November 12, 2007
By Janna Quitney Anderson, Director of Imagining the Internet and Assistant Professor of Communications, Elon University
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – More cameras at the press conference and more questions accepted from the forum floor are both good signs that the people who have the power to make decisions are letting in a little light.
Today at the first day of the second Internet Governance Forum in Rio de Janeiro we saw ample evidence of the success of the idea of bottom-up, transparent governance. There is no doubt that there is still much work to be done to actually accomplish a true “bottom-up, transparent” process (these are the favorite buzz words of people planning the IGF), but it is exciting to meet with and talk to the people who are making many of the decisions, to see that they seem to be listening to constructive criticism and to hear that they are making some progress toward a more open system of decision-making regarding the policy that will influence the future of the internet.
If you measure success by the number of cameras at the opening-day press conference, then the second IGF is considerably bigger and more successful than the first.
Opening day at Athens in 2006 there were a few print reporters in the room at the post-opening-ceremony press session, and perhaps one news crew with a video camera. The room was actually embarrassingly empty. Today, I witnessed a first-day press conference with at least three dozen people from around the world – Brazil, Italy, China and many other nations – scribbling in notebooks and capturing audio clips and video images to build into news accounts about the event.
Were they frustrated with the uninspiring and generalized comments of the people being interviewed? Yes. But at least they were there, they got the opportunity to meet these people and ask their questions, and perhaps next time the answers will be more revealing.
Nitin Desai, the United Nations Secretary General’s special adviser for Internet governance, said the internet has required people to find new ways to make decisions regarding social welfare. “There is a certain exploration going on,” he said. “The Internet is not owned by anybody. It’s also not a physical infrastructure … The challenge is how to get this interaction going in a constructive way.”
Sha Zukang, attending the event to open it as the special representative of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, was the UN ambassador from China until just a few months ago. When reporters tried to get him to respond to questions about Internet censorship in his home country, he was careful in his answer. “Now I am neutral,” he said in reference to his new UN role. “So it’s in my best interests to shut up.” That got a laugh from the press.
“My personal position,” he added, “is we are all for freedom of information. This is a basic human right – no doubt about it. That is why the Internet is useful. But freedom doesn’t mean you are free to do anything. Would you tolerate the use of the Internet for terrorist purposes, for pornography for our kids?”
He went on to say that the Internet is used successfully by many people in his home nation. “Find out how widely the Internet is used in China – much information is flowing there, then I’m sure you will be pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised,” he added to the chagrin of most of the reporters in the room, all of whom are cognizant of the instances of censorship and surveillance in the Chinese Internet system.
When the press conference was completed, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, the minister of the long-term planning secretariat for Brazil, an eloquent speaker in regard to the topic of the Internet and globalization, was mobbed by members of the media, there to ask him questions about his position about Internet governance. You wouldn’t have seen that in Athens. It is progress. Progress because people are beginning to understand the importance of paying attention to how the Internet is shaped by policy and public input.
The Internet leaders at this conference seem to be listening and reacting to the questions and concerns of civil society and representatives of non-governmental organizations. They seem to be working for the multilateral, transparent and democratic process that they have been talking about. The world will benefit if that is true.