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The Fall of Internet Governance?

Anne Jellema · August 14, 2014

Since whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s disclosures hit the headlines last year, the regulation of the Internet has been a hot topic. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff issued a challenge to the international community to develop an Internet governance framework based on human rights, and announced that Brazil would convene a high-level meeting on the topic.

The NETmundial meeting itself eventually took place April 23-24 2014 in São Paulo, hot on the heels of a pre-emptive US government announcement that it was giving up its control over the administration of Internet names and numbers. Heeding Nnenna Nwakanma’s stirring call for “the Web we can trust … the Web that is open and inclusive,” participants managed to reach a rough consensus on a set of principles for future Internet governance and agreed that:

  • The Internet must be managed “in the public interest” and with respect for human rights;
  • Internet governance must be built on “democratic, multi-stakeholder processes” with the “full and balanced participation of all stakeholders from around the globe”;
  • Decision-making must be transparent and well-documented, with “independent checks and balances as well as [mechanisms] for review and redress”.

Responses to the NETmundial outcomes document varied from celebration to cynicism, but most observers agreed that, at the very least, the meeting did demonstrate the possibility for debates on the rules of the net to take place in a more participatory way than has previously been the case. Inspired by the multi-stakeholder consultation that underpinned Internet governance success in host country Brazil, hundreds of submissions were received and taken on board. It was amazing to see governments and mega-corporations lining up to take the mike alongside NGOs and activists from all corners of the globe — even if many felt the latter were ultimately marginalised in the drafting process.

But what happens next? Will NETmundial attendees live up to their promise to “take into account the outcomes of NETmundial in all the organizations, forums and processes of the Internet governance ecosystem”? And most importantly, will all of the speeches made, air miles travelled, and business cards exchanged translate into real change for ordinary Web users whose rights are increasingly under assault?

So far, the signs are not promising. In the positive column, Brazil finally enacted the groundbreaking Marco Civil da Internet, the European Parliament passed new net neutrality legislation, and the European Court of Justice has declared bulk data collection illegal. But other pieces of good news are few and far between and bad news is easy to find — the UK recently passed emergency legislation expanding, instead of limiting, the state’s surveillance powers; draconian digital copyright rules remain on the table in the secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations; corporate lobbying has put net neutrality  under threat in the United States; and events in EthiopiaSwaziland, and Turkey highlight just a few of the many ways in which countries continue to violate citizens’ basic human rights online.

In the next few months, three more heavyweight global meetings dedicated to the subject of Internet governance will take place. First up is the WEF/ICANN NETmundial Initiative on August 28 in Geneva, in which I, and Web Foundation founder Sir Tim Berners-Lee, will participate. Shortly thereafter, the global Internet Governance Forum gets underway in Istanbul, where we’ll be participating in multiple panels and side events. And in late October and early November, the ITU Plenipotentiary will be held in South Korea.

Here are the proposals we’ll be bringing to these forums to help ensure that international commitment leverages change on the ground:

  • Commit to policy coherence. Companies and governments who espouse participatory, democratic processes and defend human rights in Internet governance forums should not turn around and negotiate away our Web rights in secretive negotiations on topics such as digital copyright, cybersecurity, spectrum licensing and surveillance cooperation.
  • Popularise the issues. Companies won’t change until they feel their profits are threatened. Governments won’t change unless they fear being voted out of power. So we need a collective effort to ensure that people around the globe understand and care about these issues. We’re playing our part by leading the Web We Want campaign — and as part of this we’re planning a major festival with the UK’s Southbank Centre, which will take place across three weekends, beginning in September. We also fund and connect local activists working for a free and open Web all over the world, from Privacy Cafes in the Netherlands, to public awareness efforts and advocacy campaigns in Mexico, Nigeria and beyond. Through our Web Index project, we’re tracking the performance of countries around the world on digital rights issues such as access, affordability, and online privacy. How can you help?
  • Include more voices. Technical guidance from “Internet Governance Experts” is critical in this field to avoid policy blunders, but the conversation is too important to be left to them alone. Representatives of other constituencies need to turn their minds to this issue and put forward solutions. The World Economic Forum initiative will reach wider business interests beyond the tech sector, which is positive in itself — but not everybody gets to go to Davos. We need equally creative and well-resourced ways to engage small-medium enterprises and start-ups, union leaders, the arts and culture community, anti-poverty campaigners, women’s rights groups, youth movements, parliamentarians and more.
  • Open up. Internet governance affects everyone, and so discussions should happen in the open, supported by transparent mechanisms that strengthen the accountability of governments, technical bodies, and technology corporations to the public. The Internet Governance Forum is to be commended for live-streaming their sessions, and we call on the organisers of the NETmundial Initiative and the Plenipotentiary to do the same. We’ll be providing full and honest write-ups of all our participation here too.
  • Invest in national level change. International norms are important — and we’ve gone as far as to call for a global “Magna Carta” for the Internet. Yet it is national level laws, regulations, business practices, and market incentives that most powerfully shape the Internet—for better or worse. It’s time for a concerted effort to build and pass an “Internet bill of rights” in every country that will enshrine citizens’ rights to access, privacy, and freedom of expression and association online. To do this requires sustained attention, political leadership, and investment in the capacity and resources of local civil society.

Internet governance issues will continue to make headlines in the coming months. The fact that the World Economic Forum will make “this set of issues a major thematic focus of our Annual Meeting in Davos next January” guarantees that the business community will continue to debate these issues. Now, civil society needs to be equally proactive. Let’s seize the moment by bringing digital rights issues to grassroots constituencies, modelling the kind of transparency and accountability we want others to practice, and get down to the hard slog of campaigning for participatory national level reform. Only in this way will we build the Web We Want for the World We Want.

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