Government negotiators from nearly 200 countries narrowed their differences on how to manage the internet and protect freedom of expression online in an important round of preparatory talks over the weekend in Geneva, but failed to agree on how to fund the internet's expansion in developing countries.
The envoys met to discuss several key issues to be tackled at the three-day World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which begins tomorrow in the Swiss city. Shortly after midnight on Saturday, they reached agreement on two draft texts - a declaration of principles and an action plan - which will be put to government delegates for approval.
In a move to diffuse one of the more explosive issues, the negotiators agreed to ask the United Nations about establishing a committee to investigate internet management and report back by 2005, when a second summit is scheduled to be held in Tunis.
Several governments are seeking broad controls over the internet, and are demanding that an international agency, such as the International Telecommunications Union, take control of internet management.
However, industrialised countries, led by the US, oppose the idea. They want the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) to remain responsible for controlling many of the internet's core systems.
Negotiators also agreed to include in the draft documents wording that maintains a commitment to freedom of expression, according to an ITU spokesman. Countries such as China, which have clamped down on internet media, have been eager to restrict references to press freedom.
Despite agreeing to clear some hurdles ahead of the summit, negotiators failed to clear all of them. A key stumbling block in a summit initially organised to help bridge the digital divide is funding. At issue is whether richer nations should subsidise internet expansion in poorer nations and if so, how much.
In particular, African countries are calling for the creation of a "digital solidarity fund" to pay for extending the internet into remote villages, but most European nations, Japan and the US prefer to use existing development aid money.
The declaration also calls on governments to collaborate more closely in such areas as improving internet security and finding means of dealing with spam and junk e-mail.
John Blau writes for IDG News Service