Context, objectives and process

I. Context and objectives

The concept of governance is commonly used today as a response to a demand for social regulations that respect the democratic conditions. These conditions are currently unsettled by the globalisation of the economy and the rise of the individualism that networks support. New constraints, but also new opportunities, are related to communication devices (technical and relational) that raise the question of the stability of standards and norms at the national, European and international levels.

The development of Internet as a "critical infrastructure" for all economic organisations, public authorities, daily conveniences (e-health, e-education, e-administration, e-commerce, etc.) and for individual or collective expression places it at the forefront of the issue of "public goods", alongside the climate or biodiversity problems. However, the principles of openness, availability and plasticity that are built into its initial architecture run up against conflicts of interest and values. The latter involve legitimacies and diffuse competing responsibilities that make the construction of the Internet as "a common good" a rather hypothetical process.

Neither data-processing techniques, nor substantive law, nor the concept of universal morals make it possible to go beyond this horizon of perplexity. The search for Internet ethics goes beyond the traditional dividing line between the justification of norms and their application, which is always threatened by hegemonic temptations or cultural relativism. Along the lines of the advances in medical ethics, this "NetEthics" could emerge from the pragmatic and pluralistic inclusion of the forms, tools and aims of reticular practices and their governance.

The World Summit on the Information Society gave itself a mandate that it endeavours to implement through the annual sessions of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF): building a multilateral, transparent and democratic form of governance for the Internet, which expresses and reinforces the preoccupation with human rights. This prospect seems largely accepted in theory. However, with the management of the critical resources of the Internet, the development of new applications and the controversial governance of behaviours, the task is immense and the consensus breaks down. Often contradictory claims and some more or less successful attempts do not fill the gap between the traditional political system and the new governance frameworks involving civil society. The new organisation and structure of the international institutions, gradually opened up to experts – and even lay people – is not enough to integrate normative dispositions that combine technological and economic innovations, democratic aspirations, institutional renewal and finalised objectives.

Nevertheless, we cannot give up the quest for principles that would make it possible to resolve the fundamental conflict of norms arising with the Internet. This conflict lies between privacy and security, freedom of expression and public morals, right of access for all and at the same time the right to be disconnected; it is a question of concrete facts and abstract rights. But this implies first dealing with a few preliminary questions: under what conditions are normative preferences discussed, established and brought up to date? What are the processes and forms by which the rights and responsibilities of web users can be protected or specified in a given context? How are ethical considerations and references built into devices and processes? What fundamental principles (individual rights and public freedoms) are involved, called into question or revitalised? What theoretical and practical tools make it possible to delineate the framework of action, and how do they relate to diverse predefined legislative frameworks? How to consider the principles of coexistence and the possibilities of coordination of the multiple stakeholders without encouraging the myth of the global Internet and worldwide governance?

In the dual context of a multicultural Europe and a planetary infrastructure of material and social communication, the ethical stake of Internet governance presents itself as a challenge of assuming – without encouraging radical relativism – the plurality of values, norms, cultures and traditions. More modestly, an initial stage of research consists of elucidating the way in which Internet governance challenges and disrupts traditional regulations (political, legal and judicial) by reactivating old questions (property rights, the social divide, crime, censorship, underdevelopment, etc.) or by facing more modern interrogations (technological convergence and man-machine relationship, social mobility and territory, private and social identities, etc.). A second requirement of research results in exploring the consequences of the new dynamics for the production of norms and standards with a view to envisaging new principles of coordination and determining methods of agreement.

II. The process

A comprehensive approach to the methods (institutional and non-formal) of Internet governance requires:

a) A theoretical analysis of governance issues: in a context of weak legitimacy where the common good still has to be built, we need to test the assumption of an internal limit to the traditional and neoclassical approaches. We will question: 1) the inadequacies of the current institutional design to ensure maximum achievement of the normative hopes of the stakeholders and users, as well as 2) the limits of the traditional belief that regulations based on market mechanisms or the intervention of national or supranational public authorities are sufficient to guarantee a normative construction of the common good.

b) An in-depth examination of the dead ends of western ethnocentrism and cultural relativism, in order to clarify the ways through which local governances could contribute to some global governance of the Internet.

c) An attentive study of experiments, devices and methods for building norms and standards in various contexts, in order to reveal their underlying rationales, divergences and convergences. Building on this, we will try to establish a typology of these rationales aimed at approaching the technological and political conditions of the possibility of pluralism tied to the common good.

d) A more applied analysis of the formal structures involved in Internet governance (in particular ICANN and the IGF), bringing evidence of their current political limits in the definition and design of collective action.

e) An exploration of the consequences for public actors of the new governance tools produced by the circulation of «collective statements»(1), which could allow new modes of action.

For this purpose, the seminar will associate theoretical investigations with case studies, in the aim of leading to some recommendations. It will be held in five workshops, according to the following agenda:

Workshop 1: Friday, October 31, 2008 - Namur
Theoretical approach to the problems and limits of governance defined in terms of ethical normativity and elaboration of a common good.
Led by Philippe Goujon (FUNDP, Namur) and Sylvain Lavelle (CETS, ICAM, Lille)

Workshop 2: Friday, December 12, 2008 - Lille
Intercultural problems involved in the application contexts of norms
Led by Sylvain Lavelle (ICAM, Lille) and Philippe Goujon (CITA, FUNDP, Namur)

Workshop 3: Friday, March 27, 2009 - Milan
Technical normalcy and Internet governance: Socio-technical and socio-ethical dimensions
Led by Norberto Patrignani (Catholic University of Milan)

Workshop 4: Friday, June 12, 2009 - Paris
Forms of execution and institutionalisation of Internet governance
Led by Françoise Massit-Folléa (ENS-LSH,Vox Internet II, France)

Workshop 5: Friday, October 16 or October 23, 2009 - Bordeaux
Global Internet governance, universal ethics and developing countries: the African case
In collaboration with the CEAN, Bordeaux – NetSuds /CNRS (Annie Chéneau-Loquay)

(1) (with the orientation that Alain Boureau gives to this concept): "An aspiration and a belief that everyone shares and that directs the action of each person while leaving each the choice of the precise significance that he or she gives to the statement."