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Remarks at the First Meeting of the Internet Governance Forum

Remarks at the First Meeting of the
Internet Governance Forum

International Telecommunication Union

Athens, Greece, 30 October 2006

Good morning

It is my pleasure to give some opening remarks at the inaugural meeting of the Internet Governance Forum. What better place to talk of advancing good governance of the internet than here in Greece, the birthplace of democracy. Ever since then, Greece has played a very important role in advancing our core values of dialogue, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.

Greece is also the birthplace of Socrates, a Greek philosopher who is now widely credited as having been the wisest man in all of Greece. He was born here in Athens, where he spent most of his time in enthusiastic pursuit of wisdom.

Socrates had many devoted followers such as Plato, whose subsequent teachings are seen as a great contribution to modern day thinking. But Socrates also had many angry detractors. Due to his then controversial challenges to conventional wisdom and popular beliefs, opinions about him were widely polarized, drawing both very high praise and very severe criticism.

Sometimes it’s dangerous to be ahead of your times. Socrates fell into grave disrepute with the public powers at that time and he was arrested and accused of various crimes. He was sentenced to die by drinking poison, or else to leave the country as an exile. He felt no fear of death and at the age of 70, he drank hemlock and died.

I have had the privilege of serving as Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union since 1998. Over our 141 year history, the ITU has often had to adapt to dramatic changes in the global communications environment and I feel very lucky to have served during this particular period which has witnessed a dramatic growth and impact of the internet and mobile communications.

I am also proud that ITU has been the instigator and successful organizer of the World Summit on the Information Society.

I would like to, in the spirit of Socrates, perhaps challenge beliefs some of you have as to how the internet should be governed.

The IGF was created because there remains a continued lack of consensus on internet governance.

Yes, there is a camp who will claim that for certain issues there is no need to further discuss because things are working quite well and there is no need to change. But there is another camp that disagrees and says that this is just an attempt to avoid debate by claiming there are no problems.

To me it is obvious that if these issues were really settled then there would be no reason to create an IGF — you would not be here and there would be nothing to discuss. Let us not claim falsely that we know there are no problems. Let us welcome open debate in the great spirit of Athenian democracy.

The underlying theme of this first IGF meeting is supposed to be a focus on development. However, I do not share the perspective of those who argue that internet governance is just a developing country problem.

I disagree because the basis of this perspective is that with just more capacity building then developing countries will come around to a certain “enlightened” point of view. We have heard this often and it borders on arrogance.

Many of the critics of the current system of internet governance are not from developing countries and are extremely well-informed. Many of them are tired of hearing “you just do not understand”. Many do fully understand, particularly after WSIS.

Many also understand that no matter what technical experts argue is the best system, no matter what self-serving justifications are made that this is the only possible way to do things, there are no such systems or technologies that can eternally claim they are best.

And many know, no matter what is discussed or decided here — in the end — it will be the global marketplace that will define a final outcome.

What are the elements of this marketplace?
Of course, there are issues common to all markets:
Does it match what users what?
What is the price, availability and convenience?
Does it meet local priorities and needs?

Then there is the issue that relates in particular to the internet: the ability to rapidly innovate at the edges of the network.

And it is here most of all that I see the current centralized system as weak: what is needed is more diversity and a recognition of the principle of user’s true needs.

In order to respond to the need of the users, what is lacking is a viewpoint that matters should be handled at a level that is closer to the user and that any central role should have only a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be handled more effectively at a more immediate or local level.

Whenever there are discussions of governance, it is natural that there are discussions on the role of governments.

Replicating a debate that took place in the 1920’s with radio, there has been much debate on the role of governments in the internet.
It is interesting that this debate has shifted significantly in the last few years. In the 1990’s, a common question of many of you present here was “should the internet be regulated?” Now, only ten years later, to have even asked such a question seems remarkably na´ve — particularly when we see the extent of internet-related legislation enacted daily around the world.

The reason for this is that the internet has now become a central part of every day life and cannot be treated differently from the rest of society and the economy. This means, for better or for worse, that the internet will, in due course, not be governed or regulated in a way that is fundamentally different from the way that other things are governed.

And this is why, especially because the best approach for each society and economy differs, the future of internet governance is inevitably local rather than global.

During your discussions, I hope that you keep an open mind. There are rarely absolute truths in human endeavours. Today’s common sense may become tomorrow’s heresy. And as demonstrated by Socrates, history has also demonstrated that today’s heretical views may be the tomorrow’s widely accepted wisdom.

May I wish you the best of luck in your discussions.

Thank you.


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