Interview with Jeanette Hofmann

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

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 apeople-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 communication.

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.

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