Rio de Janeiro, 12 November 2007
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me start by welcoming you all at this Best Practice Forum on Public Participation in Internet Governance. This Forum will explore how public participation in internet governance can be enhanced, taking into account what has been done so far in the area of internet governance, as well as similar experiences in other fields. I should like to thank the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) for having wanted the Council of Europe as a partner in this important event.
The ever growing number of internet users and the availability of tools for e-participation broaden the scope for public participation in policy making in the internet governance field.
My starting point when talking about internet governance in general is that the internet is after all made by, and is an “affair” of people, not machines. The latter are just the technical tools to enable people to play, work, communicate, do business, learn, empower themselves, on the internet. Ultimately, it all boils down to people behind machines, to their rights and duties, and their potential impact onto this e-world.
Indeed, ICTs have a tremendous potential for empowering people, for shifting power from the centre to the people, from “them” to “us”. Millions of people engage in all sorts of transactions online, download information and entertainment. But the Internet also provides new spaces for democratic participation and engagement. Using ICTs for public participation has the potential to strengthen relationships between citizens and public bodies, to build civic capacity and to make policy-making more transparent and genuinely participative. In other words, to give the ownership of the Internet to “us”, to the users.
The UNECE Aarhus Convention has shown impressively the effects that public participation can have on policy processes in the environmental field:
- the transparency of environmental policies has greatly increased;
- the distribution of information and knowledge through the mechanisms initiated by the Convention have raised public awareness of environmental matters and have had important educational effects, often leading to better acceptance of policy measures.
- and most importantly, each individual can control the compliance of Governments with legislation and point out deficits.
What can be drawn from experience with the Aarhus Convention for Internet governance ? Can we compare environmental resources with Internet resources ?
Transparency, information and knowledge, and control, are the key words.
In the environmental context, environmental resources such as clean drinking water are often being referred to as public goods that should be available to people free of charge or at a reasonable cost.
When it comes to the resources provided to the public by the Internet, I should like to propose to you the concept of public service value of the Internet. The Council of Europe advances this concept which is to be understood as people’s significant reliance and impact on the Internet, as an essential tool for their everyday activities and the resulting legitimate expectation that Internet services are accessible and affordable, secure, reliable and ongoing. In fact, our Committee of Ministers, the “governing body” of the 47-members Council of Europe, adopted last Wednesday a new international standard with its Recommendation on measures to promote the public service value of the Internet. The Recommendation embraces the key IGF themes (openness, security, access and diversity).
In that respect we may, indeed, compare environmental resources with Internet resources and ask ourselves whether an approach to public participation similar to that in the environmental field should be considered for Internet Governance.
Shouldn’t national Governments enable the average Internet user to be informed about issues of Internet Governance ?
For Internet governance processes to satisfy democratic needs and for the responses provided to be truly people-centred, the part to be played by users should be recognised and strengthened. Is it fair that users are just those who subscribe a contract with an internet service providers or just the ultimate chain of the market system ?
I don’t think so. I firmly believe that users should be more than numbers on business contracts. They are, and should be considered as, real actors of the internet who must be able to play a key role and have an impact on Internet Governance.
Many aspects of Internet Governance affect users directly: spam, viruses, crime, copyright. Through their direct exposure to these phenomena, Internet users can draw the attention of policy-makers to the critical issues and contribute to the development of appropriate policies. Moreover, the involvement of users can also help to reduce a certain technology bias that is often found in discussions on Internet Governance.
We know that e-tools can be used at different levels of public involvement, i.e. to inform, consult, involve, collaborate, and to empower.
In this respect, we at Council of Europe are currently preparing a set of e-democracy tools, based on existing applications in member states. We also actively contribute to the working group on e-participation in the context of the action-line follow-up to WSIS.
We therefore want to contribute to bringing together people, technology and democratic participation in the field of Internet Governance. We want the Internet to be a real democratic space with rules which enable our collective and peaceful coexistence on the net, but also and most importantly, which enable people to have a say on what Internet should be or not be, and on how the Internet can help increase public participation and engagement.
I look forward to our discussions and thank you for your attention.