The New Class: Civil Society Professionals?

This article is mainly for people, who are familiar with the processes around the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) and the follow-up since 2005. It describes the contradiction between participants in the discussions around the Internet – how it develops, what is its future, which are the main problems, etc (often quoted as Internet Governance, IG).

One very important point: there are many, many people, participating at the Internet governance discussions world-wide, who are humble, talented and workaholic people; who are going there with the idea that these discussions will bring the Internet closer to them; they should not be mistaken for lobbyists, or mixed with other participants in the discussions – governments, businesses or serious academic institutions, which study the phenomenon of public participation in defining certain policies, for example.

The WSIS Tunis Agenda gives the option of continuing the existence of the Internet Governance Forum after 2010.
The argument I’ve heard many times is that there are people who would be happy to see it not only going forward, but actually turning itself into a constant body, which is also a decision-making one. Some perhaps would remember the UNCTAD, which has started as a conference, and ended as a permanent intergovernmental body.

It is not a big secret that there are certain people from the civil society building their careers around the IGF, and if the IGF stops to exist after 2010, this will be bad for them. It is equally bad for them, if the IGF is widely considered as what it actually is – a place for discussion.

The problem is that while the IGF has some serious issues to discuss – for example how to make the Internet accessible and affordable for the 5 billion people still not online, this discussion is of no interest for the people, who already have this affordable and accessible Internet.
At the same time, they are the ones raising their voices loud and clear in the discussions (in person, or on mailing lists). Typically, English is their mother language, they have constant and cheap access to the Internet, and sometimes they may be even people who have never traveled abroad, which does not prevent them from having an opinion about the rest of the world. They can write an e-mail faster than the rest of us can read it, because English is not our first, and in some cases not even second or third language. And they always dominate the discussions, making us feel guilty for even raising the issues that are of concern for our countries. So, in some cases the result is that the discussions are related to the topics of interest for them, not for us. That’s of little wonder, considering the fact that these are also the topics that cause heated debates, and make the headlines.
Who would argue that not many papers will write about the new fiber-optic network installed in Sofia, which makes 1000 Mbps Internet connection available for users, or the way the Africans are building their Internet access points, etc., but tons of paper and ink will be spent to write about the “.xxx” top level domain.

At ISOC-Bulgaria, we have been watching the discussions around IG more or less since 2001, and there are number of times when our voices couldn’t be heard, because of lack of knowledge of the procedures, cross-cultural differences, etc. At the same time, we managed to solve the problems of the Internet governance in our own country, and when we go out and ask what the others have done in this respect, the conversation immediately turns into attacks on personal level. There are people who are trying to make us feel as if we are some kind of a second-class citizens; people who are not allowed to have an opinion, which is different from the one, expressed most loudly.

Similar thoughts of mine brought a former colleague (some years ago we served together on the Board of CPSR), Hans Klein to made the following ironic comments in one mailing list:

[These seem to be Veni's main points:]
- we may be seeing the emergence of a professional class of civil society activists (“CS professionals”).
- the CS professionals are alleged to have specific private interests. Their careers, income, and status depend on the Internet governance process.
- the CS professionals are alleged to have a biased world view, based on easy access to the Internet, full command of the English language, and personal origins in USA and Western Europe.
- representatives from less affluent, non-English-speaking societies may find themselves marginalized by this CS professional class

But let’s read them more into the context of what I’ve described in this article: Is it possible that there is a certain group of people, who are indeed not the general CSP, but Internet Governance Civil Society Professionals (IG-CSP)?

There are different motivations to become an IG-CSP. I think the appetite comes with the food, so people who may have joined a small preparatory committee meeting around the WSIS would end up as IG-CSP after a few years. Or someone, who has been not known to a crowd bigger than the one gathering for his birthday party, may suddenly be in the middle of a major political discussion at the UN level. Events like this can change many people*. One of the best ways to “test” someone, is to give them some power or authority. People who change, while in power, they will be the best candidates to join the IG-CSP group.

I’ve talked with many people in the community. Many of them agrees that there is something wrong in a model, where the same people, over and over again participate in discussions on topics defined by themselves, but with the potential to influence the way the Internet runs. Perhaps – as I said it once – the same way the ICANN Board changes every year with new directors replacing the ones whose terms have expired, perhaps the same way civil society participants should also rotate. E.g. if someone has been on one IGF, they should not go for the next one**.

But there are IG-CSP who are as if permanently subscribed for all events – ICANN meetings, ISOC meetings, IGF, working groups, advisory groups, special groups, special interests groups, users groups, task forces, scientific groups… you name them! It is not possible to count them. And the discussions are always the same and they come to the same point: they know what is best for the Internet. The IG-CSP believe they speak on behalf and in the name of all Internet users. No, not only the users – on behalf of the whole planet. Some may argue that it’s easier for the IG-CSP, esp. the ones coming from the West, to participate in such events, for a number of reasons – e.g. they have access to funding to finance their travels, they speak English. But who can say there are not experts, who can not go to these meetings, because they don’t have funding, or they don’t speak English?

There are people who get really angry when they hear such a controversial topic like the one above. I’ve noticed that there is reaction against it among certain Americans, who discover themselves in the IG-CSP.

So, let’s try to say it differently: the IG-CSP exist, and there is nothing wrong with that. It will be wrong, if we do not recognize this fact, or try to avoid it.
There is something in the USA, which could be used as analogy – there are lobbyists everywhere, but in the USA they have to work under certain laws and obligations, and if they break them, they are out of business***.
If the existence of the IG-CSP is widely known, that will give every participant in the discussion about IG a better understanding of the discussion itself. And if we try to avoid it or pretend it does not exist, that on the contrary – will prevent us from this better understanding.

So, it is up to each of us to decide – and there shouldn’t be a rule or a law on that – if there is a new class of “representatives” of the civil society – a small, privileged group of people, or there is no such class. I believe I’ve already found the answer to this question for myself, and that helps me understand better what’s going on around the IGF.

_____
* – Let me share some personal perspective – for me being member of the Boards of ICANN, ISOC, CPSR, etc. has never made me feel special. For me it was just heavy work, lots of duties and responsibilities. Less sleep and more travel. I’ve never considered myself a different (special, privileged) person from the one I was, and I am, just because I was or I am sitting on a Board. I’ve found more value in heading the Bulgarian Internet Society, because we were leading the Internet revolution in Bulgaria. We’ve done a number of things for the first time in our country, and that is what made us think with relief, “OK, we did what we could; we achieved something. If someone else could have done better – please.”
** – We did it as ISOC-Bulgaria – I went on the first IGF in Athens, my colleague Ms. Dessi Pefeva, went for the second one in Rio de Janeiro.
*** – for the record, in Bulgaria this job has no legal framework
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note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author, not of any organizations, associated with or related to the author in any given way.
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update: this press-release from ISOC-Bulgaria could be linked here.

9 thoughts on “The New Class: Civil Society Professionals?”

  1. These people tend to be (not all) cultural imperialists. They know what’s best for the world because the believe in the US 1st Amendment, and what’s good for the US is good for the world. In certain cases this is true, but they believe it with he fervor of religious fundamentalists, which is the attitude that is causing physical wars in the physical world today.

  2. Veni,

    Many nails hit squarely on heads here. The knee jerk reactions to this post by CS-IGPs tells me you how spot on you are. Have you heard of the lastest IGC list controversy? the IGC 2008 NomCom has decided (without telling the caucus as they are required to do) that full-time employees of IG bodies aren’t eligible for IGC nomination to the IGF MAG!! The rationale given was that they might have “potential conflicts of interest”. Not only is this in direct contravention of an earlier precedent, but they claimed they were following precedent!

    In other words, ONLY CS-IGPs as defined by a small group of people acting non-transparently are eligible for this nomination, when in fact these CS-IGPs have the same “potential conflicts of interest” as the people they have excluded. Can you believe it??

  3. McTim,
    I don’t know what reaction you are talking about – there are only a couple of responses. And no, I haven’t heard about the last of many IGC controversies – I signed off the list long time ago, as it was not productive for me, but just waste of time. But there’s nothing I can not believe in that list.

  4. I’m extremely sympathetic with Veni’s identification of this new class of Civil Society Professionals. While there are clearly leaders in civil society organizations who are dedicated and hard working for specific causes, the string of events consisting of the WSIS, the WGIG and most recently the Internet Governance Forum and the Advisory Group to the Chair, Nitin Desai, has caused the emergence of this class of people.

    (Disclosure: I am an adviser to the Chair of the IGF)

    These civil society actors tend to be one or few issue people, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there is something wrong with it when then attempt to push their own issues and solutions into a multicultural context, often arguing that their issues are more important than other issues raised by people in other sectors. It represents an attempt to have narrow idealism triumph over pragmatism, and in particular, to the detriment of the growth and ubiquity of the Internet. One commentator above has called this cultural imperialism, which captures well their position. i call some of them free speech fascists. The phrase should be a contradiction in terms, but unfortunately it characterizes well the behavior of some of them.

    The issue of conflicts of interest, nicely summarized by McTim above, illustrates a practical na?v?t? that runs through the culture of this group. Just about everyone in this group has potential conflicts of interest and varying points of view in discussing Internet Governance. If they didn’t have conflicts of interest, from where would they have the experience to participate in the conversation? We all have such conflicts. the important thing is not be pure and devoid of such conflicts but to declare them openly, fin total, and again at appropriate times, and recuse oneself if necessary to avoid an actual conflict. The notion of not permitting people with potential conflicts of interest to participate because of those conflicts is naive.

    The discussion McTim refers to is one of many that have raged on the IGF list for years. Probably 10,000-20,000 messages have been exchanged among a limited number of people, and read by them and by a group of lurkers. One might ask whether anything of significant value has come from the entire process.

    Civil society representatives, or should i say “self-appointed” civil society representatives, seem to want to position themselves as representing ‘the rest of us,” after the private sector and government are removed from the complexity that is the world. That’s rubbish! None of these people represent me, and some of them I would never want to represent me. I think that Veni did not go far enough: In addition to exposing the class of so-called civil society professionals, he should should have taken on the question what is meant b y civil society in general, and in particular whether the ;so-called civil society group that is visible in the IGF activities is n any way representative of it, or anything else.

  5. Agreed, wrt all George says. And there’s a fine line between na?vet? and outright malice here (exclude them all, their ideology is quite likely going to be diametrically opposite to yours) in some cases

    Anyway, a lot of these IGCS pros would be about as useful as udders on a bull without actual technical knowledge (and several of them have a hazy, at best, knowledge of how the things they demand oversight and governance and control of actually work).

  6. Hi Veni,

    I am speaking of the knee-jerk reactions posted on the governance list, which you so wisely unsubbed from.

    Rgds,

    McTim

  7. George and all,
    It would be extremely useful if the current article brings the discussion to the points which are important. Here are some of them (in random order), which I’ve seen around, raised by a number of people:

    - introduce and follow rotation for all positions of the civil society structures;
    - require Statements of Interests (and if financial issues are included – Statement of Conflicts) by the CS participants in the processes;
    - cut the bullsh.t, say the things as they are;
    - stop challenging people who disagree with you by asking them “in what capacity are you talking”, the important issues is WHAT people say, not WHO says it;
    - introduce language diversity – CS people who don’t speak English should not feel excluded from the discussions (that doesn’t mean there will be more than one working language, but surely there should be more translation when possible);
    - make a solid differentiation between pure academic activities – such as teaching and research, and academics who have vested interests and who might have (undeclared conflicts of) interests in the discussions
    - promote cultural and geographical diversity – there should be representatives from all regions in the discussions, and not primarily by one region.

    Anything else?

  8. > – promote cultural and geographical diversity

    However, you should be careful about not falling into the trap (and vicious cycle) that is diversity and multistakeholderism merely for the sake of diversity and multistakeholderism.

    Building capacity there is more like it. Something like the difference between teaching people to fish, compared to giving them a fishing rod, a plane trip to a river where everybody else is fishing, etc etc on the principle that everybody to do with fishing is going there.

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