Stephanie Borg Psaila   11 Jun 2012   Internet Governance

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The European Commission is one of the long-standing actors in the Internet governance process. It shares its competence with the EU Member States on many aspects of Internet governance. Due to the fact that the European Union incorporates 27 member states (28 next year with the addition of Croatia; 33 with 5 candidate countries), decisions taken within the European Union have a significant impact on other parts of the world, especially when these concern the wide-ranging issues of Internet governance.

The focus of our May IG webinar was on the European Commission’s role in IG: its long-standing involvement, the various IG-related policies, the key principles and objectives that guide its work, and its vision for the future of the Internet.

Our special host Mr Andrea Glorioso, Policy Officer at the DG Information Society and Media within the European Commission, discussed the position of the European Commission on various issues.

Mr Glorioso explained the Commission’s involvement in various fora, including the WSIS process, ICANN’s Government Advisory Council, with the Council of Europe, and the OECD. He noted that the Commission is also one of the major funders of the IGF. On a less visible – yet equally important – level, it also cooperates with many other players.

Internally, the Commission co-operates with the member states to ensure that the states’ positions are aligned. In some cases, the Commission can enforce regulations directly; in other areas, the Commission and the member states discuss issues with the aim of finding a common ground. Within the EU, the Commission also co-operates with the European External Action Service – similar to a ‘foreign ministry’ – which may be involved in matters related to IG.

Yet, in its internal and external actions, what drives the Commission’s work? What should Internet governance policies look like, according to the Commission?

In brief, the key principles guiding the work of DG INFSO have been included in the so-called Compact for the Internet, which was announced by Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner for the Digital Agenda (thus responsible also for Internet governance) as her ‘vision’ for the Internet.

The term ‘Compact’ is an acronym which stands for a list of seven ‘Internet essentials’, or ‘imperative features’ – each of which was well-described by Mr Glorioso with reference to specific areas of Internet governance:

  1. Civic responsibility: The Commission believes that there should be a clear division of responsibility, that is, who is responsible for what on the Internet. In view of this, there is a body of legislation, referred to as an acquis, which applies mostly to Internet intermediaries. The defining questions are: What is the social responsibility (corporate social responsibility in the case of companies) for the Internet? Can we explore ways in which all actors can contribute to the social infrastructure without resorting to strict legal rules, which take a long time to develop?
  2. An un-fragmented Internet (One Internet): The Commission believes that the Internet should remain one. It does not mean that there should be one jurisdiction applying to everyone, but rather, for different jurisdictions can co-exist, that, for different legal systems to have a common interface.
  3. A multistakeholder model of governance: Mr Glorioso acknowledged that there are different interpretations of the term ‘multistakeholderism’. On a general level, it is understood as giving stakeholders the equal possibility of sharing ideas and concerns. The Commission, in fact, is under a legal obligation to run open consultations in every major policy area, and although it is now using innovative ways for conducting consultations, one aspect it tries to avoid is the exclusion of any particular sectors, such as those who do not have access to technology. On the other hand, the creation of law is the responsibility of the public authority. Although there are various ways of co-ordinating the process, outsourcing this responsibility to third parties would clearly break the political and legal chain of responsibility.
  4. An instrument that works in favour of democracy (pro-democracy): the Internet can be a strong force in favour of democracy, empowering the people.
  5. Architecturally sound: While this involves the aspects of standard-setting and protocol-development, discussions and research are taking place regard the future of the architecture of the Internet. It is therefore important to understand what are the key architectural features that have made the Internet so successful and try to maintain them, while avoiding a conservative approach.
  6. Confidence of users: A significant number of Internet users make use only of a small percentage of the Internet’s potential. The Commission feels there is more work to be done for users to feel safe and secure. On the other hand, tight security measures may stifle innovation. A balancing act and a continuous evaluation must be sought.
  7. Transparent governance: strongly linked to the third and fourth principle, transparent governance also helps the Internet be a strong force for democracy in terms of transparency and open data, and human rights.

The Compact’s key principles attracted several questions from the webinar participants, which were answered by Mr Glorioso in the second part of the webinar, including:

  • Regarding ‘one Internet’, does it also mean that the DNS should stay centralised or might it be allowed to be opened, that is, a co-existence of several DNS systems?
  • What actual representative democratic controls are there on the European Commission and its activities?
  • How does the EC perceive India's proposal to the United Nations General Assembly for a ‘Committee for Internet Related Policies' (CIRP)?
  • What plans does the EC have for Africa?

The points above represent a brief summary of what was discussed during the webinar, but we invite you to listen to a live recording of the webinar, in which Mr Glorioso talks about the role of the European Commission in Internet governance in detail, and reflects on the questions asked by webinar participants. Comments, which will be forwarded to Mr Andrea Glorioso, are also welcome.

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