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Build a legacy for future generations, connect bridges: some suggestions for future action

Published on 06 March 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

The CONNECTing the Dots conference at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris, on 3-4 March, concluded with the adoption of an outcome document, paving the way forward in each of the four main fields of digital policy (access to information and knowledge, freedom of expression, privacy, and the ethical dimensions of the information society).

Build a legacy for future generations, connect bridges: some suggestions for future actionThe recommendations that have emerged from the conference will inform the work of the 196th session of UNESCO’s Executive Board during its April 2015 meetings; the final outcomes of the Internet Study process will be presented to the 38th session of UNESCO’s General Conference later this year.

On the first day of the conference, we followed the High-Level Governmental Dialogue, and a panel on privacy issues. On the second day, we followed the session on Options for Future Action (break-out session 16), in which the panel tackled the question: What might be UNESCO’s role in relation to key stakeholders of the Internet ecosystem, including governments, technical community, private sector, intergovernmental organisations, civil society, and users, specifically with regards to issues concerning online access to information and knowledge, freedom of expression, privacy and ethical dimensions of information and knowledge societies?

The following were the key contributions during the discussion.

Speaking from her organisation’s experience – the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) – executive director Anriette Esterhuysen, said that effective multistakeholder collaboration requires collaboration from inside stakeholder groups. The process works well when stakeholders have a clear understanding of what they are doing, what needs to be done, and where they are going.

She commended UNESCO’s work, which brought everyone together in the process, and encouraged stakeholder participation with confidence. A process which is too open carries risks. For example, net neutrality affects different groups in different ways – all of which are legitimate concerns. UNESCO played a good role with tackling stakeholder groups separately, and also engaging them within the wider process. Civil society creates the biggest challenge, as it encompasses so many different groupings (media, women, advocacy, and so on). Working with stakeholders in an aggregated and multistakeholder way is therefore important.

Ilham Habibie, chair, International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) Business Action to Support the Information Society (BASIS), reiterated ICC-BASIS’s support of UNESCO’s vision and mandate. He applauded UNESCO’s active and supportive role which contributed to the multistakeholder process, including the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), and on behalf of his organisation lent its support to UNESCO.

He said UNESCO played a positive role in the post-WSIS process, and should continue to do so. The business sector hoped that UNESCO would support the renewal of the IGF, he concluded.

Speaking in two capacities – as director of DiploFoundation and head of the Geneva Internet Platform – Jovan Kurbalija offered three concrete suggestions:

The first was for UNESCO to continue ‘connecting the dots’. This exercise is rarely straight, and takes time and energy to understand the issues. He said that UNESCO can play an active role in making Internet governance (IG) discussions more rational, supported by more evidence. There should not be the illusion of connecting the dots with a straight line, but at least we should try to draw the line as straight as possible.

Kurbalija’s second suggestion draws on UNESCO’s vast experience in world heritage projects. He referred to Vint Cerf’s recent concerns about whether future generations will have any record of the twenty-first century, prompting him to ask: What are we leaving for future generations? How do we access intangible aspects? UNESCO can ensure an intangible legacy, and its world heritage projects could be used to protect certain aspects of the Internet, such as root servers. Projects developed within UNESCO could be used for the Internet.

The third suggestion related to capacity building. Kurbalija said that there is plenty of experience in capacity building and capacity development. We are now moving towards the holistic aspect of capacity development. DiploFoundation has trained close to 2000 alumni, from over 160 countries. Yet, in spite of many brilliant former students, the real challenge is to build the capacity of institutions and countries. People are key, he said, but this is not enough.

Nnenna Nwakanma, Africa Regional Coordinator, World Wide Web Foundation, brought up the case of Ethiopia in which 90% of the population still has no Internet access. There is a need to connect people on either side of the access bridge.

She said UNESCO could take on the role of a bridge-builder, and go to places where other UN institutions cannot go. We need to be confident in the person who is throwing us a life-line, and UNESCO enjoys this kind of trust.

With regard to the multistakeholder process, Nwakanma said that whichever the area, the focus should be on the process at national level. Not only is the process at global level dependent on a viable national process, it is also a reflection of it. It is important that UNESCO works in building capacity at national level.

Issues are intrinsically linked. For example, access to the Internet is a fundamental need for education. Human rights and freedom of expression are fundamental for social development. Bridging one issue with another is important.

Speaking in a personal capacity, Markus Kummer, an ICANN board member, expressed his agreement with the previous speakers, and added that his take on connecting the dots was slightly different.

He offered a historical summary of developments that took place between 2003 and 2005, and the birth of the multistakeholder process. Although recognised in the Tunis Agenda, implementation of the process was left in the hands of the intergovernmental machinery. The state of affairs was therefore more complex.

Furthermore, institutions are now working in different areas: for example, although UNESCO has its core competencies, it has also been involved in technical aspects, such as domain names, local access to IXPs, and local content. Ten years ago, it was unthinkable that the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) would talk about human rights.

He added that the ecosystem should be in everyone’s hands as the silo approach does not work. UNESCO’s work needs to be extended to other areas beyond its core mandate.

The panel was moderated by Indrajit Banerjee, director of UNESCO’s Knowledge Societies Division, UNESCO, while Paul Hector, programme specialist within the same division, was the rapporteur for the session.

More updates and reports from UNESCO’s CONNECTing the Dots conference are available on our event webpage.

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