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How can businesses help us build the Web We Want?

Web Foundation · August 29, 2014

Those who watched the livestream of the meeting on the NETmundial Initiative, convened by ICANN and the World Economic Forum (WEF) yesterday, may well have sympathized with the journalist who asked: “Please, help me to understand: exactly what has been decided here today?”

In fact, the answer to this question is still fairly unclear. WEF will undertake five months of consultation on the scope (and, presumably, resourcing) of the planned Initiative. If all goes well, WEF Founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab will be able to announce at Davos next January a new set of public-private partnerships to advance the open, borderless, multi-stakeholder Internet envisioned by the NETmundial summit. What is eventually announced, we were reassured, will “not necessarily” involve the launch of a new organisation, will “not necessarily” continue to be coordinated by WEF, and will “definitely not” compete with or duplicate existing organisations such as the UN’s Internet Governance Forum.

Responding to widespread (and, in our view, justified) criticism of the lack of transparency and consultation ahead of the meeting and the absence of developing country representation in the room yesterday, Schwab and ICANN’s Fadi Chehade promised that the five-month planning period will be “bottom up” and fully inclusive. In that spirit, here are some early contributions to that important dialogue.

Resources and capacity are essential

The talk at the WEF meeting was all about the need for “action”, and this is partially right. As Sir Tim Berners-Lee said at the start of the day, “We may already be losing the openness and the qualities of the Internet we all assume we have. I hope we’re not too late to save it.”Today, the right to access the Web (and the information it contains) is enjoyed by only a minority of world citizens, whilst the basic human rights to privacy and freedom of expression are under daily attack from pervasive state surveillance, blocking and filtering.

Poignantly, while the Egyptian ambassador to the UN was speaking at WEF about the importance of an open and inclusive Internet, blogger Alaa Abd El-Fatteh, one of 25 activists sentenced to 15 years this June for “inciting protest”, marked the tenth day of his hunger strike from prison to protest Egypt’s crackdown on online and offline dissent.

Meanwhile, efforts by spy agencies, such as the US National Security Agency (NSA), to break encryption have directly weakened the stability and security of the Internet. Data localisation measures, which some countries are contemplating in response to the NSA’s actions, raise the spectre of fragmentation into “splinternets”.

Clear and present dangers are also posed by trends such as attempts to create commercial ‘fast lanes’ for more profitable Internet traffic (the net neutrality debate); rules that unfairly penalise service providers for users’ unlawful actions (intermediary liability); and increasingly draconian digital copyright regimes.

Transparent, democratic dialogue to inform action — such as the conversations that took place at the NETmundial summit in April and will hopefully continue at the Internet Governance Forum next week — is essential. We need to build wider consensus on the norms that should govern the Internet, and what it means to implement the UN’s resolution that people must enjoy the same human rights online as they do offline. But civil society and governments in the Global South desperately lack the resources and capacity even to be able to participate in such conversations on a truly equal footing with large multinational corporations and powerful Western governments, let alone to start implementing what is agreed. The Web We Want campaign wants to galvanise action in every country towards a positive legal framework to define and protect rights and responsibilities online, similar to the path-breaking Marco Civil da Internet in Brazil. But such a process needs serious political will, resources, capacity and energy.

So WEF’s focus on concrete partnerships and funding is important — but let’s make sure that this process is  based on developing country governments and civil society telling us what they need, and not the other way around.

Action requires legitimacy and coherence

The run-up to the launch of the NETmundial Initiative was dogged by controversy, and rightly so. The initiative is meant to build upon the principles that made the NETmundial summit a success — transparency, democracy and inclusion key amongst them. Yet in the lead up to yesterday’s meeting, agendas and attendee lists were kept under wraps until they leaked, and requests from some civil society representatives to participate were rejected on grounds of lack of space. At the gathering itself, there was a noticeable lack of diversity in the room, and little representation from the global South. The fact that the microphone in the opening session went to 13 men compared to just four women was greeted by howls of protest on Twitter. Proposed work-streams for the Initiative were presented as a fait accompli, with no discussion or debate as to what was most urgently needed, or held the greatest potential for change.

Clearly, if the Initiative is to be a success, this secretive, top-down approach needs to change, fast. The Internet governance ecosystem is already crowded, and there should be no rush to set up new bodies without first assessing what could be done by well-established actors, such as the Internet Governance Forum, if they were given a little more funding and a clearer mandate. “Less haste, more speed” will save us all time and money, and will deliver the results we all want faster.

Like all other actors in this space, the World Economic Forum has limitations as well as strengths. Its membership base comprises 1000 of the world’s largest multinational corporations, who tend to share a worldview on many controversial issues — which may differ from the views of the start-ups, entrepreneurs, and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) who have been so critical to the Internet’s development. More broadly, the views of the World Social Forum (like the NETmundial summit, another initiative memorably nurtured by the government of Brazil) are just as vital as those of the World Economic Forum, and likely to be diametrically opposed on some issues — isn’t that what ‘multi-stakeholderism’ means?

Business has a critical part to play

Following on from the above, it’s key that WEF identifies and maximises its own comparative advantage in the crowded Internet governance landscape, Today, all businesses are becoming digital businesses. Yet many companies are still blind to their own responsibilities in protecting and enhancing the open Web that has driven the explosion of innovation and productivity transforming today’s global economy. Many fail to respect the rights of Internet users affected by what they do on and with ICTs. As a network of the world’s leading corporations, WEF could make a huge contribution by galvanising adoption of a new set of standards or best practices for companies on human rights online — in line with the broader UN Guiding Principles on Business in Human Rights.

Protecting user privacy is the first example that leaps to mind — and one that comes with obvious market rewards for companies. A unified business voice in support of legal reforms to check government surveillance of our online lives, in line with the necessary and proportionate principles, would make an enormous difference. But, as the Reset the Net campaign is demonstrating, there is a great deal that companies can do themselves, independently of governments. Implementing end-to-end encryption and regularly disclosing the volume and type of user data requests received from government would be an excellent start.

Likewise, even while advocating for governments to adopt better data protection standards, companies can start being transparent as to how they will use and store customers’ data, and giving consumers control over re-use by third parties. Violating users’ privacy for financial gain whilst hiding behind tomes of terms and conditions written in obscure legalese will not be tolerated by Web users for much longer.

However, privacy is far from the only online right that has implications for business practice. Here are three further examples from a potentially long list:

  • There was a great deal of talk at the WEF meeting about connecting the 60% of the world’s people who don’t have access to the Internet. As the convenors of the Alliance for Affordable Internet, we welcome this. However, as the members of the Alliance (who include some of the world’s biggest technology companies) have agreed, it’s high prices rather than lack of infrastructure that is the key barrier to access in most developing countries today — and anti-competitive practices by some businesses are playing a huge role in keeping connectivity out of reach of the poor. A compact by providers in all segments of the telecommunications and Internet industry to embrace fair, innovative and transparent markets (as outlined in A4AI’s Best Practices) would go a long way towards bringing the Internet to all. Once again, this would have a clear market benefit for business, as well as a well-documented positive impact on education, health, women’s rights and job creation.
  • Through Open Stand, W3C and others have championed the need for (and business benefits) of non-proprietary, consensually developed standards in technology development. The adoption of open standards guarantees interoperability across platforms and devices (a critical issue as we look ahead to the ‘Internet of Things’) but also keeps entry barriers low for innovators, encourages competition, and upholds the rights of users with disabilities.
  • Intellectual property regimes are a third example. Finding balanced and transparent approaches to digital copyright is critical to ensure that the Web continues to thrive as a knowledge commons that helps meet basic public needs in spheres such as education and health, and provides a foundation on which future entrepreneurs and innovators can draw.


At yesterday’s meeting, participants all agreed on one thing — the free and open Internet is a public good and must be protected. That’s music to our ears — after all, we exist to promote the open Web as a public good and basic right. The fact that protecting and enhancing the open Web will be a key pillar of discussions at the WEF’s January Davos meeting is good news — it means that massive corporations with the power and the funds to make a difference will be concentrating on this vital issue.

But captains of industry and politicians making crucial decisions on the future of the Internet whilst sipping claret and quaffing fondue in the Alps cannot be said to represent the needs and wishes of all Web users. The NETmundial Initiative has a crucial role to play in spurring action and bringing businesses to the table. It must continue to deliver these benefits, whilst supporting existing actors and broadening the tent to include diverse voices. We look forward to working with the Initiative to help build the Web We (All) Want —  a Web that has human rights at its core for the benefit of business, governments and people from all walks of life, everywhere.

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