The IGF is on, does that mean we'll get an "internet as a free-zone"?
Here I am, sitting in a plenary room at the opening session of the Internet Governance Forum in Athens. This forum was set a couple of months back, in Tunisia, where the second summit on the information society (WSIS) was drawing to a close. Some of you might have noted back then that the two main issues discussed in that UN-organised summit were internet governance and ICTs for development. Well just about eleven months later, what appears to be the legitimate space for continuing the debate on the future of the internet is called the Internet Governance Forum.
Here I am, sitting in a plenary room at the opening session of the Internet Governance Forum in Athens. This forum was set a couple of months back, in Tunisia, where the second summit on the information society (WSIS) was drawing to a close. Some of you might have noted back then that the two main issues discussed in that UN-organised summit were internet governance and ICTs for development.
Well just about 11 months later, what appears to be the legitimate space for continuing the debate on the future of the internet is called the Internet Governance Forum. It is meant to discuss issues such as access to the web, security of data transferred over the net, diversity of content and actors using the internet, as well as the openness of the web’s structures and governance model.
The one I’m presently attending, is the first in a series of three that will take the more than 1,500 people through Rio de Janeiro and Cairo. But what’s this blabla all about you must be asking yourself. In fact, the initial reason why people from governments, civil society and the private sector are convening in Greece today (and for the next three days) is because WSIS did not actually come up with a new governance model for the internet. The different governments present at Tunis, as well as those other stakeholders working on e-commerce, freedom of speech, privacy issues and questions of access to the internet could not agree on a mature model, that would be decentralised and much more open to diversity of languages (for example) as the current internet is.
But don’t expect the IGF here in Athens to be the mother of all new models. Actually, as I understand the Athens meeting, it will much more be about setting the table for people to continue debate and precise the different positions and logics that are coming together.
Now, in the inaugural meeting composed of 8 men and 2 women, all actors had a chance to say a few words. It started with the communications minister of Greece, followed by the Greek prime minister and Nitin Desai and Yoshio Utsumi from United Nations organisations. Viviane Redding of the European Union preceded Guy Sebban from the International Chamber of Commerce and Natasha Primo of Women’s Net, speaking from a civil society’s perspective.
Interestingly enough, discourses were not that different. Speakers addressed the need for more access, all said they are committed to making the internet a place for the exchange of knowledge and ideas. Michalis Liapis, the Hellenic minister of communications and transportation also said that people were in Athens to “create a participatory society focused on growth and development”. This type of general language is of course not under debate and the true questions arise only in the seminars to come.
But during that first session, we got a glimpse of what the different stakes are. Natasha Primo, who was one of the last speakers, started in making it clear that the digital divide that is on everyone’s lips and that all are theoretically engaged to tackle in order to reduce inequality of internet access, has to be demarcated clearly.
“The digital divide is strongest for women,” she fired off before going through a straight-to-the-point speech in five points. She made a case in point to mention that the human rights cuture needs to be extended on the net. What she meant is that what happened in Tunis even during the last WSIS meeting (emprisonment of journalists publishing on the internet, arresting of bloggers and censorship or filtering of content on the web), was exactly the kind of thing that needs to be combated by all actors.
She also insisted on the “lifeblood of communications: bandwidth”. She recalled stats from a recent London School of Economics study that point at a huge imbalance in the amount of disposable income people in the South spend on communications (upto 15%), compared to the average 3% spent by people in the North.
“The internet needs to be understood as the open global good,” Primo – who’s also director on the board of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) - said, in order to insist on the fact that there, as much as in forums like the Athens one, it is still unacceptable that they remain so male-dominated.
The other speakers were also quite sophisticated, which for opening panels is quite rare. The exception was Guy Sebban from the business side who frankly, hadn’t a new or interesting thing to contribute. He just babbled some completely random and protocolic stuff that went into one ear and out the other as soon thereafter.
Yoshio Utsumi of the ITU was especially relevant in framing his speech in a historical account going back to ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. He said that it was risky to be in front of the wave sometimes, saying that Socrates paid his life because of this. “The current centralised system is weak because the ability to rapidly innovate at the edge of the network is not fully being provided”.
Viviane Redding, representing the European Union, advocated quite strongly for multilingualism on the internet. “Internet is for all, it has to be for all.” And one way to do this, from her perspective, is to ensure that linguistic diversity and different language scripts are taken on board.
“Let us welcome open debate in the great spirit of the Athenian democracy,” Utsumi declared, building on what the Greek prime minister Konstantinos Karamanlis had said a few minutes earlier: “the outcome should ideally identify and build consensus.”
These intentions were rounded up by short interventions by Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, two “fathers of the internet”, discussing in more technical terms what challenges are ahead.
What I find specifically refreshing here, is that the political dynamics are expressed in an open way. It’s the coming together of logics and ways of thinking about the internet that make it so stimulating. Some, like Vinton Cerf would argue for keeping the web domain names simple for technical purposes, others from governments might want them to be in multiple languages for obvious access reasons, while civil society would want hardware and software accessibility to be discussed as a matter of priority. The business community, on its own side, might at the same time try to lobby for more internet infrastructure to be built on a social responsibility we-regulate-ourselves kind of arrangement.
But hey, let’s see how this unfolds. The showdown really starts on Day 2 and we’ll be on the ball. It’s a pity that so many internet activists have not been able to make it, some for restrictive visa and passport laws, others because of the high costs involved in getting to Athens. As Nitin Desai – the grand MC of the Internet Governance Forum – says, “this is a new type of multilateralism.” This of course, is limited by the fact that we’re not all there, but it’s is truly a new kind of diplomacy trying to get its many heads around the issues. Good to see.
We will do our best to cover properly and almost in real time. We’re a bunch of writers accompanying the APC team here in Athens. Please comment this blog post.