The Montreal Media Policy Group's (MMPG) final meeting of the 2006-2007 academic year was highlighted by the presence of invited guest speaker Ralf Bendrath. An activist and Research Fellow based at the University of Bremen, Mr. Bendrath used the occasion to share some observations based on his experiences from the World Summit on the Information Society (Geneva 2003; Tunis 2005) and the recently established Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Mr. Bendrath served as editor-in-chief of the Heinrich Böll Foundation's WSIS web site, and was also a civil society member of the official German delegation to WSIS.
Underlining the specificity of the WSIS, Mr. Bendrath presented the summit as groundbreaking, both in terms of content and process. For the first time, a UN summit was exclusively devoted to questions of information and communication. The vast diversity of issues raised in and by the summit - human rights, financing of the information society, privacy, Internet governance - contributed to make the negotiation process extremely complex. By incorporating such a vast array of issues, the WSIS found itself “discussing society itself” and, Mr. Bendrath suggested, a great deal of energy and time were first devoted to “the identification of the true issues of this summit”.
As the first official multi-stakeholder summit in UN history, the WSIS was also conceived as a governance laboratory. The integration of members of so-called “civil society” was discussed with the conclusion that the democratic basis for such integration remains to be clarified. Can the involvement of civil society into political decision-making forums be justified on the basis of competency, expertise, representation or transparency? Mr. Bendrath also discussed the “disciplining” function that the WSIS might be seen to have played through its assimilation of activists into the UN system. He reported that important research is being done in this area by some of his colleagues in Germany.
The overall influence of civil society on the official results of the WSIS is seen by Mr. Bendrath as “minimal”. As both researcher and activist, he has found that “traditional ways of lobbying, informal discussions with delegates during pauses and in the corridors are more effective” than formal speech and participation in official meetings. Formal proposals made by civil society actors were, for the most part, ignored by governments, which pushed civil society to question its active participation into the formal process. In the context of an international event that publicly presented itself as open to multistakeholder participation, the threat of a withdrawal from the WSIS became a means of pressure for civil society. That said, Mr. Bendrath highlighted the fact that “this is only efficient when the threat is not used; once a retreat has been announced, all pressure points disappears for civil society”.
WSIS' multi-stakeholder experience was further pursued at the Internet Governance Forum. Established by the Tunis summit, the IGF is mandated to discuss questions of public policy regarding the Internet and its governance. Internet governance remains one of the most controversial issues of global communication and opposes “at the same time the United States to the European Union, the Union to the G77, civil society to the business and technical communities, and internal constituents of civil society”. Three conceptual approaches to Internet governance were presented by Ralf Bendrath during his talk: cyber-separatism, which rejects the jurisdiction of national and international law and contingencies of the “physical world” over cyberspace; traditionalism, which refutes any claims of cyberspace's fundamental distinctiveness when used in order to justify the inapplicability of public policy over it; and internationalism, which articulates a model of Internet governance based on the principles and mechanisms of international law. These models crystallize more fluid positions circulating between these poles.
Ralf Bendrath is currently working on a research project looking at the legitimacy of non-governmental actors in forums of international governance.