Elon University

Should standards-setting groups be required to be transparent, inclusive and accredited?

November 11, 2007
By Janna Quitney Anderson, Director of Imagining the Internet and Assistant Professor of Communications, Elon University

Brazil Keynote SpeakerRio de Janeiro, Brazil – The Internet Governance Forum doesn’t really begin until tomorrow, but many people traveled here early to participate in pre-forum conferences that concentrated on Internet standards and academic studies of the primary issues.

Walking the hallways and stopping into sessions, it was easy to spot many of the top leaders of civil society, non-governmental organizations, the United Nations, major corporations, technical organizations and Internet-regulating groups already engaged in serious dialogues and panel discussions.

Policy leaders from Sun Microsystems, IBM and Microsoft spent Sunday with academics, technology people and NGO representatives talking about Internet standards in a conference that was kicked off with an introduction from Markus Kummer, director of the UN secretariat for IGF.

“What we stand for,” he said, “is to make life a better place… There are economic arguments. There are political arguments. These are difficult to brush aside. But people come here (to IGF) and meet under one roof and find that cooperation is possible.”

Today’s technology tools are complicated marvels. A single device – for instance, a cell phone that also plays music, works as an internet browser and captures and sends still photos and plays video – is a product developed with an eye toward meeting hundreds of standards.

Cooperation is the key to success in trying to find ways to encourage innovation and creativity and allow maximum access to knowledge while also establishing the kinds of standards that allow us to efficiently and securely use technology tools to accomplish global trade, national security, disaster response and the management of all of the digital files and packets we wish to share with anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Standards are complex, multi-layered governance structures with far-reaching influence. Panelist Laura DeNardis of Yale University’s Information Society Project said they are critical to success in communication, and there is a need for more public participation in the processes behind the standard-setting, because when only the interests of business and government are being considered, the big picture gets lost and serving the public good is often forgotten.

DeNardis suggested that standards organizations should include fair representation of all stakeholders in their decision processes. They should make the processes visible to the public – “transparent.” And they should be held accountable for their decisions, perhaps even going through an accreditation process at occasional intervals during which they are assessed to assure that they are truly representative and that the work they do is transparent.

The event was eloquently started and finished by the engaging John Gage, chief researcher and vice president of the Science Office at Sun Microsystems.

Smooth and smart, he talked about the ways in which public health concerns and the challenges ahead in biotechnology and genetics have many parallels to Internet issues. He pointed out the fact that many of the same questions we must answer when dealing with the complexities of the Internet can also be found in dealing with networks like the path that a worldwide outbreak of Avian Flu takes and the “biological issues” inherent in gene-mapping and “tinkering with the very stuff of life.”

Panels at the Standards Edge conference, produced by the Bolin Group, covered:

1) Digital Inclusion (a new, more positive phrase for attacking what has been referred to as the “digital divide”), with Georg Greve of the Free Software Foundation Europe; Cezar Taurion, director of new applied technologies for IBM; Rishab Ghosh, a professor and senior researcher for United Nations University, Maastricht; Carlos Affonso Pereira, of the Centre for Technology and Society at Fundacao Getulio Vargas School of Law; Jorge Villar Guijarro, Centre of New Initiatives, Regional Ministry on Infrastructures and Technological Development Extramadura.

2) Increasing Accessibility of Services and Social Programs through Open Standards, with Marcelo Zuffo of the University of Sao Paulo Laboratory of Systems Integration; Giovanni Moura de Holanda, director of the National Telecommunications Foundation of Brazil; Dr. John Gill, chief scientist of the Royal National Institute of the Blind in London; Reshan Dewapura, COO and program director for information infrastructure at the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka; and Djalma Valois, director of ITI, Brazil.

3) Balance Representation in ICT Standardization, with Carlos Afonso, director of planning for the Information Network for the Third Sector of Brazil; Rogerio Santanna, president of the Department of Information Systems Integration in the Brazilian Ministry of Planning; Descartes De Souza Teixeira, vice president of Softex; and Laura DeNardis of the Information Society Project at Yale University.

4) International Market Influence, with Susy Struble of Sun Microsystems; Robin Gross, director of IP Justice; Richard Owens, director, Copyright E-Commerce, Technology and Management Division of the World Intellectual Property Organization; Thomas Vinje, partner in the law firm Clifford Chance; Thiru Balasubramaniam, director of Knowledge Ecology International.

Audio and written reports from this session will be available online at the Standards Edge site soon.