Interview with Jovan Kurbalija, Director of the DiploFoundation and Head of the Geneva Internet Platform | May 2014
The Geneva Internet Platform (GIP) was inaugurated 8 April, with an engaging and dynamic discussion on global digital politics. The inauguration event also included an Internet Governance (IG) Bazaar, featuring, among other things, the first Bitcoin ATM. The GIP is an initiative of the Swiss authorities operated by DiploFoundation. Jovan Kurbalija, Director of the DiploFoundation tells us more about it.
Why was the GIP created?
The answer starts with its acronym GIP: the Geneva Internet Platform intends to foster dialogue, discussion and thinking on global Internet governance in this city, where numerous international organisations relevant to the subject are based and involved in the policy-making. As an international city hosting the United Nations European headquarter, Geneva cannot remain passive in this crucial field. The relevance of the Internet is vital to the functioning of our society, integral to all aspects of our daily lives – for example, 20 per cent of family communication is taking place online. The Internet is the backbone of the global economy contributing to 20 per cent of GDP growth in OECD countries. Internet growth and stability depend on effective IG. The GIP was created in order to contribute towards the future development of IG by engaging digital actors, fostering digital governance, and monitoring digital policies. The GIP provides a neutral and inclusive space for digital debate.
What is the role of the GIP?
The most pressing role of the GIP is to help various actors based in Geneva understand what is going on, who is doing what, and how they can make their voices heard in the global IG debate. It is also to promote Geneva on the Internet map, and establish links with International organisations. This city has a great potential as one of the foremost base for discussing and negotiating the future of global internet governance (IG). The need for understanding starts with dealing with IG (all major prefixes are used interchangeably – be it digital, cyber or net, whether you speak about e-commerce, cyber crime, digital divide, virtual money or NETmundial, you are talking about the same – impact of the Internet on society). The debate moves into the complexity of interplay among technological, legal, economic, and social aspects of digital policy. Today we have more than a hundred different venues where IG-related issues are addressed. There are many conferences, many policy processes. Even major players with big apparatus cannot keep track of all of that. One of the risks of current IG is that people are lost; they cannot grasp what is going on. The most immediate role of the GIP is to help various actors make sense of what is happening in digital politics, without oversimplification, naturally, but rather by presenting this information to decision-makers in an easily comprehensible way.
What are going to be the main activities of the GIP?
GIP activities are based on three main pillars: a physical platform in Geneva, an online platform, and a dialogue lab (the last to be developed later). The first series of GIP activities has already run over the last two months. In situ activities in Geneva included a just-in-time course on IG for local permanent missions; a book launch, roundtables, and briefings for permanent missions. Online activities included monthly webinars run on the first Tuesday of every month in which the global community can get a summary of IG developments of the previous month. The GIP also conducted comprehensive coverage of NETmundial with preparatory online briefing, reporting from the event, and follow-up discussions. Do check our website. As an observatory, we provided textual analysis of various documents prepared for NETmundial. Basically, the GIP strives to have a presence at high profile IG events; besides others, this will now include the World Summit on Information Society, the WSIS+10 High Level Event. We will organise the Geneva Internet Conference in September, with the Swiss authorities and DCAF, that will engage Geneva and global actors in discussing future Internet governance. Besides our regular events and training, we will also focus on fast emerging issues. On 13 June 2014, we will host an event discussing policy, economic, and legal aspects of Bitcoin developments. A few activities linking Geneva and Brussels to important IG hubs are in the preparations.
Who are the GIP's funding partners?
The GIP's funding partners are also those who actually founded it – the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and the Federal Office of Communications. Apart from the significant in-kind support from DiploFoundation, the contribution is below half a million Swiss francs annually. The successful first events we organised in Geneva are proving beyond doubts the potential of the Geneva Internet Platform.
What are your objectives for the next year?
Concretely speaking – beyond the general objective of raising awareness and build capacities and provide a platform for IG discussions – we plan to continue training the local diplomats and diplomats about to be posted in Geneva, to organise both high-level events (like the Geneva Internet Conference) that will expose the city and its IG hook globally as well as very tailored and specific briefings. We hope to have the potential of the platform being filled with the GIP being the neutral carrier of Geneva's IG discussions.
Who can join the platform?
The GIP is open for all actors involved or concerned with developments in IG and policy. More convergence should be facilitated among Geneva-based IG actors. So far we have had very encouraging response. In three months of activities, we registered close to 600 individuals and officials who either attended our activities or got interested in following the GIP's work. But fundraising is a delicate task in our case as we cannot accept any strings attached.
How are you going to reach out to non-Geneva-based actors?
We engage with non-Geneva based actors through concrete activities and initiatives. For example, in the preparations for NETmundial in São Paulo the GIP ran briefings and webinars with the leading Brazilian think-tank FGV. In follow-up, we are discussing modalities for the FGV's involvement in our Geneva-based activities, including research fellowships at the GIP. Numerous parallel discussions are conducted with players from around the world. In February this year, with the help of the Geneva Canton, the GIP provided an introduction to Geneva and digital politics to the group of 80 students and professionals of the College of Europe, a leading educational institution for future European diplomats. The GIP will work with leading research centres and think-tanks based in the USA and in Europe. In order to ensure a diversity of views, it will involve researchers and policy-makers from countries and regions which are often absent from policy debates. For example, in mid-June we will host an event on the Internet for small island states with participation of 10 officials from the Pacific Islands.
Why is Geneva a good location to launch such a platform?
The relevance of Geneva in Internet policy can be literally seen by walking around the attic of the WMO building where the GIP is located. Within a radius of a few kilometres you can see buildings occupied by the main players in digital policy. E-commerce is discussed at the World Trade Organization, online privacy at the UN Human Rights Council, telecommunication issues at the International Telecommunication Union, intellectual property at the World Intellectual Property Organization, standards at the organisations hosted by the Internet Society and International Organization for Standardization and so on. According to our recent study that we did, more than 50% of Internet-related policy processes are happening in Geneva. The main potential for Geneva is in addressing IG in a holistic way. Geneva-based organisations address the Internet from technical, legal, economic, security, human rights, and development perspectives. It is a unique advantage of Geneva. Geneva has the potential to become a prominent hub for this digital debate, helping to transform the shores of its lake into a European Bay Area: a place where innovations are fostered; where policies are debated; and where leaders, experts, and decision-makers meet regularly. Geneva's position is further strengthened by the unique role that Switzerland plays in global digital policy. Switzerland has been one of the most prominent facilitators of inclusive and multistakeholder approach to IG since the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) which was hosted in Geneva in 2003. Switzerland has supported the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) and assisted many small and developing countries to develop capacity to participate in global IG. In addition, the Swiss political system of bottom up and inclusion provides an inspiration for the future development of IG. The Swiss parliament gives a lot of prominence to digital politics, and a leading parliamentarian in this field, Ruedi Noser, was behind the first discussions on the GIP, along with Walter Steinlin, president of the Swiss Commission for Technology and Innovation.