30 October 2006: IGF Opening - Setting the (Gender Disparate?) Scene

IGF Opens in the Cradle of Democracy...where are the women??

Athens - 30 October 2006 - The Internet Governance Forum opened today in this city hailed as the cradle of democracy.

Some 1500 representatives from governments, civil society, private sector, United Nations and other intergovernmental institutions came here for the 1st Internet Governance Forum. The IGF was officially opened by Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis and chaired by the Minister of Transportation and Communication Michalis Liapis. PM Karamanlis emphasized the objective of the IGF which was to serve as a transparent platform for dialogue among all stakeholders.

In the great UN tradition, there was a formidable line up of speakers that included Nitin Desai, UN Special Adviser on Internet Governance and Chairperson of the IGF Advisory Group; Yoshio Utsumi, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union; Tarek Kamel, Minister of Information and Communication of Egypt; Vivane Reding, European Commissioner for Information Society and Media; Guy Serbian, Secretary General of the International Chamber of Commerce; Natasha Primo, Chairperson of the Board of the Association for Progressive Communications and Executive Director of Women’sNet South Africa; Robert E. Khan and Vinton G. Cerf, inventors of the TCP/IP protocol.* Perhaps it is also part of this tradition that there were only two women out of a total of 10 speakers. And only one of the 10 spoke about the relevance of the discussion on Internet Governance Forum to women.

Utsumi recalled that back in the 1990s, the debate was on whether the internet should be regulated or not. “If you ask this question today, you will be considered naïve. The future of internet governance is local rather than global because the best approach is different for each society and economy,” he added. Utsumi reminded the IGF participants that the Forum was created because of the lack of consensus on Internet Governance during the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis in November 2005. He called on everyone in the Forum to challenge beliefs as to how the internet should be governed and welcomed an open debate in the great spirit of Athenian democracy.

Kamel spoke about the fact that Internet Governance is an ever broadening subject where the technical and policy dimensions are intertwined and it has been more and more difficult to draw the line between the two. He emphasized language as one of the major barriers to Internet penetration and that the global community should invest in multilingual e-content initiative. He also posed the question: how should our society better utilize the internet towards development? We need to be no less creative [in looking for answers], he said. Kamel concluded by inviting the IGF participants to Egypt for the 4th Internet Governance Forum in 2009. check

Speaking on behalf of the European Commission, Reding stressed that the IGF will generate a lot of ideas and solutions that will be introduced in intergovernmental talks. It is a step forward in international consensus on internet governance and information and communication technologies (ICTs) for development. She underlined the need to respect fundamental human rights and protect freedom of expression, the two key principles that shaped Tunis discussions.. Reding also conveyed the European Union’s call to keep internet as an open and a censorship–free zone. Internet is for all and has to be for all, she stated. She called on all of the participants to work together to reinforce the dependability to the Internet and expressed her wish that the democratic heritage of Athens inspire them to debate even if [the issues] are controversial.

Serbian spoke about his group’s initiative to launch business action to support Information Society. He mentioned that this is an effort to contribute their expertise in developing the full potential of the Information Society and achieving the vision of an all inclusive, people-centred Information Society. Serbian did not provide details on this initiative, however.

Primo put forward five challenges facing the IGF:

1. Extending a human rights culture within the information society

2. Making internet access universal and affordable

3. Building capacity for developing country participation

4. Building an inclusive process and space that capitalises on the knowledge and participation of women; and

5. The IGF as process and the road to Rio.

While she expressed appreciation of the efforts in organizing the IGF within limited time and resources and managed to bring in women in the opening panel, Primo pointed out that the workshops and participation overall remain unacceptably male dominated. She challenged all stakeholders engaged with the question of how to extend and grow the Internet to also extend meaningful participation of all stakeholders--especially women, who make up over 50 percent of the world’s population.

Cerf, who is also the chairperson of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) emphasized that there is still much to be done to assure the stability and security of the Internet’s addressing and routing system. “…The incorporation of signed domain name zone files is but one of the many efforts underway to increase the ability of the Internet and its components to resist attacks by would-be disruptors,” he added.

Cerf also spoke about the need to join together to identify the non-technical but equally important operational frameworks in which the Internet’s resources can best be deployed and applied. “The openness of the Internet, the ability of its users to invent and test new applications, the freedom of virtually any computer on the network to interact with any other, within the limits of safety and resistance to abuse, have all contributed to its vitality and innovative character,” he pointed out.

Now, allow me to share my personal reflections. Why is it that even as speaker after speaker (except for Primo) underscored the appropriateness of Athens, the birthplace of democracy, as a venue of a meeting on internet governance, only the two women in the panel spoke about human rights? Aren’t democracy and human rights interdependent principles? And isn’t each one a requisite for and a result of the other?

As I’m wont to ask in all non-women focused meetings I attend, where are the women???--Not only on the panel but also on the agenda of the IGF. And why am I not surprised that it was only Natasha (Primo) who spoke about women? I know these are rhetorical questions after all, because current research on internet and ICT policies indicate that only a handful of countries have integrated gender in their national policies. The experience in WSIS also shows that while there may be some gains in the area of ICT training and employment for women and girls, internet governance is a completely different ball game. So, where are the women at the IGF opening? Duh! As my 15-year old daughter is opt to say when she thinks I’m asking irrelevant questions.

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