The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) opened in Rio yesterday on a sober note, with speakers cautious about their expectations.
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s message to the assembled crowd emphasised the groundbreaking nature of the consultation mechanisms introduced at the Forum’s first meeting in Athens.
“The Internet Governance Forum is not a traditional United Nations meeting. It is a new model of international cooperation,” he said – reflecting the fact that here at the IGF participants from business, government and civil society meet as equals.
But he acknowledged that the Forum has no decision-making powers – instead it aims to inspire people to head in right direction:
“The forum can develop a common understanding of how we can maximise the opportunities the internet offers, how we can use it for the benefit of all nations and peoples, and how we can address risks and challenges.”
Meanwhile, Anriette Esterhuysen, executive director of the Association for Progressive Communications argued that the internet should be treated as a ‘public good’ (as opposed to a market product for profit-making) and that this approach must also inform its governance structure.
She noted that access to the internet – five billion people are currently left out – could be dramatically improved if there were more diversity (in terms of both local languages and content) and if the internet were freed from its closed and proprietary nature. “Why should blind people pay more for interfaces to read text because they're blind?” she asked.
But John Klensin, former vice-president of internet architecture at AT&T, defended the notion that technology requires a great deal of costly research and development. He also argued that it would take time for the internet to become diverse, and that many of the challenges for internet governance were rooted in historical problems.
“The decision to exclude [Kanji] characters wasn't based on an ignorant preference for English or Roman-based characters, but on the fact that the technology at that stage just had not matured enough for more international use.”
This begs the million-dollar question: how long will non-English speaking people have to wait to be part of the information society?
[Journalists unable to attend the Forum can get live webcasts from the IGF 2007 website]