This is a transcript from a series of video interviews designed to assess major issues tied to the diffusion of the internet. It is the record of one of many interviews conducted in 2006 with international internet stakeholders from 18 different nations at the world’s first Internet Governance Forum in Athens, Greece. The Athens IGF was the first of five annual global events administrated by the UN to focus on discussion of the overarching issues tied to the future of information and communications technologies. More than 1,200 participants shared information, experiences and best practices.
Renate Bloem – President of the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Relationships with the United Nations; a leading participant in the World Summit on the Information Society and the IGF. Based in Geneva, Switzerland.
Q: Who are you with and why are you at IGF?
A: I am currently the president of the conference of NGOs in consultative relationships with the United Nations. It’s a long, big word, and therefore it’s better known as CONGO. But you have to say today that it is not the country Congo, but it is the conference of NGOs. It has existed since 1948. The purpose (for its creation) was to safeguard the rights of civil society and NGOs to be heard at the United Nations debate. That is still our mandate, but we have been doing a lot of outreach. We take the UN agenda to the regions, and we see which way to embrace people and be as inclusive as possible.
It’s an umbrella association of many organizations – more than 500 – which offer networks within themselves, so it’s a huge and very, very diverse membership, which is a challenge and also an opportunity. Civil society is really more and more not only impacting but coming from impact to partnership. Civil society’s voice needs to be heard more today. We have come to the Internet Governance Forum with the hope that, finally, we will be at – I would say, equal level, at least to bring introductory input.
We all have different roles. We should not forget that even when we are together we still have different roles. Governments have their own roles, and we want to have strong governments. And the private sector has a different role than the non-profit. But, at the end of the day in order to make real inroads, to implement what so many governments have established as lofty goals – the United Nations, also – it is definitely a possibility for us to see how we can work to finally implement these lofty goals.
The internet, for me, and for us, is providing an opportunity, it’s a tool to see in which way ordinary citizens can be empowered to better participate in the public debate at the local or the national or international level. That is definitely our goal, and we see that there is a possibility.
There is a way to go. Capacity-building and all those who have traditionally been excluded in many, many debates and we have tried – as the conference of NGOs we have many organizations which have tended to be excluded, whether it be indigenous, youth, women, disability, all these particular organizations that we hope we will see coming into the debate much more openly. They can not only be participants but also bring their own knowledge. If you think about (for instance) knowledge of indigenous peoples that have been – most of the time – excluded and yet they are part of the knowledge we want to create as a knowledge society, which we want to see. The information society of tomorrow is the knowledge society. That should include knowledge of every part of the world, and not just the knowledge of those who have traditionally produced governance structures and have decided what knowledge is.
There is a grand possibility, yet we find even here today that things are lacking. Disability people have no – they aren’t even shown, as we saw earlier this morning. We don’t see people in wheelchairs, we don’t see blind people, we don’t see canes, we don’t see all that. In the preparation – and I think that is where civil society has a role – to point to those who need to be at the table when any kind of decisions are being made.
For us, it is a huge opportunity. I would like to CONGO not only involved in the Internet Governance Forum or in the ICTs in general, but we want to see that it is mainstreamed throughout all of the other areas, when we are talking about human rights, when we are talking about environment, when we are talking about women’s issues, when we are talking about development issues – development is issue number one. That was said here, we should have a development-oriented discussion. We want to see this mainstreamed throughout and we want to see in which way it can accelerate – definitely the development agenda – and eventually it will help us see some of those lofty goals, including the Millennium Development Goals and others, can really accelerate to help to implement.
This is our goal, and this is definitely where we have been with our roles. We help facilitate (the mission of representatives of) civil society. We have helped throughout the World Summit on the Information Society process from Day One until the end. It was a new experience because civil society in the WSIS and follow-up process is (in a different role), and the challenge is still also to get the more traditional civil society on board – they might think, “Well, this is some technology discussion, it’s not important for our human-rights-development or environmental issue.” All of the really large development organizations are not on board. We have to do this mainstreaming, so we do see that ICTs and the discussion on internet governance will really be mainstreamed. So it’s a lot of challenges for us.
Q: Do you think something like CONGO would be a great way to ensure that NGOs are involved in the internet governance process?
A: That is what we want to see, and it is still missing, as our main membership are still not very much interested. We want to help them see how important it is for them to take ICTs for development to take ICTs and internet governance very earnestly and honestly into their work and also see how, for instance, if you’re talking about internet governance, how this is a development issue. Because what is finally being determined, be it “content” or be it “access” or be it “diversity,” these are all issues of development. (It is a chance to) finally get on an equal playing field through capacity building, through the empowerment and the possibilities the internet offers us.
In offering this to us, we see at this time that the technology is running away by itself and we are reacting to it – we are not proactive enough to see what the possibilities are. This has been my impression from these two days (of the IGF meeting) that we have to think anew about how proactive we can be and we have to become in order that we see this happen – that it is the huge harmonizer in order to help people to really be on the board, around the table when decisions are being made.
Governments have to have the final word in certain things. We do not want to take that away from them. But in order to find this way, they have to hear from all of us. (In some areas of the internet) it is not governments that have the expertise. They need the academics and technology experts here at the moment and those from big business. They all have to take the responsibility that what we see at the end of the day is that it is this enabler, not just as a market tool to get even more business. We have to bring these things together.
Q: What is your greatest hope for the future of the internet?
A: That the internet is a possibility for all; that access is there for all; and that it provides an incredible enabler for helping implement human-rights standards and ideas and to give people more possibilities to live their lives in dignity. At the same time to see how this can help development. We are talking constantly about the right to development. This whole technology happens in the age of globalization. Many understood it only as globalization of capital, but it is globalization of knowledge, it is globalization of all of this. (So my hope is) that it would globalize the world in a human, dignified manner. That is what we want to see happen.
Q: What is your greatest fear for the future of the internet?
A: That it will be taken by those have the resources and decision-making – that it will be snatched for uncivil purposes and at the same time when this happens then restrictions come and it would be estranged from what we want the internet to be. So whatever filtering, whatever things might need to be done to protect vulnerable groups – particularly children – that needs to also be discussed. It should not be that somebody decides and then does it. It should not be that a government says OK, this has to be done. This should really be discussed in a multi-stakeholder way. Then we have a better understanding where the balance comes in what we need to do. There is an enormous challenge to have those who have knowledge about this tell us how this can be achieved.
The optimal freedom can be safeguarded at the same time as we build protection measures into it to help protect the souls who need protection, but this is a challenge yet.
Q: Describe the future of the internet in one word.
This video transcript is offered for use under a Creative Commons Noncommercial License allowing no derivative works. Executive producers, Erin Barnett and Janna Quitney Anderson; chief engineer, Bryan Baker; videographers, Barnett and Baker; editor, Barnett.