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20 November 2012

The last runner – Internet ethics at the Internet Governance Forum 2012 in Baku

by Theresa Züger

Luciano Floridi, Unesco Chair for Information and Computer ethics, gives the role of ethics in proceeding media evolution a suiting allegory. It is like a competition of three runners: at forefront is technology, followed by law and the third runner in the field is ethics. Floridis metaphor can be observed every day: in the constantly modernizing information technologies, the struggle for adequate jurisdiction and the belated efforts to understand a changed world. Just as reviewed under a microscope, the same paradigm showed at the Internet Governance Forum in Baku this year.

The IGF was established by the UN in 2006 and is an annual meeting for open dialogue about development, design and regulation of the Internet. The participants of the forum represent governments, the private sector and civil society. Something special about the Internet is, that it is not controlled by one of these groups of actors solemnly. Therefore, all participants of the IGF participate in this muli-stakeholder dialogue equally. Nevertheless, the IGF has no mandate to control or to develop binding principles; it cannot come to resolutions but could develop recommendations.

The IGF is mainly about politics, economy and civil interests and finally about the question of power over the Internet. How could one come to look for ethics in this context? The main questions of ethics since Aristotle is asking for the good, succeeding and satisfying life for the individual, groups and society. From this first one, new questions arise: What is a “good” life and how to get there? No matter how different the answers on this question may be and even if they seem insolvable: Since the internet influences with great impact the life of individuals and communities these questions belong in the discourse about the present and future of the internet. If ethics is the argument about good life and Internet becomes a decisive part of this life, then ethics must in conclusion as well reflect on the internet – and in my opinion the IGF might be a good space for this. In my understanding, the IGF has an ethical basic idea by design, since the participants come together to discuss what a preferable future of the Internet is.

Nevertheless, ethics are not quite visible at the IGF. Exactly one workshop had the word „ethics“ in its title. It dealt mainly with the work of the UNESCO that engages in the subject of information and computer ethics on an international level. At the same time, the catchwords “human rights” and “freedom” are omnipresent. They could be found be in many workshop titles. In the discussions themselves, human rights, however, were barely touched. Instead they are assumed as a common idea from which the workshops tried to establish action plans for specific problems. This way human rights remain as an abstract ledger. In principle this is quite eligible but the debate is loosing credibility due to a lack space of reflection and also by ignoring the point, that there is no such thing as a universal understanding of human rights.

One could ask: Ethics, human rights? Where is the difference? Doesn’t human rights have a great deal to do with ethics? Right, they are a very important ethical issue. But besides the question how the Internet can be designed, it is a major goal of ethics to understand the preconditions of our action in digital space and to provide a reflected meta-level of our digital being in everyday life as a basis for our decisions. Therefore it is not only important that we talk about human rights, but also how we discuss them and also what intentions hide beneath.

An impression about this could be gained in the “dynamic coalition of internet rights and principles”. This is a working group that consists of participants from the IGF several years ago which proposed a Charta of “Internet Rights and Principles” as well as a compacted version of 10 core principles (see therefore

The speaker of the meeting stressed regarding the outcome, that this coalition is one of the success stories of the IGF. Regarding the productivity this might be true. But it was a simple observation that made me wonder how a working group was able to tackle such a difficult task, to identify common rights and values of all net users and produce a written outcome – in such a short period of time. In the room were almost exceptionally white people from (presumably) mostly western countries. This might be a distorted picture or a snapshot, the cooperation with the council of Europe, thus strengthens the impression of a too one-sided participation.

For sure the reasons for this one-sided participation are multiple. A participant noted: “To agree on principles is easy, to put them into action is the hard part”. In fact, to put principles into action is a big challenge. Nonetheless one could question if the search for common principles is per se the easier task. The experienced ease could also be a sign, that there is no real and coequal argument about principles and values and that one only gathers the approval of those who agree in the first place – definitely with the best intentions but maybe by the wrong means.

There is no doubt: The IGF as a Forum oft he UN is unique. It gathers stakeholders from governments, the private sector and civil society and therefore has a remarkable and valuable atmosphere of versatile participation. Nevertheless, particularly the IGF might hold a special responsibility to ensure a reflected and controversial debate on human rights issues and information ethics, since it combines two chances: The Internet creates the fact of an (not all-embracing but possibly) entirely connected world. Therefore all visitors of the IGF have good reason and a high level of motivation to talk to each other about problems, possibilities, synergies and controversies. The second chance for ethics comes with the fact that the IGF has no mandate for decisions. This might – after seven years of debates – be a reasonable deficit for participants from the private and governmental sectors but in terms of ethics it is a big opportunity. It sets the possibility to articulate differences, to debate them, bear them and deeper understand them. The openness of the IGF and the focus on pluralistic dialog is, to my mind, the urgent invitation to the philosophers of this world to contribute to the argument what the Internet should look like for the best of all humans. My impression is, that one of the greatest strengths of the IGF is, that productive dialogue between very different actors is actually taking place.

Coming back to the picture of the three runners, the challenge for Internet ethics at conferences like the IGF is not to loose connection, but to be a strong combatant. To run on a par in the field of Internet Governance, the next step in the discourse about human rights could be to agitate for inviting particularly those stakeholders to the dialog, from whom no consensus is to be expected – to listen to them, embrace the controversy in order to grow with it.

This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact

Martin Pleiss

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