Last week I attended the NETmundial Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance in Sao Paulo. It was a 2 day event, following a multi-month process. A web search for NetMundial outcome will provide a range of evaluations, including one from fellow Mozillian Chris Riley. Here I’ll provide a (somewhat idiosyncratic) description of what it was like to be at the event that led to these articles.
Internet Governance and NetMundial
Internet Governance has become a much more active topic of discussion recently, spurred in part by an increased level of scrutiny of the US Government’s involvement following the Snowden revelations. I should start by saying that there is some confusion over the meaning of “Internet Governance.” It’s sometimes used to refer to development process for technical decisions affecting the Internet, and is sometimes used more broadly to mean decisions regarding public policy issues that touch life through the Internet. Here is a nice infographic about the topics, attendees and goals of the event from the folks at Access Now.
I attended NetMundial as a representative of Mozilla and as a member of the Panel on Global Internet Cooperation and Governance Mechanisms. This is a panel spurred by Fadi Chehadé,the president of ICANN, and organized late in 2013 as this press release describes.
The NetMundial organizing committees prepared a draft “final outcome” document. There have been a number of comments, questions and criticisms submitted in written form in the months leading up to the event. Both the Panel on which I participated and Mozilla made submissions to the drafting committee, as did many, many other organizations. A good part of the event was spent hearing comments from the floor. The final version of the document was published at the end of the NetMundial event.
Multi-stakeholderism, or Who is Able to Make Decisions About the Internet
One key issue is the nature of the group that should address Internet-related issues. Boiled down to the simplest possible formulation, the question can be seen as: should the Internet be regulated by governments, in a multi-government process (such as the UN); or (b) should civil society, technologies and / or business interests be able to participate in how the Internet is developed? The first of these is known as “multi-lateral” and the latter as “multi-stakeholder”. The multi-lateral approach is of course what the government ministers and other representatives are used to. The multi-stakeholder models is closer to what much of the technical community is accustomed to. NetMundial was designed as a multi-stakeholder event.
Like many of those involved technically with the Internet, I find it impossible to imagine how a government-only process can result in anything other than big trouble for Internet development. During this event I came to realize how many people view “multi-stakeholderism” as a way for big U.S. Internet corporations to have a controlling voice in policy and Internet development. Some civil society organizations seem to prefer a government-only approach as better than one that involves the commercial players. NetMundial brought me a much better understanding of this perspective. There were also speakers who commented that governments are the legitimate actors here and multi-stakeholder resolutions are inappropriate. One speaker from China noted that each country should be able to build its own infrastructure in line with its own needs.
The relationship of national sovereignty to multi-stakeholderism was raised but (to my knowledge) not thoroughly discussed. As just noted, a few people advocated that each country should make its own laws as it thinks best. Even within groups interested in pursuing the multi-stakeholder approach there remains a question of the correct role for government. Brazil President Dilma Rousseff raised the topic of national sovereignty explicitly within a multi-stakeholder context in her address as well.
One thing that was clear at the event however — the avenues of participation open to many high level government representatives were the same as the rest of us. During the comment section there were 5 or 6 microphones for different types of participants — civil society, business, technical community, government. Government ministers who wanted to comment were given a chance to get in line behind the government microphone and participate in the round robin of comments. The same 2 minute limit applied to them as well, though not to comments or responses from the organizing committee I was particularly struck by the comments of a minister from Argentina. Argentina was one of the 12 co-hosts of the event, which one might think would give the minister some particular influence. When her turn came she noted that her government had submitted written comments earlier in the process but those comments had not been included in the draft outcome documents, so she would make them again in this public forum in the hopes that they would be accepted. As noted earlier, representatives from China, Russia, and I’m told from Iran and Saudi Arabia, rose to raise their concerns. The Canadian minister used his turn to stay that Canada supports the outcome document, understanding it is imperfect, and believing it is well worth supporting.
I was told by a few seasoned political representatives that to their knowledge this aspect of the event was unique. They at least could not remember another meeting where government representatives of this level participated but did not control the final outcome.
This strikes me as a significant success, quite separate from the content of the document. Whatever the scope of national governments, it is good to have all representatives in Internet Governance see themselves as equal as human beings, and to experience what life is like for individual citizens.
The organizers also arranged for people to participate from a number of “Remote Hubs” around the world. When I first arrived at the event venue I ran into a Free Software and Mozilla advocate I’ve known since my first trip to Brazil some years ago. (Hello Felipe!) He was part of the staff arranging the Remote Hubs, and focusing on using Free Software to do so. I heard many people comment on how effective the Hubs were. At Mozilla we’re pretty used to people participating in our meetings all using the Internet as the communications channel. (This is another reason why I <3 the web.) For many however, NetMundial seems to be the first experience with such a thing and a number of people mentioned it to me as a new and powerful element.
Another key topic was privacy, with a particular emphasis on protection from mass surveillance. President Rousseff has been outspoken on this issue, making a clear connection between privacy and democracy, and privacy and state-to-state relationships:
In the absence of the right to privacy, there can be no true freedom of expression and opinion, and therefore no effective democracy. In the absence of the respect for sovereignty, there is no basis for the relationship among nations.
(Sept. 2013 speech to the United Nations General Assembly: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/24/brazil-president-un-speech-nsa-surveillance.)
There were many, many comments on this topic at NetMundial. The reaction to US mass surveillance globally is deep and seems to be ongoing in a way that’s not nearly as apparent from inside the US. The NetMundial outcome document includes a condemnation of mass surveillance, but many, many people felt this is inadequate, and that a stronger and more specific response is required.
Another contentious topic was net neutrality. In ironic timing, the event took place at the same time as the US Federal Communications Commission announced that it is contemplating rules that allow business discretion in how content is delivered to people. The rules themselves are not yet known. There was an immediate and deep concern that this will dramatically change the rules in the US, and thus deepen problems on a global basis. The FCC chairman Mr. Wheeler asserts that “The proposal would establish that behavior harmful to consumers or competition by limiting the openness of the Internet will not be permitted.” But many believe the changes will end up providing enhanced opportunity for those with extra financial resources, and limit opportunity for anyone else. Net neutrality language did not end up in the final document, which is another source of disappointment for many.
NetMundial’s big innovation was in the range of participants, not the particular format. For me, accustomed as I am to hack-a-thons and un-conferences and self-organizing work groups, the event was a bit traditional. However, I talked to enough other people to know it was wildly different from most events government officials and diplomats attend.
I’m very happy I was a participant, I’m very pleased the event occurred, and I see it as a positive step forward in Internet Governance. The challenges to a healthy Internet and healthy online life are deep and varied. There’s still a reasonable chance that the wildly democratizing and hopeful nature of the Internet will deteriorate into yet another centralized technology for the big organizations of the world. NetMundial was also an opportunity for citizens and civic groups to participate along with the big players — government and business. NetMundial showed the range of people everywhere who look to the Internet with hope and energy.