The ambassador of the Internet: Jovan Kurbalija

Le Temps, the 24th of April, by Mehdi Atmani, São Paulo (translated from French, see the original here)

When he starts to speak, it’s with a soft and calm voice. His English has a slight accent of the Balkans. Behind the microphone, Jovan Kurbalija wears a satisfied and relaxed smile. He is ‘among friends.’ On his left are Michael Moller, Director-General ad interim of the United Nations office and Philipp Metzger, Director of the Federal Office of Communications. On his right is Alexandre Fasel, Switzerland’s Permanent Representative to the UN.

A Genève, la proue de la terrasse de l’Organisation métérologique mondiale offre une vue panoramique sur les organisations internationales. Dans un rayon de 2 km se côtoient plus d’une quinzaine d’acteurs liés aux enjeux d’Internet. (

It is 8 April of this year. In Geneva, Jovan Kurbalija is standing in a glazed conference room located on the 2nd floor of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) building, where his activities are hosted. He welcomes the public. Facing him are about a hundred diplomats and key players in Internet governance. Everyone has come to witness the official launch of the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP), Jovan Kurbalija’s latest project. The aim of this platform is to engage international organisations, companies, civil society and members of different governments in a round table discussion about issues related to the governance of the Internet: neutrality, universality, management, human rights.

At the age of 50, Jovan Kurbalija is the very image of the Internet: frenetic, captivating, and globalised. At this point, he has been studying the issue of the Internet for twenty years, all around the world, before he finally settled in Geneva, where more than 50% of the decisions about the Internet are being made. Since 2002 he has been the director of DiploFoundation here. This organisation is specialised in the training of diplomats in Internet policy issues.

Like a tightrope walker, Jovan Kurbalija moves in this domain with restraint and modesty. It’s an essential requirement if he doesn’t want to lean to the side of exaggerated optimism of the Internet gurus; neither to the side of the anxiety of cybersceptics, nor to the side of the strong competition of digital sector advocates. He would lose his integrity and his role as facilitator, in an era where there are countless tensions in the network. ‘The Internet is a domain where people tend to become messianic', he thinks. 'Evangelising solves nothing. We must listen, explain, and share, to build mutual confidence. This is the key of e-diplomacy.’

Jovan Kurbalija has inherited this wisdom from his own personal experience. He comes from Belgrade, a ‘fascinating city at the crossroads of East and West’, from a country of ex-Yugoslavia, which he saw disappear from the maps in just one day. It was in 1992, at the end of the Balkans conflict. ‘My country became virtual. So I’ve chosen virtual e-diplomacy,’ he quips. In everyday life, the loss of his ‘homeland’ inspires him to be humble, but also to respect small states and their claims. Within DiploFoundation, he works to strengthen their participation in digital issues by giving them a voice.

It’s a tennis match in 1985 that turned him to e-diplomacy. In the USA, where he studies international law, his opponent, a lifelong friend, mentions the first digital libraries to him. Jovan is fascinated. After the match, he takes the risk of making an Internet search (or rather, on one of the Internet's predecessors). By chance, Jovan enters the name of Hans Morgenthau, one of the professors that he knew during his studies. He comes across his volume entitled Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. This work deals with geopolitics, and the struggles of states around power and peace. Jovan will always remember that moment, and that book nowadays, as the moment Internet becomes a geostrategic issue for him.

Jovan Kurbalija is blown away by this database of literature. He already anticipates the power of the Internet on the world. The future diplomat buys his ticket to Los Angeles. In California, he observes the initial stage of the Silicon Valley phenomenon, and buys his first PC. His path is decided. Jovan Kurbalija is into e-diplomacy.

Back to Europe,at the beginning of the war in Yugoslavia, Jovan Kurbalija leaves Belgrade for Malta's Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies. He creates the unit of information technology and diplomacy there. At his ‘second home’, Jovan Kurbalija uses the Internet in his everyday life. ‘When you live and work on an island in the middle of the sea, you become an expert in communication. It’s necessary if you wish to be part of the world.’ His work allows him to build a strong relationship with many African countries, but also with Switzerland. In 2002, the confederation supports his foundation. This is how his career in Geneva began.    

Jovan Kurbalija holds fond memories of these ‘years of forced exile’, But twenty years later, the nostalgia for his lost country is still intact. This is possibly why the diplomat never makes plans on the run. Because he understands that ‘life can change from everything to nothing in an instant'.

In Geneva, at his new office at the WMO, Jovan Kurbalija pauses for a moment. Then he picks up a portrait of Corto Maltese. He hasn’t had the time to hang it on the wall yet, but he has true cult feelings for this comic book character. ‘He is my president,’ he says. And his role model, ‘because he does great things while still remaining human. Corto Malese makes mistakes, he is tempted by life, but still has his ethics and his integrity at all times.’

Since he settled down at the end of the lake 12 years ago, Jovan Kurbalija has also accomplished great achievements, though not without difficulties. ‘The Internet is a technology that is developing very quickly, while e-diplomacy requires time. It is sometimes frustrating.’ But Jovan Kurbalija persists. As a pioneer of Internet governance, he founded DiploFoundation, which he still runs.

He travels a lot, in particular to Africa, a continent that ‘has a lot of innovation ahead. But there is no sense just to go there with computers,‘ he points out. ‘We should make things easier, by encouraging the development of digital projects by the local industry.’ Jovan Kurbalija considers ‘the African problem to be also a European problem.’ The problem lies in the dominance of Silicon Valley over innovation. ‘It should not set up barriers that restrain other innovations. Every country should have access to the digital market. It should not be blocked.’

We leave his office to reach the wonderful terrace on the 8th floor of the WMO. The prow of the building provides an incredible panoramic view of Geneva and its international organisations. Jovan Kurbalija invites his students here to give them the Introduction to E-diplomacy course. More than fifteen actors involved in Internet issues within a 2-kilometre range, come together here. We may forgetsometimes, but Geneva is the institutional heart of networks. This is an asset that the diplomat will take advantage of this Wednesday in São Paolo where NETmundial, a two-day international conference dedicated to the future of Internet governance, will take place. More than 46 countries will participate this conference, including Switzerland, with three members from the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and the Federal Office of Communications. It is Dilma Roussef who put it on the diplomatic agenda, after the revelations about NSA surveillance. The Brazilian president, as well as an increasing number of states, would like to end with Washington’s hegemony over the Internet.

Jovan Kurbalija is one of the members of the NETmundial executive committee, representing civil society. He is one of the judges in this global game about management of the Internet, notably, the future role of ICANN. This agency is responsible for the assignment of domain names that represent many countries, but is still USA-based as it reports to the US Secretary of Commerce. By 2015, ICANN could move to Geneva. In this way, the organisation could join the Internet Society, which is the most influential moral and technical authority in this field. This is an option, because no negotiations are going on right now, aside from informal meetings between the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and digital governance actors.

In São Paolo, in the hallways of the Hyatt Hotel, where discussions are taking place, Jovan Kurbalija keeps a close watch, but remains discreet and careful. This is the key to e-diplomacy.

Le Temps© 2014 LE TEMPS SA

Return to NETmundial event page

The Geneva Internet Platform is an initiative of the Swiss authorities


Members of the Steering Committee are FDFA, OFCOM and the Canton of Geneva

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