By APCNews Budapest, 10 September 2008
Smelled like a revolutionary spirit around Popinci, central Bulgaria, when residents and activists raised barricades around their village. They believed that a planned gold mining project in the nearby hills would harm the environment and their health. They demanded it to be cancelled. The villagers’ impulsive action has put the project on hold for the last three years. But this, or any other community, might not have been as successful in attaining a concrete outcome, had it chosen to fight for access to high speed internet. And the reason is simple. Unlike the environment, internet is not widely perceived by authorities, legislators and policy makers as an essential common good.
The ability of the green movement to generate powerful solutions across countries has long inspired the architects of the internet. Joint efforts by governments, business and civil society to address various environmental problems in the past decades have been made possible by a shared understanding that environmental goods are common. United around the view that the internet is also a type of common good, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), a UN agency and the Council of Europe have proposed to develop a code of good practice related to the way the internet is managed.
Public participation in the future of the internet
An explanatory report by APC, the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the Council of Europe was presented in Geneva on May 23 2008. Consultant and author David Souter produced the report as a contribution to the debate on how to best meet the needs of multiple publics in a rapidly changing internet environment.
The report argues that “it makes sense to further explore the possibility of developing a set of principles that could secure wide acceptance within the internet governance community”. In other words, by adding more substance to the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) principles, we have a significant potential to bring about progressive change to the steering of the internet, if we’re to believe the author.
His argument boils down to saying that the establishing a code of practice for inclusiveness would make internet governance more credible to stakeholders, improve coordination and consistency among various bodies involved, and ensure a wider range of views and experience into decision making over the internet.
From Aarhus to Hyderabad… via Rio
According to its advocates, the voluntary code concept, originally announced at the latest Internet Governance Forum in Rio, 2007, should ensure that all the institutions which play a role in some aspect of governing the internet commit to transparency, public participation (including participation of all stakeholders) and access to information in their activities. “This would mean that any citizen or community, would be able to participate and influence any decisions of investors and national authorities, that affect its access to the net,” explains Natalia Dimitrova, chair of Bulgaria’s environmental civil society network (and APC-member) BlueLink.
The report goes on to suggest a title for the proposed set of principles: a Code of Practice on Participation, Access to Information and Transparency in Internet Governance. The title itself reveals yet another link to an achievement of the nature protection movement: the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters. Brokered by UNECE, with substantial input by civil society, the convention was signed in 1998 in Aarhus, Denmark.
David Souter identified two areas in which the Aarhus convention had relevance for his analysis: establishing broad principles that celebrate inclusiveness (information and participation); and identifying ways in which these principles might be rendered operational by governments.
The Aarhus principles make major progress on citizen rights. The convention introduces a set of requirements to governments and national authorities: to legislate and regulate in line with the convention’s principles; to promote environmental education and awareness; and to recognise and support civil society groups dealing with the environment.
Public authorities are obliged by the convention to collect and publish – including online – information about proposed and existing activities that affect the environment, and release such information free of charge to citizens upon request. The right of the public to be informed early enough so that it can effectively participate in decision-making processes and in discussions over new policies, plans and regulations was also agreed upon.
The three international organisations consider these advances fundamentally relevant for the future internet governance code, as expressed by Souter’s report. “[The Aarhus principles] lie in the frontier, the cutting edge, of inclusiveness practice within traditional areas of governance. For this reason in particular, they offer a useful frame of reference for comparison with their own principles and practice by actors in other spheres, including internet governance,” Souter wrote.
The importance of governing the internet
Later in May 2008, Marek Belka, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the UNECE said that regulation and governance of the internet have become “tremendously important and necessary”. Inspired by the chance to transfer the successes of environmental cooperation in the Baltic Sea and Aarhus convention principles to internet governance, Belka argued that information and communication technology manifested through the internet is a typical public good: “A public good which engages not only governments but also the private sector and civil society and this is very much reflected by the WSIS process”.
There is no scope in internet governance as it stands today for imposing codes of practice in the way the Aarhus convention imposes obligations on governments, international agencies and other stakeholders, Souter’s report pointed out. “It is obvious that the Aarhus convention cannot just be transposed into the framework of internet governance but it can provide an appropriate benchmark against which existing practice and proposals for information and participation in other sectors can be assessed”, Belka explained. Furthermore, the convention demonstrates the examples of best practices, expertise and know-how that already exists within the UN as to how public goods can be managed and governed, he added.
An imposed set of rules would not be considered desirable or viable by most internet governance actors, Souter warned. To ensure everyone is on board with the code idea, UNECE plans to present a discussion paper calling for the establishment of a working group on a code of good practice in internet governance at the third Internet Governance Forum, to be held in Hyderabad, India, in December 2008.
Explanatory report on the concept and possible scope of a Code of Good Practice on Participation, Access to Information and Transparency in Internet Governance. Written on behalf of UNECE, the Council of Europe and APC by Professor David Souter for discussion at a workshop to be held in Geneva on 23 May 2008.
Encouraging implementation of the IGF principles, by William J. Drake,Graduate Institute for International Studies, Geneva.
Internet Governance Forum: APC makes recommendations on themes and structure.
Report from the Best Practice Forum on “Public participation in Internet governance: Emerging issues, good practices and proposed solutions” to the IGF Plenary on Wednesday, 14 November 2007 at 10 am, by Michael Remmert, Head of the e-democracy project at the Council of Europe, at Internet Governance Forum in Rio de Janeiro.
The Council of Europe and the Association for Progressive Communications propose a code for public participation in Internet governance, Council of Europe press release of 13 November 2007.