November 11, 2007
By Connie Book, Associate Professor and Associate Dean of Communications, Elon University
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – The first time you meet someone there are lots of smiles, shaking hands and getting to know each other. The second time you meet, the mood has changed. During the second gathering of the Internet Governance Forum in Brazil, the mood changed from “good to meet you,” to “let’s get down to business.” In that spirit, a group of academic internet governance stakeholders called a meeting on the day prior to the opening of the conference.
The Global Internet Governance Academic Network, founded during the 2006 IGF forum, organized a day of competitive research presentations and three major themes emerged: a development agenda for internet governance; the changing institutionalization of internet governance and critical policy issues in internet governance.
In the room were university researchers and professors from North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia. All came with the hope that by continuing the conversation begun at last year’s conference, sharing new research and discussing the findings, important steps to solving internet conundrums could be moved forward toward solutions.
When you try to solve internet issues in your own country, the debates are heated but typically everyone involved in the argument agrees to some basic principles and concepts that provide foundational thinking about the internet. When you try to solve global governance issues related to the internet, the foundational thinking is reconsidered and often only the very, very basic nuts and bolts of the internet remain. Finding this common ground is essential to global governance solutions. The academic voice is a welcome one because it is often the voice in the room without an agenda driven by political or commercial motives. The academic voice is often an enthusiastic one focusing on the promise of the internet and its ability to educate and build bridges between communities.
When Bill Drake of the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland was asked if the United Nations was excited about the development of Giganet and its pre-conference meeting he said, “Absolutely. Our meeting demonstrates to the United Nations the important role the IGF plays in bringing multistakeholders together for conversation.”
While conversation about GigaNet is positive, there’s a restlessness among many presenters who want the United Nation’s IGF to establish an agenda and establish its authority. “We want IGF to do something, to have some authority regarding internet governance,” one audience member told the GigaNet conference committee chairman.
But today, the agenda was about conversation. One engineer, Olga Cavalli, from the University of Buenos Aires and the Institute of Technology in Buenos Aires discussed her efforts to work with the Latin American Plan of Action for the Information Society. The group was formed earlier this year to address issues that are most pertinent region.
“You have many actors within these countries that often have an agenda,” Cavalli said. “The region as a whole needs to embrace technology as a way to enhance the economy and allow a reduction in poverty. The role of the State must be enhanced; the government must be aware of new technologies.”
While internet access is growing in Latin American countries, that growth rate is being hampered by the high cost of broadband. Cavalli noted that Latin American countries have the highest disparity among the rich and the very poor, making the internet another asset of the privileged in those communities.
Laura DeNardis, a research fellow at Yale’s Law School, echoed the same lament.
“Many of these developing countries are struggling to become global entrepreneurs,” DaNardis said. “The leaders of these countries want to compete and innovate in products based on internet standards.” DeNardis argued that developing countries need to be included during the standards-setting process and that policy work surrounding the adoption of such standards should be transparent.
While not everyone agrees how global standards and policies will be implemented in developing nations, everyone agreed that the one true global internet governance process in place is ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN is a non-profit established to assign and monitor internet domain names. The organization has created more than 250 domain names today, but still shoulders criticism that most of those domain names are in English and other Latin-based languages because ICANN has not developed technical support for more graphical languages like Chinese. ICANN is running a trial of Chinese and other graphical language-based domain names in the coming months.
Slavka Antonova, a professor and research at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand, studied the political processes at work during the formative years of ICANN. Antonova found that when then President Clinton appointed the task force to design what would be ICANN, careful attention was paid to having a variety of voices at the table, thus the ICANN process was eventually more effective as a multi-stakeholder organization. Her research affirms the IGF conversation under way today.
Also on the mind of academics is the constant threat of cybercrime. While most of the academic conversation was about fraud and identity theft which is most heavily found in the United States, the buzz at the pre-conference was about child pornography. One Giganet attendee noted that, “Pornography is illegal online or offline no matter what part of the world you live.” Removing child pornography’s availability over the internet can then become a common global theme. Establishing effective transborder cyberpolicing is more difficult, especially among a family of countries where internet policies differ.
Network neutrality, which has largely been an American debate, received some global attention when a professor from Syracuse University, Milton Mueller, suggested that network neutrality could become a global norm for internet governance. “We don’t have your First Amendment,” one faculty member in the audience challenged. “Can we co-exist with differences in philosophy on this issue?” another attendee asked.
The GigaNet discussion ended with a meeting about next year’s conference and the goals of the organization. As an all volunteer group with no financial support, any proposition to move forward with new objectives is difficult. However, an enthusiastic group of academics said they enjoyed finding others in the academic community with common research interests and a passion for internet governance. At the end of the day, GigaNet stakeholders will make sure they continue to bring the academic voice to the United Nations’ IGF meetings.