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Special Report
Last Updated: 12/04/2007
Learning Online: Openness, Diversity and Access Debates at the Internet Governance Forum’s Second Meeting
Francesca Musiani

Encouraging openness on, promoting diversity in, developing widespread access to the Internet: all of these issues, among the most important and controversial in the wide landscape of Internet governance, were brought under the spotlight at the United Nations-promoted Internet Governance Forum, which was hosted by the Government of Brazil from the 12th to the 15th of November 2007 in Rio de Janeiro. The IGF, which has been highly criticized and highly praised ever since the first concept of it was born, has just concluded its second official meeting (the first took place in Athens exactly a year ago), and the its debates have never been more lively, articulate... or controversial.

In 2004, at the Global Forum on Internet Governance that took place at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan highlighted what, as the 21st century begins, is increasingly evident: the Internet has become, in a relatively short time span, something essential to the functioning of modern societies. And as a crucial tool for human communications, relations and exchanges, possible ways of regulating or governing it need to be addressed.[1] The issue is: in what ways?

The answer to this question is as complicated as the mere definition of the words “Internet” and “governance” – here lies the point of origin of controversies. As experts have pointed out, dealing with Internet governance issues has proven to be “a very difficult and controversial task”[2] and “different perceptions of the meaning of this term trigger different policy approaches and expectations.”[3]

The Internet, this “never-ending worldwide conversation” as a U.S. federal judge defined it,[4] is described in many different ways. Specialists of telecommunications focus primarily on the development of the supporting technical infrastructure; computer engineers see it mainly through its standard definition of a worldwide computer “network of networks” based on the TCP/IP protocols. Jurisprudence scholars find themselves dealing with a range of new problems of jurisdiction and dispute resolution, that the use of the Internet makes way more nuanced and open to interpretation. Social scientists come up with fascinating definitions such as “civilisation of the Mind”, reflecting their priority to investigate the networks of social relations that have brought to life the technology underlying the Internet.

The expansion of the Internet and the opportunities it offers encompass issues in law, technology development, the protection of national interests, freedom of expression and other basic human rights, and the fight against cybercrimes. This complexity is addressed from different and potentially clashing points of view by engineers, politicians, lawyers, diplomats and human rights activists. So, it is of no surprise that an equal variety of views can be found when it comes to its governance. As Kofi Annan pointed out, traditional ways of governance might in fact prove useless in dealing with such complexity. However, the many important issues at stake – such as preventing or at least reducing the risk of an excessive fragmentation of the Internet; protecting the rights of all the stakeholders, while defining their responsibilities; safeguarding end users from crimes and abuses; and finally encouraging every opportunity for further development – have made it obvious that issues of Internet governance need to be brought into the spotlight and discussed.

Each of the directions Internet governance can take is heavily and differently influenced by each of the views cited above. The debate surrounding it is a complex continuum of different points of view – from the Internet as the only opportunity to preserve independence and liberty in a corporatized, intrusive world[5] to an Internet that has to be subjected to “traditional” regulations just as telephone networks.[6]

The Internet Governance Forum was established in 2005 in the context outlined above, following the two phases of the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva (2003) and Tunis (2005). The IGF was formed under the auspices of the United Nations in order to provide “a transparent, democratic, and multilateral process, with the participation of governments, private sector, civil society and international organisations, in their respective roles”[7] with the aim of developing policies regarding Internet governance.

This mission statement opens the door to a good amount of reflection – in the first place, about the respective roles of the participants. The Tunis Agenda for the Information Society, the most relevant outcome of the second phase of the WSIS, gave some insight into this, providing a distinction between international public policy issues for the Internet, pertaining to governments in consultation with the stakeholders, and the everyday “technical and operational matters”[8] pertaining to relevant international organisations with no involvement by governments.

To make it even more difficult to establish borders of any kind is the explicitly non-binding status of the Forum, crafted as an ongoing open space of debate where stakeholders are to meet yearly. As Nitin Desai, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisor for Internet Governance, pointed out[9], “the Forum is not designed to make decisions” and its emphasis is “on voluntary cooperation, not legal compulsion”. That is to say, its components lack the coercive power typical of regulations imposed by governments. And as the process is designed to be “multilateral, multi-stakeholder, democratic and transparent” with “full involvement” of “all stakeholders involved in this process”, governments are not supposed to have any supervising role in policy development.

This is all very good on paper, but might prove too much of a simplification, as in most cases it is not easy at all to draw a line between technical and policy issues. The primary example of this can be found in the four issues that the IGF has established as requiring the highest attention both in Athens and in Rio – openness, diversity, security and access.

The strict relationship between technical and policy issues was repeatedly made obvious in the debates on access, openness and diversity that took place at the IGF’s Second Meeting in Rio.

The Access debate emphasized the potential impact on development the Internet can have, as well as the factors that, especially in developing countries, prevent this development from taking place. Richard Sambrook, director of the BBC’s world service and global news channels, pointed out that while bringing one billion people to access and use the Internet regularly is a good thing, the focus should be on the next billion now;[10] much progress has been made even from the IGF’s first meeting, but the progress towards connecting the “next billion” still has a long way to go, and a valuable instrument in this regard was identified in the multi-stakeholder approach that is at the core of the IGF’s mandate. This challenge, as is the case with most Internet-related challenges, calls for innovative solutions, such as “public-private partnerships, and the need for private companies to work with governments and civil society in order to provide access to rural areas.”[11]

Regional multi-stakeholderism, therefore, was identified as the key to successfully create Internet Exchange Points, which would enable access for users, reduction of costs and promotion of local content through collaboration.

The link between access and development, and as a consequence, the need to understand the necessities of users, was also underlined. “Access is much broader than connectivity”[12] and cannot be measured just in terms of technological parameters; it involves issues of content, quality, availability and fair pricing. Access remains the primary issue on the IGF’s agenda, and if the second billion of people make it to the Internet, this will bring new, fascinating, challenges.

Famous singer and Brazil’s current Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil, chaired the discussion on Diversity. Stemming from the access debate, the panel referred to the Digital Divide as a “knowledge divide”[13], making respect for diversity a globally relevant issue – along the multiple dimensions of multilingualism, multiculturalism and media diversity, as well as universal design and assistive technologies for people with disabilities.

Culture is at the core of any discussion of identity; it fosters social cohesion and is a pre-condition to the development of any knowledge economy. As example of this, Adama Samassékou cited the loss of freedom endured by African children, when they were imposed to learn in a foreign language, unreceptive of their culture, at the beginning of their schooling.

The question of open, non proprietary standards as a factor enhancing development – and more in general the impact of standards on diversity issues – was discussed, as well as the success of projects implementing free and open source software at local levels, as a response to peculiar necessities.

If available in local languages, the Internet can help to change society, pointed out the head of the IGF’s Secretariat Markus Kummer. Its potential to reduce the knowledge gap can facilitate the union of the local culture with the “network” culture. In this light, the main challenge as discussed by many speakers is to find the optimal balance between the protection of property and the free dissemination of knowledge and information, as the best (and sometimes the only) new educational opportunity for many populations.

Among the concrete proposals for the “way forward”, the most interesting appears to be by Ben Petrazzini of the International Development Research Center. Emphasizing the importance of creating networks of producers of content in similar languages in order to increase the availability of local content, he told the audience about the IDRC’s project RELPE, Red Latinoamérica de Portales Educativos,[14] a project that unites national educational portals in Latin America, from which stemmed his suggestion to develop a Global Compact on Languages to find a way to release copyrighted materials for localized language use and for representation in all forms necessary.[15]

The session ended with the “general sentiment” that in the Internet lie many opportunities to protect cultural and linguistic diversity. But to do so, it was pointed out, Internet management should be aimed at the benefit of humanity as a whole, and to do so its development needs to be geared towards reflecting geographical, cultural, and linguistic diversity – both at the level of content and of naming systems.

As David Appasamy, chief communications officer of Sify Ltd., India, remarked in the conclusive phases of the session “we not only have to get the one billion people online, we have to get them online with economically, culturally, and socially relevant content in their own language so that it truly reflects the diversity of the human race.”[16]

Openness was identified, from the beginning of the dedicated session, as a “cross-cutting issue with linkages to the other IGF themes, namely diversity, access, and security, with legal, political and economic dimensions”, as well as an issue that involves questions of balance at various levels.

Balance between ‘the two IPs’, the IP for Internet protocol and the IP for intellectual property.[17]

Balance between freedom of expression, free information flow, and freedom to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor.[18]

Balance between privacy and freedom of expression.[19]

The presence of a human rights agenda in Internet governance was one of the major concerns of the panel, in light of crucial issues such as child pornography, credit card fraud or terrorism.

Regarding the highly controversial aspect of the protection of intellectual property and copyright, Peter Dengate Thrush, the recently elected Chairman of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) pointed out that in areas such as education it is possible and appropriate to abridge or limit slightly the rights of the owner.[20] Open access to scientific knowledge is an essential element in the development process, Mr. Thrush said, and therefore very important for developing countries. He finally mentioned movements such as Creative Commons to carry his point that “[w]ith the Internet comes innovative solutions to the problems posed by the Internet.”

The discussion on open standards and free and open source software, already started in the diversity session, was reprised here. The discussion’s main points were the opportunity to lower the barriers of entry and promote innovation; the absence of contradiction between free and open source software and intellectual property; the potential merits and value of both open source and proprietary software models.

On a final note, it was mentioned that legislation is not something that takes place outside society, but it needs to reflect the wishes of society and be adapted to what society wants. As Chairman Ronaldo Lemos underlined, the Internet is a particularly well-adapted means to accommodate pluralism and cultural diversity and is in itself the tool for both to be preserved and enhanced.[21]

The Internet has its roots in, and fosters, a set of main values that are reflected both in the engineering principles that guided its design and in the culture that supports it, and should be taken into consideration for the development of any related policy.

What is the concrete outcome of all this? This goes back to the status and the effectiveness of the Forum, and opinions on the subject have never been more dissenting.

In the conclusive phases of the IGF Inaugural Meeting in Athens, Greece a year ago, Nitin Desai was asked if the meeting had in his opinion been successful. His answer referred to his own old joke about every United Nations meeting being “either a success or a great success”, and he pointed out with a smile: “It was an outstanding success.” On the other hand, the lack of deliberative power that is at present embedded in the IGF’s mandate is seen by many as the unavoidable cause of its uselessness, if not of its failure.

With all its limitations – as non-binding and voluntary as it may be – the Internet Governance Forum is most likely the best opportunity, as of today, to provide a starting point for very complex decision-making processes, that states alone cannot address.

The field of Internet-related public policy has not enjoyed a good health in the past years. In the absence of a comprehensive framework to address them, issues regarding public policy for the Internet have been either left aside waiting for “better days”, or dealt with unilaterally, by exponents of the private sector, civic society and states alternatively – thus excluding any possibility of a multistakeholder approach, with all the problems this raises when it comes to such important and controversial issues. Still, there are hints that things are changing. A multistakeholder, network approach is increasingly considered as the possible way forward for Internet governance, not only by academics. The Internet itself, a cheap, intrinsically non-hierarchical medium, enables and fosters this approach; economic and political dynamics on the global scale call for an “update” of the international system.

The IGF is one of the first steps of this update – a child that is starting to crawl, to reprise an academic’s metaphor.[22] It is an experiment that goes down a difficult road and needs improvements. It might well vanish in a couple of years due to the public’s failure to see its potential relevance, or it might indeed learn how to walk, then to run. In any case, it teaches useful lessons for future forms of governance, of the Internet and beyond. And several fields – education in the first place, and its online facets of openness, diversity and access – have everything to gain from its future development.

[2] Bertola, V. End User Involvement in Internet Governance: Why and How, 2004. ITU Workshop on Internet Governance, Geneva, 26-27 February 2004

[3] Gelbstein, E. and Kurbalija, J. Internet Governance: Issues, Actors and Divides, 2005. Published by DiploFoundation and Global Knowledge Partnership.

[4] Berners-Lee T., Testimony before the United States House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce for the Hearing on the “Digital Future of the United States: Part I - The Future of the World Wide Web”,

[5] Barlow, J.P. A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, 1996.

[6] See e.g. statement by the director of the ITU’s Standardization Bureau, Haolin Zhou, in McCullagh, D. The UN Thinks About Tomorrow’s Cyberspace, 2005.

[7] WSIS, Tunis Agenda for the Information Society, 2005.

[8] Id.

[9] Desai, N. The Secretary-General’s Message to the Internet Governance Forum, 2006.

[10] Transcript of the Access Session, Internet Governance Forum Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 13 November 2007. 

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Transcript of the Diversity Session, Internet Governance Forum Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 13 November 2007.

[15] Supra note 13.

[16] Id.

[17] Transcript of the Openness Session, Internet Governance Forum Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 14 November 2007.

[18] The first two were identified and emphasized as fundamental freedoms both under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the WSIS Geneva Declaration of Principles and the WSIS Tunis Agenda for the Information Society.

[19] Supra note 17.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Mueller M. “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum...’’: Multistakeholderism, International Institutions and Global Governance of the Internet, 2006.

Francesca Musiani is a Master's candidate at the University for Peace in the Department of International Law and Human Rights.