EuroDIG 2014: Pockets of inspiration amid the protocol and formality

The 7th European Dialogue on Internet Governance (EuroDIG)  took place in Berlin in June 2014.  The event’s overarching aim is to provide an open arena for inclusive dialogue between European stakeholders in order to develop best practice and raise awareness.  So, how far did it go towards achieving its remit?

The German Federal Foreign Office provided the venue which, while impressive, may not have been the most conducive environment for relaxed, informal discussions.  The divide between the conventional schedule and the energy of grassroots activism was very quickly demonstrated in glaringly stark terms through a dignified, powerful show of support for Snowden during the Federal Foreign Minister’s welcome address.  The very next session in this “inclusive dialogue” was an open plenary with a sweepingly non-diverse membership of men in suits.  This “manel” attracted a large amount of criticism both in the audience and on Twitter, and, again, showed a basic gap between the multistakeholderism repeatedly referred to by the panel and the reality of the power balance in a high-profile event.

The run-up to the event includes a process by which topics for discussion are proposed and then made subject to a public vote.  These participatory procedures appear to have led to an agenda which more effectively reflected grass-roots concerns than the more prominent, introductory panels.  I went to the workshop “The Three Musketeers of ICT for Development: Access, Inclusion and Empowerment” where there was a healthy attendance, which is a welcome difference from other Internet governance events at which such topics are sometimes overlooked for more obviously controversial subjects such as surveillance and data protection.  The panel included delegates representing interests in areas such as library access, digital literacy and accessibility, and the presentations were highly-informed and forward-looking.  In particular, Bart Simons of the European Disability Forum was able to demonstrate how multi-faceted the area of accessibility is, with the need for regulatory and steering measures alongside legislation.

I’m extremely interested in the gap between legislative developments, such as the Directive on the accessibility of public sector bodies’ websites, and the reality of an inaccessible Internet.  In the session key points were raised in relation for the need to enforce the law, streamline procurement and to ensure workable, flexible standards.  The issues raised are fundamental to the IRPC Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet  and in particular its Article One.  The Charter could be put into use as a vehicle to promote a much-needed emphasis on the on-going importance of access and equality.  For example, the slow progress of the EU’s Accessibility Act was highlighted as a particular cause for concern and it is in areas such as this that the Charter could be used to bring urgency to legislative and policy initiatives that will ultimately improve access for all.  In the session, the questions were focused and insightful, leading into new areas of debate.  One improvement to the session overall would have been to leave more time for more input from the audience to support the “dialogue” in the EURODig’s title.  Given this, there definitely appears to be a need for a follow-up workshop next year, building on its success and perhaps focusing on tangible measures to increase access and inclusion, and to support empowerment.

Later, the open youth spot on digital activism and privacy’s panel  included input from a group of eloquent, well-informed speakers who tackled issues such as the nature and value of online activism and its relationship to offline awareness raising activities.  The debate offered fascinating insights into the realities of technology-enabled activism while balancing the need to protect privacy.  A subsequent panel, “The Internet is broken – Bringing back trust in the Internet” aimed to address head-on citizens’ loss of faith due to invasions of privacy.  The participants differed significantly in outlook, from an Austrian minister wilfully missing the point of the debate and stating that the Internet was not broken as it still functions as a technology, to Jacob Appelbaum of the Tor Project directly tackling Microsoft’s representative in relation to the company’s record on privacy. This demonstrated the sheer polarity of attitudes, with many of the pro-privacy points being made finding vocal approval in the audience but no tangible solutions being offered by those in governmental positions of power.  Specific criticisms were put forward to Cordelia Kutterer the Microsoft representative, the only person on the panel from a commercial body.  While it is admirable that someone was present to represent the company and that other commercial organisations are equally, if not further, implicated, mere attendance is not enough.  A true engagement with the fears and concerns of civil society and citizens in general is needed if the ground is going to be set for preliminary moves towards regaining even minimal levels of trust.

Overall, the formality and protocol of EuroDIG at times overshadowed the event’s purported dialogue.  However, in the workshops and in, for example, the youth panel, there were pockets of informed, transformative debate.  Furthermore, the delegation from the New Media Summer School injected an element of youthful vigour, with their voice coming across in many of the sessions and through a number of well-placed questions.  The challenge for this event and EuroDIGs of the future is to translate this voice into tangible commitments and actions from the sometimes dismissive governmental representatives.  

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