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Internet governance and the NETmundial initiative: A flawed attempt at turning words into action

This EFF statement was issued on 28 August 2014.

EFF was amongst a handful of user representatives invited to attend the initial scoping meeting of a new global convening called the NETmundial Initiative, which was held August 28, 2014 in Geneva. In introducing the event, Virgílio Almeida of Brazil's Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation gave his prediction that the new Initiative could eventually come to take its place amongst other high-profile Internet governance institutions such as the IGF, ITU and ICANN.

If this is so, then we certainly hope that the August 28 meeting doesn't set a standard for the nascent initiative to follow, because it wasn't a promising start. But before explaining why, a little more background information is in order.

Internet governance - which, broadly defined, is the network of mechanisms, ranging from laws to technical standards, that affect use of the Internet - can impact people's rights and freedoms. When Spain signed the Council of Europe Cybercrime Convention in 2010, amending its criminal law that same year to meet its heightened standards, and used those provisions over the following two years to track down and arrest Anonymous hacktivists, that is an example of one form of Internet governance at work. When the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) decided to consider a DRM standard called Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) that could take control of the Web browser away from the end-user, that was another example of a different form of Internet governance with real life impacts.

In other Internet governance processes the real-world impacts seem more remote. They may seem to be all talk, without any proximate effect on ordinary Internet users. The Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which doesn't make any recommendations or standards - let alone laws or treaties - is often accused of this (though others see its lack of real-world impact as a benefit, as it allows participants to discuss and network at the IGF in a low-pressure environment).

Earlier this year, a global meeting called NETmundial was held in Saõ Paulo, Brazil, at which participants collaborated upon a different form of Internet governance - norms, or non-binding (sometimes called "soft law") principles. The NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement that encapsulated these principles was ultimately disappointing. Even so, in some areas it does make some important points (such as that “Rights that people have offline must also be protected online”), and it has been cited as a rough consensus statement of these principles by other influential governance institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council.

The question raised today [August 28] was, will these NETmundial principles turn out to be "just talk", like the IGF's meetings often are, or could they have a real (and hopefully positive) impact on people's rights and freedoms in the real world? The purpose of the NETmundial Initiative was to make sure that it would be the latter, the hope being expressed that the Initiative could "apply the NETmundial Principles to solve issues in concrete ways", through a series of activities building upon those principles.

So far, so good. But the execution of the event was a significant departure from the earlier NETmundial meeting in Saõ Paulo with which it shares both its name and a parent in the form of ICANN CEO, Fadi Chehadé (but little else). The Saõ Paulo event was relatively transparent and open to all, from the agenda setting phase through to the drafting, and was executed by a structure of multi-stakeholder committees to which stakeholder groups nominated their own representatives.

The Geneva NETmundial Initiative on the other hand was hosted by the World Economic Forum (WEF), a think-tank of the world's largest companies. The participants and, from amongst those, the proposed steering committee members, were hand-picked by the organizers rather than being nominated by their own stakeholder groups (as, ironically, the NETmundial Principles set out as a best practice). The agenda was pre-written and released less than two weeks ahead of the meeting, but only after it had already been leaked. As for the meeting itself, much of the time allotted was taken up with closed-door bilateral meetings. In what scant few hours remained for discussion of the WEF's proposals, little receptivity was shown to those being reopened for discussion, or alternative proposals being entertained.

When civil society representatives took issue with these shortcomings, we were bizarrely accused (here, at 1:15), of being exclusive and elitist for rejecting what the WEF had come to offer. Now, surely nobody will stop the WEF or any other entity, multi-stakeholder or not, from executing initiatives designed to further the NETmundial Principles. But we are entitled to object to what is essentially a pre-cooked, big business initiative (well intentioned as it may be) from co-opting the name of an overtly more inclusive and grassroots-directed Internet governance meeting.

Too often there is a division between Internet governance processes that are truly open, inclusive and transparent on the one hand, and on the other hand those with the potential to actually produce tangible results that make a difference to real people's lives. Unfortunately the NETmundial Initiative scoping meeting maintains that distinction, in proposing a laudably action-focused agenda to take forward the NETmundial Principles, but by means of a rather closed, top-down and opaque process.

We don't think that the NETmundial Initiative will do any harm, but initial indications suggest it is far from an ideal model of global Internet governance in action, nor a worthy successor to its Saõ Paulo namesake. Equally though, it is not the only such model on the table. Next week's [September 2-5, 2014] Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul (and the parallel Internet Ungovernance Forum organised by Turkish activists) illustrate two other approaches to the vexed question of how best to govern the global Internet. EFF will be on the ground there too, and will report back in this space next week.

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