Viviane Reding. Member of the European Commission responsible for Information Society and Media
Mr Prime Minister,
Secretary General of the ITU,
Special representative of the UN Secretary General,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me start by saying how honoured I feel to address today the participants in the first meeting of the Internet Governance Forum. Not least because it is being held here at the generous invitation of the Greek government in the historic city of Athens, but also because of the importance that the European Union has placed on the development of the Internet. On behalf of the European Commission, let me also thank the United Nations in making the necessary preparatory arrangements to ensure that the Internet Governance Forum will be a success.
I am of course particularly proud to see that a city in the European Union has been chosen as place of the first meeting of the Internet Governance Forum. It is fitting that here in Athens, in the ancient cradle of democracy, citizens and officials from all over the world have come together in these days to discuss and debate an issue of governance.
I have no doubt that, in its own way, this event will contribute to the democracy of the Internet and the virtues of governance through dialogue, cooperation and respect. I am therefore a strong supporter of the Internet Governance Forum and the open, global and multi-stakeholder approach it represents.
The Internet Governance Forum will be one important pillar of the new model of co-operation between all stakeholders, including all governments, agreed upon in Tunis last year. The Internet Governance Forum does not replace negotiations between governments on the enhanced co-operation model, but is a complementary process. I expect it to generate ideas and solutions that I intend to feed into the debate between governments to ensure that both processes do not operate in isolation. In that respect, I see first efforts circulating notably on the management of the DNS. This goes in the right direction and the European Commission will keep contributing to the discussions.
The Internet Governance Forum is a direct result of the World Summit on Information Society last year. For the EU, this was a new step towards an international consensus on Internet governance issues based on the principles of freedom, multi-stakeholder dialogue and accountable private-sector management. Here in Athens, we are today translating one of the elements of the Tunis agreements from words into action.
As we all know, the two main elements of the Tunis Agenda were ICTs for development and Internet governance. Today in the agenda of the Internet Governance Forum, these two elements are present with a debate on "Internet governance for development". I look forward to the discussions on the key issues of openness, security, diversity and access. These issues are truly global: the responses they call for will be of crucial importance equally for developing countries and for those that are already economically developed. The time is also ripe for addressing these issues more globally. We therefore all share a common objective which can only make the IGF most relevant if it turns, as I hope, successful.
Let me recall the overarching principles that shaped the process of the World Summit on Information Society and which should guide us in my view through our discussions in the coming days and months on the future of the Internet, in the IGF framework and in negotiations between governments.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the need to respect fundamental human rights and the need to protect freedom of expression. In just a few years, the Internet has undoubtedly turned into one of the most dynamic communication tools the world has ever seen. The flow of information that it facilitates strengthens democratic processes, stimulates economic growth and allows for cross-fertilizing exchanges of knowledge in a way never seen before. Too often however, this very freedom is under attack from those that do not value freedom of expression or disregard the economic and social benefits of allowing a free flow of information within and across borders. Freedom is too often seen as a threat by those who do not value human rights or want to impose their vision of the world or their religious beliefs. A key objective for the European Commission is therefore to keep the Internet as an open and censorship-free zone where all the world's citizens can communicate freely with each other without needing to seek the permission of anyone else, not least their governments, to do so, in line with internationally recognised fundamental rights.
Secondly, we should acknowledge the benefits the Internet can bring to development policies, and Tunis has taught us all a lot in this respect. The benefits of the Internet must be shared by all the world's citizens, not just those in Northern Europe, Northern America and South East Asia. In other words, the digital divide needs to be bridged. Much of this will have to do with improving access to the necessary hardware, software and connectivity in developing countries. Internet is for all. This is why the European Union, which is already the worlds largest donor of development aid, will continue to work on bridging the digital divide. Mobile telephony and satellite communications offer promising solutions in that respect.
Let me add a point: bridging the digital divide is not just a matter of bringing screens and cables to all parts of the world, important though such infrastructures are. An equally important dimension is the recognition of the extent and value of cultural diversity within the global village created by the Internet.
Multilingualism is a theme that often comes up in this context, as, by its very nature, it promotes culturally and linguistically diverse content on the Internet. Take for instance Internationalised Domain Names (IDN), which are sometimes wrongly seen as a mere technical issue. Notwithstanding the important considerations on stability that need to be addressed, there is above all a legitimate political imperative for the Internet to offer different language scripts. Apart from users who want to be able to use, for example, Chinese ideograms or Arabic scripts, there is the real danger that prolonged delay in the introduction of IDNs could lead to a fragmentation of the Internet.
At the same time, I believe we should also think about multilingualism in Internet governance mechanisms themselves. The Internet that we know and value today has much of its roots in the developed world, in particular in Europe and in the USA. English has been, and will continue to be, a very important and very useful "lingua franca" that facilitates cross-border and inter-cultural cooperation between worldwide communities, such as scientists, engineers and academics, or in the economic sectors.
Today however, the Internet has outgrown this original academic network. More and more, given its decentralised nature, the Internet is now becoming truly the "people's internet" across the world, moving at the moment clearly towards a Web 2.0 direction in which every web citizen will become at the same time a creator of web content. Individuals thus contribute directly to Internet content and innovation themselves and, as citizens, they have an increasing interest in participating in the debate about how the Internet can and should be run. This also increases the need to raise awareness on security issues and make all citizens and businesses part of a more efficient chain of responsibility.
I congratulate the organisers of today's event in particular and very personally for providing the opportunity for participants to use several languages. I call on the many existing Internet governance bodies around the world to follow the good example of the Internet Governance Forum and to consider how they too can contribute to bringing more people from different linguistic groups into the debate.
Spam is a further example that affects us all and, in particular, impedes access for developing countries. We have to work – here at the Internet Governance Forum and elsewhere – together to maintain and reinforce the dependability of the Internet. This is what people expect from us.
This is what the Internet Governance Forum is about: bringing the civil society from across the world into the debates on Internet Governance, so far too often restricted to public officials alone.
To conclude, I would like to wish all the participants of this first Internet Governance Forum success in their endeavours here over the next few days. May the democratic heritage of Athens inspire our talks and guide our debates, controversial though they may be. The future of the Internet will very much depend on such an open dialogue and on the willingness of all interested parties – whether from the side of civil society, of industry or of governments – to cooperate in a spirit of collaboration and mutual understanding.