week, an ITU working group indicated there was no consensus in the U.N. on how to change the current system, but set out four proposals that ranged from creating a new Internet council that would assume ICANN’s powers to allowing ICANN to continue doing its job relatively unchanged with input from a new committee that would represent the interests of developing nations.

The Tunisia summit is actually the second phase of a long-running United Nations effort to expand access to the Internet among developing nations. The first such meeting, which took place in December 2003, is best remembered for Annan’s impassioned plea to the industrialized world to help ensure that a new digital divide akin to the Berlin Wall did not form around the question of access. Speaking just before the start of that first meeting, Annan said he viewed the Internet as a vehicle for governments to empower their citizens with information. "But when they go further, down the slope toward censorship and harassment, all of us - and potentially our rights - are imperiled."

Hardly a model
The conflict between Annan's views and Tunisia’s record on free speech and Internet issues cannot be ignored, say Krikorian and other activists. Freedom House, an international rights advocacy group based in New York, classified Tunisia as one of the most restrictive countries in the Arab world in its 2004 annual report, “Freedom in the World.”

“The government controls domestic broadcasting, as well as the circulation of both domestic and foreign publications. In addition, the government uses newsprint subsidies and control over public advertising revenues as a means for indirect censorship,” the report says. “Since President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's ascent to power, Tunisian journalists who are critical of the regime have been harassed, threatened, imprisoned, physically attacked, and censored… Internet access is tightly controlled, and the government will at times intervene to block access to opposition Web sites.”

Says the 2005 report of Reporters Without Borders, a group that monitors press freedom around the world, “It is a cruel irony that Tunisia will host the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in November 2005.”

Krikorian was among a group of journalists who traveled to Tunisia in January to meet with government officials and lobby them for changes. They also met Tunisian human rights activists and journalists, many of whom are branded as “illegal” under Tunisian law. The trip won no promises of change, Krikorian says. “The officials we met all insisted Tunisia is completely free and claimed to know nothing about the blocking of websites.” The trip led the groups to launch a Tunisian Monitoring Committee under the aegis of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange to keep tabs on websites that are blocked and journalists who have been jailed or harassed because of their work. They also,  Krikorian says, want to keep the pressure on both the U.N. and Tunisia.

“When you speak of this to the [U.N.’s] ITU, which is responsible for that summit, for them it's not about content or censorship but about technical issues and tools,” says Krikorian. “But that is not what Kofi Annan has said, and we are planning a letter to him to see how he will respond. We hope he will see it the way we do, as a way to make some changes in Tunisia.”

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