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Internet Governance Issues Discussed at ITU Workshop

Geneva, 3 March 2004 — The Workshop on Internet Governance, organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and held on 26-27 February was a follow-up to the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (Geneva, 10-12 December), where Internet governance had been one of the most complex and contentious issues. Roberto Blois, Deputy Secretary-General of ITU, opened the workshop by stressing that the Internet "can play an important role in reaching many of the goals expressed in the United Nations Millennium Declaration," adding that the Geneva phase of the World Summit on the Information Society had placed the issue of information and communication technologies on the agenda of world leaders and produced consensus on the importance of shaping the information society in a manner beneficial to all.

At the Summit, governments asked United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to set up a multi-stakeholder working group on Internet governance to investigate and make proposals for action by the Summit’s second phase (Tunis, 16-18 November 2005). The task of the working group is to develop a working definition of Internet governance; identify public policy issues that are relevant to Internet governance; and develop a common understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the different stakeholders. The working group is to include governments, intergovernmental and international organizations, as well as the private sector and civil society, from both developed and developing countries.

In order to contribute to a process by which the ITU and its members may prepare their inputs to the working group, ITU, the United Nations telecommunication agency, organized the Geneva workshop, which was attended by some 140 participants from government, industry, international organizations and civil society including root server operators, Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), and ICANN staff and former board members and those responsible for country code top-level domain names (ccTLD).

Participants expressed a broad range of opinions, but also a willingness to find common ground and to stress the complementarities of efforts. Several speakers stressed the problem of articulating the character and scope of governance activities in a neutral, non-ideological and systematic way. In formulating a common understanding of what constitutes governance, some made the case for differentiating between "hard" forms of governance, which involve laws, regulations or standards, and "soft" forms, which include cooperation and coordination. These definitions would map across big-picture issues such as development of technology for equitable and sustainable global development, to narrow-focus issues such as the use of common resources and the exchange of specific services and products between nations.

There was significant support for the architectural maxim that "form should follow function". In other words, the governance tools chosen to address a particular issue, and the decision-making structures designed to apply these tools to specific problems, should reflect and fully represent the balance of interests, capabilities and needs that exist in the ‘real world’ — there should be sufficient flexibility to adapt as this balance changes. The history of global ICT governance has demonstrated that some things are best left to the private sector, some are best left to governments, and that satisfactory arrangements have yet to be devised for including developing countries and civil society in either the public or private domains of governance. This experience has also shown that it is difficult, if not impossible, to become truly inclusive without fundamental recognition of the separate and complementary functions of public and private governance structures, the legitimate roles of different actors, and the need to create dynamic linkages between them.

To address current gaps in governance, some speakers said, many developing countries would like to see a "one stop shop" like ITU to help them adjust to the new governance universe, since they lacked the financial, technical and policy resources to pursue their interests effectively across multiple forums. Others felt that multiple forums allowed faster adaptation to technological changes and more flexibility.

Significant components of governance issues that were highlighted included information and network security, protection of citizens’ rights and consumer interests, support for cultural and linguistic diversity, and measures to deal with spam.

Modalities for reaching consensus were also discussed. The chairman of the workshop, Shyamal Ghosh, of India’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, said that after the first phase of the Summit many felt that drafting in big plenary meetings was not the best way to forge consensus, but also that small committees were too exclusive and did not adequately reflect the views of many Member States. One recommendation was thus to hold open-ended meetings for all stakeholders, which would still be intergovernmental in character but more inclusive. The workshop sounded out ideas that would feed into the efforts of the various bodies involved in the process.

The ITU Workshop was the first of a series of meetings to tackle the issue of Internet governance.

For Workshop agenda with links to experts’ contributions and presentations as well as audio archives click here

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Updated : 2004-08-10