No Turning Back on Civil Society Participation

2005-11-16 00:00:00

MONTEVIDEO, Nov 2 (IPS) - The most important advance made by the World Summit on the Information Society is having conceived a model of Internet governance in which governments, civil society and the private sector all participate on an equal footing, according to Uruguayan expert Raúl Echeberría.

This multi-stakeholder format could now b the administration and control of the so-called worldwide web.

In Latin America, the Mercosur (Southern Common Market) trade bloc and its associate members have not coordinated common positions for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), whose second phase will take place this December in Tunisia, noted Echeberría. Mercosur is made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, but its associate members encompass most of the rest of South America.

Brazil and other developing countries are proposing that civil society be given an advisory, rather than a decisive role in Internet governance, commented Echeberría, one of the 40 experts in the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) set up by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.

But "sooner rather than later," the current subordination of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to the United States must come to an end, he maintained.

IPS: Is there any coordination or common position among the Mercosur countries, Chile and Bolivia with regard to Internet governance?

RAÚL ECHEBERRÍA: There has been no formal coordination as far as I know. Argentina, Chile and Uruguay have expressed similar positions, shared by a number of other Latin American countries, like Ecuador and Peru, but to say that they are totally identical would be too absolutist. Brazil has taken a different position.

IPS: And what is that?

RE: Brazil forms part of the "like-minded group" of countries along with China, India, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Iran, among others, who are backed by several Latin American nations, like Cuba and Venezuela. Their idea, in general, is to promote an intergovernmental body, which they call the Global Internet Council, with broad powers to oversee governance of the Internet. Civil society organisations and the private sector would participate in the Council as advisors or observers, without voting rights.

IPS: Civil society would be left out of Internet governance in this case?

RE: It would participate, but unfortunately, this participation would be limited, despite the fact that the most important result of this whole discussion process over the years has been the emergence of a new model of governance that could be applied to a variety of areas. Namely, the "multi-stakeholder" model, in which all of the actors involved in a specific issue participate on an equal footing.

In this case it applies to Internet governance, but it could also work for human rights or the environment. It's a veritable turning point in the evolution of governance systems.

IPS: Brazil's position clashes with the Declaration of Principles adopted at the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva, which called for "multilateral, transparent and democratic" international management of the Internet, with "the full involvement of governments, the private sector, civil society and international organisations."

RE: The text adopted in December 2003 isn't sufficiently clear. And since there is also talk about the creation of a new forum for dialogue among all stakeholders on an equal footing on all Internet governance-related issues, an idea that will largely meet with consensus, it could be argued that civil society will be fully involved. It all depends on how you look at it.

IPS: How would you characterise the position of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay?

RE: These countries, and others, are frightened by the complexity of the Global Council. There hasn't been enough time to establish the mechanisms for participation by the governments, the kinds of decisions it would adopt, and how it would adopt them.

Some of the fear is related to the cost of new bodies, because international bureaucracy is very costly, and countries would have to devote significant resources in order to participate effectively. Only the most powerful nations are in a position to successfully participate in all international bodies and areas of negotiation.

Some decisions seem impossible to adopt with the participation of all governments. An executive committee could be established, and that is also a source of concern: disputes would start to erupt over filling these positions. There are some who will always want to be in limited groups where the decisions are made, and this could lead to a repeat of scenarios like the Security Council.

The position of Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico and Uruguay is that governments should have more participation, but without the creation of new bodies. These countries already view the creation of the forum as a very important change, which would minimise the need for new bodies.

IPS: Under this point of view, ICANN would continue to exist.

RE: There would have to be a way of guaranteeing greater participation by governments.

IPS: What kind of reform would you prefer?

RE: There is a good deal of agreement that the subordination of ICANN to the U.S. government has to come to an end sooner rather than later, that there should be greater international involvement. The Government Advisory Committee, which currently plays an advisory roll, should have more influence on ICANN decision-making.

But no matter how much we all agree that governments should have a stronger role in ICANN, it is going to be very difficult for them to come to an agreement on the degree of influence they would like. Some governments have a more liberal view and want less participation, while others want more.

IPS: Do you think the United States is prepared to give up control? Although, in reality, Washington has never exercised direct pressure on ICANN.

RE: That's true. This control has never been abused. I don't think they want to hold on to it forever. The United States has allowed some evolution of the system, like the creation of the forum and the legitimate concerns of governments over issues of sovereignty related to country codes.

Although it comes across as very determined to maintain the status quo, the United States is willing to budge somewhat. It is not going to have any choice but to accept an evolutionary process with international support, as long as it attends to its concerns over security and stability. I think the prospects are good.

IPS: How can the United States' concerns be attended to?

RE: The multi-stakeholder model itself, which entails a high degree of social control, works in favour of stability and security. I do not think it would be a good idea to place absolute control in the hands of governments, which could then hypothetically be exercised by a subgroup of the world's governments.

IPS: What future do you see for civil society participation in Internet governance?

RE: The struggle waged by civil society and the private sector for greater participation and influence in decision-making and international policies will continue in the long term. In this process in particular there have already been advances made, enormous and very positive ones.

It's likely that the resolutions reached won't be fully satisfactory for everyone. There will still be work to be done. But the multi-stakeholder model of governance is a one-way road. Once civil society and the private sector have had a good degree of participation in this process, I can't imagine why they wouldn't demand it in other areas.

The final discussions on Internet governance will be taking place in Tunis in the days prior to the Summit, and some limitations have been announced for the participation of civil society and the private sector for reasons of space or geography.

IPS: What are the chances of an agreement being reached?

RE: The worst-case scenario is that there won't be an agreement. There are diverging positions regarding the kind of control that governance institutions will have. The attempt to reconcile bottom-up and top-down down models is going to generate conflicts.

Everything will depend on whether the participants are more concerned with strengthening their own positions or reaching agreements. And the only way of reaching agreements in a summit where there should be no objections raised by individual countries is by working on the basis of common positions, not the middle ground. (END/2005)

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