Clashes precede Net governance showdown

Days before a global Internet summit begins in Tunisia, watchdog groups report rocky encounters with authorities.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
A global summit scheduled this week to address a power struggle over the Internet is getting off to a rocky start in the eyes of some human rights activists.

Just days before the United Nations-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society begins in Tunis, Tunisia, watchdog groups are reporting clashes with authorities and violence toward at least one journalist in the North African city of about 10 million people.

The groups say the country is unfit to host the international summit because of its track record for censorship. The Tunisian government has earned notoriety for jailing journalists and bloggers accused of reporting false information.

Seven national leaders, including the president of the Union of Tunisian Journalists, are in the midst of hunger strikes that they hope will lead to greater freedoms, according to the France-based watchdog group ="http" www.rsf.org"="">Reporters Without Borders.

Most recently, a large coalition of international human rights groups was forbidden by Tunisian authorities from meeting to discuss the U.N. summit's topics on their own, the organization Human Rights Watch reported Monday.

The groups had organized a "Citizens' Summit" where they planned to debate the same issues as world leaders, except "from the perspective of citizen groups and the public."

The agenda posted at the event's Web site included topics such as privacy and data security, Internet governance, media diversity and freedom of expression.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement that about 10 policemen "violently shoved the participants who attempted to regain the meeting place, without identifying themselves or providing a reason, forcing the participants to leave."

Tunisian authorities could not be reached for comment.

Reporters Without Borders reported that on Friday night, a French journalist was badly beaten, stabbed and robbed by four unidentified attackers near his hotel in Tunis' embassy district.

According to the group, Christophe Boltanski, a correspondent who covers human rights issues for the French daily Liberation, was badly shaken up but not seriously hurt and planned to return to Paris before the summit starts on Wednesday.

"People kind of wonder what's going to happen during the summit, especially for journalists who would try to cover freely what's going on there," Lucie Morillon, the organization's Washington representative, told CNET News.com.

The news came on the heels of several recent crackdowns on political bloggers by governments in Libya, Egypt and China.

The three-day summit--originally organized to brainstorm ways to bridge the digital divide in developing countries--has morphed this year into a contentious debate over who should control key portions of the Internet.

About 10,000 participants, including at least 45 world governmental leaders and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, are scheduled to attend, along with top executives from Google, Intel, Microsoft and others.

The United States has stated repeatedly that it does not intend to give up its unique influence over domain names. Large American technology companies, including Microsoft, Google, IBM and Cisco, have thrown support behind the government's position.

A United Nations working group and other countries have been vying for a multilateral system of control.