PrepCom-3, the third and final preparatory meeting for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in November, got underway in Geneva on Monday.
The 11-day gathering is open to government and United Nations representatives, non-governmental organisations and the private sector.
The second phase of the WSIS, the UN-sponsored conference on information and communication, will take place in the Tunisian capital of Tunis from November 16-18.
The first part took place in December 2003 in Geneva, where an action plan was endorsed by 175 nations to bridge the digital divide - the socio-economic gap between communities that have access to computers and the internet and those that do not.
The path to Tunis has involved monitoring and evaluating the progress made since 2003. Preparatory meetings were also held in Tunisia last year and in Geneva in February 2005.
"The purpose of a Prepcom is to prepare the documents of the world summit," Marc Furrer, president of the Federal Communications Commission and head of the Swiss delegation to the WSIS, told swissinfo.
"We had several Prepcoms before Geneva and then at the summit the heads of state decided on the action plan and political declaration."
Apart from organisational issues for Tunis, PrepCom-3 will also discuss financing and internet governance – "leftovers from Geneva" according to Furrer – which generated heated debate during the previous WSIS.
"Internet governance is probably the most difficult topic, and the United States has a strong position because the internet is more or less under the auspices and guidance of the US," said Furrer.
"Whether we take any steps forward very much depends on the US and whether they move a bit.
"Some people say they haven't seen many signs of movement yet. We'll wait and see, but I think eventually they'll have to."
Whereas Furrer is cautiously optimistic, Swiss civil-society groups say Tunis is no place for a summit dealing with freedom of expression.
"Tunisia is seen by the western world as relatively liberal and modern," said Wolf Ludwig, the co-president of Comunica-ch, an umbrella group of Swiss non-governmental organisations involved with the information society.
"But this image masks the reality that Tunisia is a country which violates human rights and freedom of expression."
Furrer said the topic of human rights would be addressed at PrepCom-3.
"We are very concerned," he said. "We can't talk about an information society if the flow of information is not free."
Furrer said the Tunisians know that they have to accept the contributions and criticisms of civil society in all events and discussions. "It's part of the deal," he said.
"I don't think Tunisia has much choice. I think they will at least try to [accept] it. Otherwise they get into sticky situations with other countries and especially with the UN."
swissinfo, Thomas Stephens
The United Nations decided to hold the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in two phases.
The first part took place in December 2003 in Geneva, where an action plan was endorsed by 175 nations to bridge the digital divide.
The second part is due to be held in the Tunisian capital of Tunis from November 16-18.
The third meeting of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom-3) of the Tunis phase of the WSIS will be held in Geneva from September 19-30.
PrepComs 1 and 2 were held in Hammamet in Tunisia in June 2004 and in Geneva in February 2005 respectively.
The aim of the summit is to bridge the digital divide between rich and poor nations, as well as tackle issues such as internet governance.