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UN Global Forum on Internet Governance

More than 200 leaders from government, business and civil society attended the Global Forum on Internet Governance, held on 25 and 26 March 2004 and organized by the United Nations Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Task Force. The forum, held at United Nations Headquarters in New York, was intended, according to a UN press release, "to contribute to worldwide consultations to prepare the ground to a future Working Group on Internet Governance to be established by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which is to report to the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (Tunis, 2005)".

Achieving a Positive Outcome

"At the end of the day, what will make this a successful event?" was a question asked during a press conference just ahead of the close of this Global Forum on Internet Governance to which Mr Sarbuland Khan, Executive Coordinator of the UN ICT Task Force Secretariat responded:

If by the end of tomorrow we have a better definition of what internet governance is that will be a positive outcome. If by the end of tomorrow, we have a better definition of the positions of the different stake holders and of what it is that they see as a problem, to the present, let me call it, internet governance which is working very well by the way, that would be a positive outcome. If by the end of tomorrow, we have a way forward that can provide a better balance between the issues that has been mentioned of legitimacy and of transparency on the one hand without stifling innovation and creativity on the other hand, we will have contributed in a very positive way to the general direction in which we want to move forward. Let me just close with this thought if I may, when we talk about the global commons, we are faced in a global society of today with the general perception we all share that we don't have the proper setting through which to tackle, as a global society, these global commons whether it is in geo-politics where we see many shortfalls; whether it is in economics where we see the short falls of the brick and wood institutions created 60 years ago and that cannot tackle the challenges of today; whether it is in the environment where it would be almost ludicrous, said with all respect, to think that a unit for example was responsible for at a global scale for environmental challenges; whether it is in many other of these, we are in lack of the instruments that balance on the one side, legitimacy and transparency and on the other way, creativity and innovation. So if we can, working together in this process which just begins today and there will be a lot more, find a solution through which society can come to grasp with issues such as this one, let me call it the global commons, we may find also in this an example for us which we can then perhaps modify and tweak a little for us to apply to other global common problems.

What they Said

Quoted below are some of the other opinions expressed by other attendees of the March 2004 U.N. Global Forum on Internet Governance:

Anriette Esterhuysen, Executive-Director of South Africa's Association for Progressive Communications, civil society representative and member of the United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force (ICTF):

...participants in the Forum were challenged to address not only developing country's concerns about inequitable access to new technologies — the "digital divide" -– but also the feeling that the poor were excluded from decision-making on how the Internet phenomenon would be managed. An additional challenge was to maintain the unique and organic way in which the current Internet administration infrastructure had evolved, while making it more inclusive and legitimate.

Robert Kahn, Chairman, CEO and President of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI):

Although it is hard to believe now, in the early days Vinton Cerf, Senior Vice-President of MCI, and I had made virtually every decision about the Internet until the mid-1980s. The Forum is addressing governance because the Web has become so vast and influential that going forward it would be important to avoid the bureaucracy that inevitably went hand-in-hand with government involvement.

Vinton Cerf, Chairman of the board of ICANN and Senior Vice-President of MCI:

I'm coming to the conclusion that this focus on Internet governance is really just a symptom of something else; that people were increasingly aware that they were relying on the Internet more and more everyday. ...In discussions with representatives from developing countries at the Forum, one of their recurring concerns had been that, although their countries were going to be relying on the Internet, they did not know if it was reliable and neither did they understand the forces that maintained it. So part of the answer might not be crafting some new Internet governance mechanism, but rather helping people understand what the mechanisms and forces were today which shaped the Web's direction. Every one of the nearly 1 billion Internet users today could certainly not be consulted about Internet governance, and probably wouldn't want to be anyway. ...It would be risky to focus on managing the Internet so carefully and so restrictively that it was no longer a place where innovation was supported, or was no longer the open environment it had been in the past, which had invited an enormous amount of investment and creativity. If we do that, we run the risk that by attempting to govern, we actually kill the value of the system.

Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations:

Issues were numerous and complex, but the world had a common interest in ensuring the security and dependability of the Internet. Equally important, inclusive and participatory models of Internet governance should be developed. The medium had to be made accessible and responsive to the needs of the world's people. Its current reach was highly uneven, and the vast majority of the world's people had yet to benefit from it.

[I will] establish in the near future a working group on Internet governance, as requested in December by the World Summit on the Information Society. But before doing so, there was a need to consult a broad cross-section of the communities involved. The views emerging at the Global Forum and other consultations would help to frame the issues, find areas of convergence and identify issues for future consultations. Once these consultations took place, the Secretary-General would be in a position to establish the working group, which would be open, transparent and inclusive.

...Whatever you do must contribute to the cause of human development.

Paul Twomey, President and CEO of ICANN:

[ICANN] is a national, multi-stakeholder body coordinating Internet systems of unique identifiers. The ICANN's meetings focus on technical problems, are open to all, and the ICANN community welcomes all stakeholders. The mandate of ICANN is similar to that the WSIS has required for the Working Group to be established by the Secretary-General.

Richard McCormack, Chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC):

The Working Group on Internet Governance should be a steering committee rather than a normative body, and should contribute to the expansion of the Internet in both developing and developed countries.

Maria Luiza Viotti, Brazilian delegate:

The Internet is increasingly seen as an international public utility that should be managed very broadly. Internet governance should not be the prerogative of one group of countries or stakeholders, and the specific roles of all stakeholders should be defined. Governments also had a stake, and the concerns of developing countries should be taken into account.

Marc Furrer, Director of the Swiss Federal Office of Communications:

There was no need to govern or regulate what works. The system works, ICANN works, and there is rather a need to concentrate on specific issues such as property rights, e-commerce, privacy, contract law and Internet security, while defining what should be the role of governments.

Lyndall Shope-Mafole, Chairperson of South Africa's National Commission on Information Society and Development:

It is true that many issues are technical, but technology is not outside of politics. The issue was not that something was broken and should be fixed. The issue was rather legitimacy of the process, and this is why developing countries had brought the issue of Internet governance to the United Nations, which we feel represents us.

Milton Mueller, Professor at Syracuse University School of Information Studies, Author and editor of ICANNWatch:

In a (possibly temporary) victory for ICANN, the US Government, the International Chamber of Commerce and the Internet Society, the UN-sponsored "Global Forum" on Internet Governance in New York concluded that the "current system of Internet governance seemed to be working well." The only major questions, according to the official news release of the Global Forum, was "how to better coordinate the work of specialized bodies and ensure the involvement of all stakeholders."

It's not clear where this conclusion came from, because there was no systematic assessment of the performance of ICANN, its related organizations, or any other treaties and activities affecting the Internet. But the UN Global Forum was basically a testing of the political winds, not a scientific assessment. And the politics were highly complex and difficult to assess.

...One interesting question this reporter was unable to answer was, what happened to the coalition of developing countries that was able to torpedo the Cancun WTO meeting and force the creation of the WSIS Working Group on Internet governance? Only Brazil and South Africa were there and visible. Although South Africa's representative did actively assail the "legitimacy" of ICANN, it openly refrained from asserting that anything about its institutional structure or policies were "broken." China in particular seemed conspicuous by its absence, and none of the Arab states made their presence felt.

Karl Auerbach, a former ICANN board member:

The meeting clearly (to me) has, like an earthquake, liquified the internet governance landscape. There is an opportunity now to affect change before the situation once again solidifies. The commercial interests are well prepared to make their points; I am less assured that non-commercial interests are as ready, or have the resources, to engage fully and effectively. And I get the impression that during this new phase that complaints will be less effective than well formed specific plans of solution.

During the meeting there was a rhinoceros of an undiscussed issue standing in the corner - Globalization.

Final Remarks

And finally deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette's remarks at the closing session of this Global Forum on Internet Governance:

I think the complexity of Internet governance was clearly highlighted at this Global Forum.  A number of issues were identified where there was need for international cooperation to develop globally acceptable solutions (for instance Spam, network security, privacy and information security).  It was also highlighted that content should be culturally and linguistically relevant and, from a technical viewpoint, language standards ought to be rapidly developed and interoperable within the Internet infrastructure.

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Share your comments

Re: UN Global Forum on Internet Governance FJH  –  Mar 31, 2004 12:46 PM PDT

Just how did we manage to develop and deploy such global technology-driven systems such as air travel, shipping, telegraph, telephone, television, radio, and innumerable others without UN 'governance' and 'legitimacy'?

And since when did deployment of a technology-driven system require everyone to agree that 'they all understood it' and 'all had a vote in how it was managed'?

I bet plenty of less developed nations use Boeing and AirBus Industries airplanes...without demanding access to engineering drawings or a seat on the Board of Directors of these companies.

In my mind, using the Internet is like using an airplane...to fly or not is your choice, as is the choice of airline. If you don't like the available choices, develop your own.

Re: UN Global Forum on Internet Governance Konstantinos Komaitis  –  Apr 01, 2004 8:38 AM PDT

It is really important to understand the impact of internet governance before we are able to determine which entity will be responsible for it. The issue seems to be me like the Aladin's Lamp; every time we rub it the same thing appears: ICANN. We should be able and find a mutual ground of how and whether ICANN should be involved and if it is involved what authority we will ascribe to the corporation. The stakes are pretty unsettled for the time being and we seem to avoid one very important aspect of the issue. Is ICANN able to take up the challenges of globalisation that Internet Governance demands?

Re: UN Global Forum on Internet Governance Richard Chirgwin  –  Apr 04, 2004 6:00 PM PDT

>Just how did we manage to develop and
>deploy such global technology-driven
>systems such as air travel, shipping,
>telegraph, telephone, television, radio,
>and innumerable others without
>UN 'governance' and 'legitimacy'?

Shipping - over thousands of years, at horrific cost, and with lots of warfare.

"Telegraph, telephone, television, radio": the ITU has had, to a greater or lesser degree, a hand in all of these.

There's nothing objectionable in seeking the same degree of consensus for the Internet as we have for the telephone. There are still more "any-to-any" connections available with phones, after all…

Richard Chirgwin

Re: UN Global Forum on Internet Governance FJH  –  Apr 04, 2004 7:14 PM PDT

I agree with Mr. Chirgwin that organizations such as the ITU have value, as does achieving 'consensus'. My feeling is that the 'majority' of UN members, having little interest in free-speech, free-press, and / or free access to information are really more interested in exerting control over the Internet than advancing it. The language used at this conference did nothing to assauge my anxiety.

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