Elon University

An interview transcript from the first Internet Governance Forum, Athens, Greece Oct/Nov 2006: Robin Gross

IGF 2006 LogoThis 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.

Gross Headshot Robin Gross – Executive Director of IP Justice, an international civil liberties organization promoting access to knowledge; one of 47 people from around the world appointed to form the first UN IGF Advisory Group, and a leader of dynamic coalitions formed to address specific internet governance issues that came together at the first IGF meeting in Athens in 2006. Based in San Francisco, USA.

The Transcript:

Q: Who are you with and why did they send you to IGF?

A: I am with IP Justice, which is a civil liberties organization – international civil liberties organization – that works to promote balanced intellectual property laws and protect freedom of expression on the internet. I’m here in a number of roles. I’m also on the Advisory Group for the Internet Governance Forum. I was appointed in May by the secretary-general (of the UN) to be part of this group to help organize this conference, so I’m here in that capacity. I’m also here in the IP Justice capacity as an advocate for the public interest and civil liberties. I’m sort of walking, straddling two different roles when I’m here.

Q: As an advisor for IGF, can you tell us what you and the other advisors discussed coming into this forum?

A: It’s a 43-member body, made up of civil society and governments and business and some academics. It’s very diverse, from all different parts of the world. We met first in May, and we met again in July.

Most of our discussions have been about the organization of this particular forum – what are the topics that are particularly relevant that are sort of bubbling up to the surface with respect to internet governance issues that need to be addressed.

We had lots of debates about “what are the important issues,” “what has been covered before,” “what are the emerging issues – how do they all sort of fit together,” “who are the right stakeholders – the appropriate people to be discussing those issues.”

We have been recommending the panelists – all of the panelists you see in the main sessions have been suggested by the advisory group members. A number of the advisory group members have also been working to organize some of the workshops, although most of the workshops are organized by the internet community in general.

IP Justice is a co-sponsor of three of the workshops here this week. The Access to Knowledge and Free Expression Workshop, which has formed a dynamic coalition to continue the work through Rio next year and then India and Alexandria after that. There’s also the Open Standards Workshop that we have organized and created a dynamic coalition around, and the Internet Bill of Rights Workshop, again another dynamic coalition coming up with goals to work towards in a multi-year process on these issues.

There’s a lot going on here this week that I’ve been involved with. I’ve also been one of the main organizers of the Openness Session, and I tried to help facilitate that session yesterday and tried to come up with some of the broad guidelines and some of the broad descriptions for what that should be with respect to freedom of expression, the free flow of information and access to knowledge.

Q: What are the main themes of IGF?

A: There are four main themes of the Forum. There’s Openness, Security and Privacy, Diversity and Access. These are the four main themes that the advisory group came up with. You can sort of think of them as baskets which hold sub-issues that all fit nicely within each of the four main issues. A number of the issues actually straddle several of the different main issues.

Q: Would you say IGF is more about preparation for action or actually taking action on these issues?

A: It’s about both. I think it’s about taking action, but it begins with dialogue. The IGF is the forum that’s been created to hold that dialogue, particularly with regard to a multi-stakeholder environment. We have governments here, we have civil society here, we have business here, we have academics here, we have intergovernmental organizations here. That’s what the IGF is really about – creating a forum for this discussion. It’s not necessarily saying “we need to go in this direction” or “we need to go in that direction,” but it’s sort of creating the place where these discussions can happen, and it’s up to the internet community itself to decide what’s important and what actions need to be taken and take that action. So, it is very much a bottom-up process.

Q: How is “governance” going to be developed – what does multi-stakeholder governance mean?

A: It’s not just civil society talking amongst themselves, not just governments talking themselves, but all of these different groups – business, government, civil society, academics, talking together, having to interface together and work through these problems together. Not just the North talking to itself, not just the South, but again, the whole globe talking together without these kinds of barriers of, “well you belong in this group” or “you belong in Europe or the U.S.” It’s trying to create a forum where everyone is equal, and everyone’s views can be heard and expressed, and we can have dialogue and debate and controversy.

The creation of the dynamic coalitions is really an outcome of this. We just had a press conference in here to announce a dynamic coalition on freedom of expression and access to knowledge, which is the main deliverable of this forum, which is groups getting together and saying, “Yeah, we’re like-minded on certain issues, we feel that these are important to work on, so we’re going to identify a few key objectives and work towards those for the next year and the year after in this multi-stakeholder forum.”

Q: What do you think the next step is after this dialogue?

A: The next step now is to take a step back and reflect on what happened here in Athens, what worked, what didn’t work, what can we do better next time with respect to the next Internet Governance Forum meeting in Rio de Janeiro. That’s sort of the big picture for the whole Internet Governance Forum, and then there’s the discrete dynamic coalitions, and each one is going to have its own agenda, going to have its own way of facilitating its objectives. Some will probably only meet on the internet, through virtual discussions. Others will have lots and lots of face-to-face meetings. The dynamic coalitions that I’ve signed up with are part of the latter. They want to have lots of face-to-face meetings, because that’s where a lot of real work gets done. So between now and Rio we expect to work on virtual e-mail lists, create documents for websites, create research materials and also follow up with these face-to-face meetings between now and Rio, and in Rio come back with a workshop following up on what we have done, what we have created and what we can recommend to the 2007 Internet Governance Forum.

Q: What is internet governance so important that a forum would be created to discuss it?

A: We recognize that an Internet Governance Forum that takes place in one country or only amongst one discrete set of actors is virtually meaningless. The internet doesn’t know borders the way the physical world does. You can’t address spam laws in one country and think that that’s going to have a real influence. We have to work together in an international forum because the internet is international by its very definition. In order for us to be serious about addressing the challenges and working to promote the benefits, we have to work together at an international level. That’s why it’s so important that we have this international forum to do that.

Q: What is your greatest hope for the future of the internet?

A: That the internet will provide a tool for universal access to education and freedom of expression. That the countries right now who don’t enjoy a very high level of freedom of expression, I expect the internet’s going to change that. These repressive governments cannot hold back the tide of the internet and the opportunity that the internet provides for people to share ideas and share information and educate themselves and learn from one another and be creative. You look at how technology – websites like YouTube – have enabled consumers who used to just watch television to now create video and share it with the whole world. That’s what I think is so exciting about the internet, the promises and the benefits that it’s going to bring to people. That’s not to say that there aren’t challenges and there aren’t obstacles, but this is a very exciting time in humanity – to watch this incredible change, where basically all human minds can connect together through the internet. If you have an internet connection, if you have a website, if you have e-mail, you can talk to just about anyone in the world, and this is really revolutionary.

Q: What is your greatest fear for the future of the internet”?

A: My greatest fear is that the internet could be used as a tool of repression and censorship. If we don’t get it right, if we don’t build the internet with the right technical standards that are open, that are free, but instead instill in the technology of the internet technologies that are used to spy on people, technologies that are used to regulate what kinds of information people are allowed to access. That’s my greatest fear. It’s this very interesting flip side, where on the one hand it could be this incredible tool – and I do expect that it will – but at the same time we have to guard against the other possibility that it could also be this tool of repression.

Q: How do you keep this borderless medium from being influenced by a bordered world?

A: I don’t think the bordered world really has a choice in the matter. It’s just a question of how soon do a lot of the legislators realize that we have to deal with the internet, we have to work together, that these are not problems that can be isolated and solved at a national level or individually but it is something that we all have to work together on.

Q: Describe the future impact of the internet in one word.

A: Freedom.

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.