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<nettime> Interview with Jeanette Hofmann

Open Ends: Civil Society and Internet Governance
Interview with German policy expert, Jeanette Hofmann
By Geert Lovink

Berlin-based researcher Jeanette Hofmann is a key player when it comes
to German and European Internet policy. Late 2000 she briefly reached
international media fame when she got elected as an ICANN at Large
member. Besides her busy international agenda she is also a professor at
the University of Essen where she is teaching governance-related issues.
In this online interview Jeanette Hofmann talks about her ICANN
experiences and her current involvement as a civil society member of the
German delegation for the World Summit of the Information Society. I got
to know her work in the mid nineties when Jeanette worked on an
interdisciplinary research project that mapped the Internet as a set of
technical, cultural and political arrangements.

GL: You recently published a paper (in German) called 'The Short Dream of Democracy on the Net.' Your conclusion is a rather sombering one. How would you describe the current situation related to ICANN? You state that nothing has been learned from the failed At-Large Membership experiment. Would you even go that far and see a backlash happening right now?

JH: The argument of my paper goes as follows: In the last decade, a
growing number of international organizations has established
cooperative relationships with NGOs. There are two reasons why
international organizations are willing to talk with NGOs. First, NGOs
provide specific expertise. Second, international organizations are
struggling with a widening democratic deficit deriving from the fact
that international agreements are out of reach for most people. Those
affected by international policies are unable to participate in the
decision making process. Likewise, international organizations are not
accountable to the people. Diplomats cannot be voted out of office when
they act against the peoples' will. Cooperating with NGOs, however,
makes international bodies appear more open, fair and thus legitimate.
Civil society groups, on the other hand, are eager to get involved in
international policy making because participation is seen as a first
step towards substantial changes in international policies. 

What looks like a win-win situation for both parties turns out to be
problematic for civil society. Evidence from most policy fields shows
that participation of NGOs so far doesn't lead to significant policies
changes. ICANN's five At Large directors, for instance, had hardly any
impact on ICANN's DNS policies. While cooperation between international
organizations and NGOs may improve the reputation of the former, it
clearly creates legitimacy problems for the latter. As soon as civil
society organizations assume formal roles in international forums, their
representativeness and legitimacy are also called into question.
Ironically, NGOs are charged with the democratic deficit they once set
out to elevate. 

ICANN has been an excellent example of this mechanism. After the At
Large directors' elections in 2000, ICANN's inner circle successfully
challenged the legitimacy of both the At Large membership and the
elections. Thus, most people today recall the ICANN elections as a
complete failure. The elections were regarded as a disaster because they
lacked, guess what, representativeness. Of course, the elections were
unrepresentative! It is impossible in global environments to hold
representative elections. As far as I remember, nobody ever expected the
ICANN elections to globally representative. Not even the governments in
ICANN have succeeded in establishing a representative body with all
nations participating in the Governmental Advisory Council. The same
holds true for the Internet industry and the technical community. By and
large, it is a tiny minority which really cares enough about Internet
names and numbers to participate in ICANN. However, the lack of
representativeness has been raised particularly as an issue with regard
to individual users. The At Large membership was the only group of
stakeholders which was critizided and finally disqualified on the
grounds of a lack of representativeness. Once disqalified as
illegitimate, the remaining stakeholders happily agreed to kick
individual users out of the ICANN board. 

ICANN's organizational reform in 2002 thus put an end to the original
idea of fair, equal participation of individual users in ICANN. A
majority of stakeholders chose to get rid of the weakest stakeholder in
the game. As a result, representation of individual users on the board
has been reduced to one liaison person without voting rights. Seen from
this perspective, ICANN's reform constitutes a backlash –for Internet
governance in particular and for the notion of a democratization of
global politics in general. 

GL: Could you imagine that Internet governance will have to be drawn up
from scratch? Are ICANN, but perhaps also bodies like the IETF beyond
repair? You and others have tried so hard to reform ICANN from within.
If you got a chance how would you start again?

JH: I have watched both organizations for several years. In my view,
ICANN and the IETF are very different beasts. (I don't know enough about
the Internet Society and therefore won't say anything about this body.)
One crucial difference refers to the fact that the IETF is not a formal
organization, it lacks any exclusive boundaries or membership criteria.
Unlike most other standard setting bodies, the IETF regards itself open
to everyone who wants to participate. There are no membership fees or
similar means to select participants. By contrast, ICANN has spent a lot
of time on defining its boundaries consisting, among other things, of
admission and decision making procedures. While the IETF depends to a
great extent on bottom up processes, ICANN at times seem to regard them
as inevitable noise which lowers efficiency. The IETF cannot develop
standards without active participation of its members, the Internet
industry. The IETF thus needs to motivate those who are affected by its
norm setting function. ICANN, on the other hand, works on the assumption
that democratic bottom up processes are unnecessary. It is just
technical coordination what ICANN says it is doing, not political
decision making. Even if this were the case, it makes one wonder why
technical standard setting bodies go through some effort to create
legitimate decision making procedures. 

As a result the reform efforts of ICANN and the IETF followed very
different strategies. ICANN started with a reform proposal by its
president, tasked a board member with its implementation and pursued a
top down approach. The IETF chair founded a working group instead which
was open for everyone to join. While the IETF initiated a process that
sought to involve the whole community, ICANN followed an exclusive
approach. To be sure, ICANN's supporting organizations were invited to
comment on the various proposals put forward by the reform committee but
the status of these comments remained unclear. The reform process failed
to create more trust in the ICANN structure. Without trust, however,
there is not much motivation for voluntary participation in a process
such as ICANN.

GL: So much in the current debates over global governance seems to go
back to the issue what place governments and individual nation states
have within global governance. What has been your ICANN experience?
Ideally, what would be the place of the state? Do you believe in a
federal structure? Should, for instance, bigger countries, in terms of
its population, have a great say?

JH: The role of governments touches upon two contested issues, national
sovereignty and transnational democracy. Both issues have evoked fierce
debate at the preparatory conferences of the World Summit on Information
Society. Developing countries in particular have pointed out that the
spread of the Internet affects matters of national sovereignty. An
international regime would enable more political control over both
infrastructure development and data traffic. This is why many developing
countries would like to see an UN body such as the ITU assume a more
responsible function in the area of Internet management. 

Among the driving forces in this process are new communication services.
The revenues of national telecommunication monopolies are threatened by
the advent of Internet telephony. In addition, the digital divide,
problems such as spam, worms and viruses are mentioned as reasons for an
intergovernmental approach to Internet regulation. Interestingly enough,
the debate on Internet regulation was initiated in the context of WSIS,
not of ICANN. ICANN's Governmental Advisory Committee used to
predominantly reflect the world views of OECD countries, not those from
the south. 

The second issue, transnational democracy, has been a matter of extended
debate in the academic world. One of the central questions is whether
democratic procedures, which were once designed for territorial nation
states, can be adapted for transnational policy fields. According to the
skeptics in this field, democracy doesn't work outside of the nation
state. Democracy, from the skeptics' point of view, is a national
institution, and the transnational sphere fails to meet the basic
requirements for it to work. Foremost among these requirements are a
common language as foundation for a public sphere, solidarity among the
people as a condition for "redistributional policies", and a clearly
defined constituency as a precondition for majority ruling. Since none
of these criteria are met outside of the nation state, democratic world
politics are but a utopian idea. 

The advocates of a democratizing world politics argue, however, that
democracy should not be treated as a static concept but rather as a
contested, open-ended process. Instead of referring to and hiding behind
established democratic routines we should keep in mind the huge
transformations the original concept of democracy has undergone since
its inception. Originally designed for Greek city states, democratic
principles were thoroughly rethought in order to apply them in differing
ways to the emerging territorial states. So, why should it not be
possible to revise democratic principles once again in order to adjust
them to transnational settings? 

Some preliminary suggestions have been floated in recent years. Among
them is the concept of deliberative democracy, which proposes to replace
majority ruling by persuasion, consensus and compromise. Since it is
impossible to establish majorities beyond the nation state, it is
necessary to use other means for legitimate decision making. The concept
of deliberative democracy suggests strengthening discursive capacities
such as reasoning and negotiation, which are already supposed to play a
major role in political everyday life. Some observers expect that new
schemes of deliberative democracy might evolve along the lines of given
industries and policy fields rather than regional divisions. The
transnational public sphere would thus be structured primarily around
problems, industries and organizations. Experience with ICANN shows,
however, that such models can only work within a framework of minority
protection and additional democratic achievements as layed out in the
constitutions of nation states. 

While the nation state attaches rights of participation to citizenship,
the post-national world would grant those rights to people who choose to
participate in certain policy fields. Transnational policy fields would
be populated in a tripartite manner by government, industry and civil
society. Governments would thus be an important stakeholder among other
important stakeholders. Governments do already cooperate with the
private sector in many policy fields. It is now about time these public
private partnerships get extended so that also civil society interests
are taken adequately into account. 

No matter, what such policy arrangements would ultimately look like, a
crucial point seems to be how the exercise of power in the transnational
sphere can be restricted and its abuse prevented. What we need, it
seems, is a Montesquieu for information society who devises a modern
model of power division taking into consideration the leverage of
digital technology. Such a model of power division would limit and
disperse the amount of control enabled by both the Internet's
architecture and the structure of the Internet's industry. 

GL: In the case of the Internet, the status of the US government is
obviously a special case. One can think of a historical claim, but also
in general about the sheer size of its economic, military and political
power. How do you look at this? 

JH: To be sure, the current unilateral management of the DNS root is
unacceptable on principle grounds. In the long run, policy authority
over the root, the address and the name space must be divided among
several bodies each of which should be composed of multiple stakeholders
consisting of civil society, industry and governments. On practical
grounds it could be argued though that the present situation constitutes
a pretty stable and more or less acceptable arrangement. In my view, the
US government's power over the Internet has been to a large extent a
theoretical concern. The US government would never dare to disable a
major country code Top Level Domain such as .fr, .jp or .de. Because the
US government's control over the DNS root has been strongly criticized
and closely monitored by many stakeholders, it can be assumed that the
DOC makes rather careful use of its power over the root. If I am right,
it is quite a challenge to devise policy authorities that are not only
structured in legitimate ways but can also be trusted to act with the
same caution as the USG does today. Within civil society the idea of an
intergovernmental root convention has been aired. Such a convention
would basically establish a national right to an entry of the respective
ccTLD in the root server file. No single government would have the
authority any longer to decide single handedly over the existence of Top
Level Domains on the Internet. 

GL: You have been visiting WSIS as a member of the German delegation.
Could you share some of your personal impressions with us? Did you
primarily look at WSIS as an ICT circus for governmental officials and
development experts or what there something, no matter how futile, at
stake there?

JH: For observers, UN world summits may indeed look like a circus with
people traveling around the world for the sake of traveling and doing
nothing but producing papers the gist of which remains obscure to
outsiders. Yet, from a participant's point of view, the world summit is
not primarily a circus but an opportunity for negotiation. What makes UN
world summits special is the diversity of people both in terms of
cultural or geographic origin and their functions and competences.
Representatives of governments, civil society and private sector
organizations from all over the world meet for several weeks to discuss
the proper meaning, their visions and the challenges of a global
information society. This is both a laborious and an exciting effort
with lasting effects on most participants' world views. At a minimum,
you become aware of the extent as to how your political opinions reflect
the common sense of your political culture. 

More specifically, the WSIS process has been relevant for procedural as
well as substantial reasons. The first aspect refers to the world
summits' rules of procedure. In the case of WSIS, the rules of procedure
turned out to be a bone of contention because governments had different
opinions on the status of NGOs and the private sector. For example,
should non-governmental actors be granted an observer status and if so
for what type of meetings? Should they have the right to speak to the
plenary or at working group meetings? Should they be supported with
travel grants as their governments are, etc. etc. 

Each world summit has to decide anew on its rules of procedure. The
interesting point is that these rules evolve over time or perhaps even
from summit to summit. The formal status and the political weight of
NGOs in particular are increasing. For the first time, NGOs got meeting
rooms on the conference premises. Likewise, speaking slots for civil
society and private sector at plenary meetings become institutionalized.
Civil society in turn decided to set up a formal structure consisting of
an international civil society bureau which represents a broad variety
working groups, caucuses and families. The international civil society
bureau forms an interface between NGOs and governments and facilitates
communication between them. It seems rather unlikely that subsequent
world summits would discontinue these structures and processes. 

Worth mentioning in this respect is the fact that a growing number of
governments accepts civil society people as official members of their
delegation. Canada, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, and Germany are among
the pioneers of this new form of cooperation between government and
civil society. Hence, WSIS clearly marks a step forward towards
exploring new modes of interaction between governments, civil society
and private sector. 

WSIS has been an important process also with regard to our political
understanding of information society. The fact that the ITU of all UN
organizations was charged with organizing the summit led to a conceptual
framework which focused primarily on information and communication
technologies. The summit thus started out with a fairly technical
understanding of information society. Now, the first paragraph of the
December 2003 WSIS declaration affirms the commitment to "build a
people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society".
Also, the declaration emphasizes the "universality, indivisibility,
interdependence and interrelation of all human rights and fundamental
freedoms, including the right to development, as enshrined in the Vienna
Declaration." Democracy, sustainable development, respect for human
rights and fundamental freedoms are described as "interdependent and
mutually reinforcing". The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is
mentioned as "an essential foundation of the Information Society".

It is safe to say that civil societies' persistent interventions have
had a significant part in the changes of the declaration's underlying
concept of information society. Thanks to civil society's participation,
the WSIS declaration has stripped of its technocratic approach and
reflects now a more political notion of information society. Political
in the sense of that information society is put into context. This
implies a notion of communication as a basic human need and a
fundamental social process. It also implies awareness of the unequal
access to and benefits from information and communication technologies,
and it implies a serious commitment to capacity building and social
empowerment in order to overcome the various forms of digital divide. 

The main insight I gained from participating in the WSIS process
concerns the fact that information societies depend on the right to
freedom of opinion and expression. Without adherence to human rights and
basic democratic principles, information society is but a sham. This
might sound like a trivial point. However, the declaration's paragraph
on human rights proved to be one of the most contested ones. The WSIS
process shows that respect for and compliance with human rights can
never and nowhere be taken for granted. The vision of a people centred
information society thus implies necessarily a commitment to defend
human rights. 

GL: Cynics knew at forehand that WSIS would never have any outcome. The
United Nations together with the ITU seemed such an odd coalition,
doomed to meaningless. On the other hand, WSIS, together with Verisign
do put up serious pressure on ICANN. There is a 'Kofi Anan' initiative
to come up a new framework for ' global Internet governance'. Will the
libertarian US-led engineering class, which still dominates Internet
decision making bodies, allow alternative proposals to be further
developed? They seem happy with the status quo.

JH: Your question seems to assume that there is one group of
stakeholders, which is able to effectively control the governance
structure of the Internet. I don't think this is the case. I do not even
see that any of these groups has a clear, comprehensive vision of the
Internet's future. I see Internet Governance rather as an open-ended
search process with different groups pursuing more or less contested
short-term goals, some of which may contribute to the groundwork of a
long-term regime for the net. Part of this search process is an ever
changing composition of key actors. The active involvement of UN
headquarters is just the latest development in this process. Again, I
don't think it has been anybody's explicit goal to get the UN involved.
The founding of the UN working group on Internet Governance is the
compromise between conflicting government interests. While most OECD
countries believe in self-governance with little or no government
participation, many developing countries would prefer an
intergovernmental regime for the Internet. The UN was chosen as a
neutral and legitimate organization to host a working group being tasked
with developing a definition of internet governance, identify public
policy issues related to that definition and finally developing a
general understanding of the respective roles and responsibilities of
governments and all other actors involved. 

Due to its narrow time frame, we can hardly expect the UN working group
to come up with ground braking new ideas. Yet, it would be a mistake to
underestimate the symbolic import of the UN working group. For the first
time the meaning of Internet Governance is not just taken for granted
but subject to political consideration. I think it is good to have a
public debate on the question as to who should do what in the field of
Internet Governance. An actual example is spam. Spam has become a threat
to the most common and important Internet service, email. Should this
problem be tackled on the national or on the global level? Will there be
technical solutions available in the near future? Do we need new
regulatory tools in order to ensure compliance with national laws? I
think it is a step forward to discuss these questions in a systematic
manner within an inclusive, transparent framework.

We need such debates because it is less and less clear how the freedom
of all individual users worldwide is best served. I used to believe in a
strict hands-off approach opposed to any government intervention on the
grounds that governments would impose a national logic on the first
transnational communication infrastructure and thereby transforming it.
Furthermore, like many other people I suspected that government
intervention would suffocate the Internet's innovative pace. Today, I
find it less obvious that self-regulation is able to maintain in the
long run what we like most about the Internet, the freedom of

The UN working goup is important also with respect to its composition
and working methods. It has been stressed during the process of setting
up of the working group that the overall acceptance and legitimacy of
its outcome depends to a large extent on its composition. It can be
expected that in addition to governments and supranational organizations
civil society and the private sector will also be represented. Such
modest experiments in creating legitimacy in global politics are very
important as each of them forms a milestone for other people and
organizations to refer to. Despite the sceptics' view in democracy
theory, there is in some organizations a growing willingness to work on
more inclusive approaches to international policy making. It remains yet
to be seen whether such tripartite models will have any substantial
impact. Now, coming back to your question, I pursue a non-cynical
approach to the WSIS process as you can see. 

GL: Besides policy work you started teaching at the University of Essen.
What do you teach your students, how do they respond and what have been
your experiences so far?

JH: I've been teaching "politics and communication" for two semesters. I
usually do a course on Internet Governance. There are not that many
people in social sciences who look at the Internet as an evolving social
space. In Germany and perhaps in Europe in general the Internet is
predominantly seen as a mere tool that people have to master in order to
use it effectively. I thus see my classes as an ongoing attempt to
refute such reifications. In my view, the net is still a very dynamic
place with its technical and social norms being subject to constant
transformation and reinterpretation. So, one of the things I try to
teach my students is that even the mere use of Internet services has
repercussions on its further development. Think of Anthony Giddens
concept of "structuration" where structures and agency mutually
constitute themselves. I guess my main point is that I want my students
to understand that their behaviour actively shapes (network) structures
instead of passively using them. 

A second course I taught this year revolved around globalization and
democracy. The last third of the course discussed the draft treaty
establishing a convention for Europe. The punch line of the whole
exercise concerned the contested majority rule. As I've mentioned
earlier in this interview, democracy can be regarded as a pretty dynamic
enterprise. It is actually quite ironic: while most people associate
democracy with majority ruling, the composition of majorities itself is
everything but a clear-cut procedure. The negotiations surrounding
voting rules and the weighting of votes in the European council
exemplify quite well that constitutions do not consist of a fixed set of
politically neutral procedures. Rather, they reflect the configuration
of key actors, their political traditions and beliefs as well as the
power balance between them. 

At the same time, we looked at the EU convention as an attempt to create
a working confederation as apposed to a federal state. It remains true
though that the EU itself couldn't become a member of the EU as it
doesn't meet its own criteria of democracy! 

So, I guess I try to share with students what I find personally
interesting about politics. What I do find interesting doesn't depend so
much on the subject matter but on the perspective. Politics get
interesting when you look at them from an active citizen's point of
view, somebody who cares about and feels responsible for society. Now,
most students feel comfortable with the idea that they are mere victims
of a more or less corrupt political process and therefore really
couldn't care less about its details. So, how do they respond to my
preaching approach? I think I succeeded when I convinced them to look at
political challenges from a politician's perspective who faces a million
dilemmas but has nonetheless to make decisions and bear all the
consequences. One of the students made it know in the last meeting that
he had now subscribed to a newspaper and seriously intended to read it.
This is something I won't forget. 


Jeanette Hoffmann's homepage:

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