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Spotlight on Internet Governance Part Four: NetMundial

12:49pm | 14 April 2014 | by Deborah Brown,

Update: A new version of the draft outcome documents for NetMundial are now posted for comment here.

Last October, in the aftermath of the revelations of mass government surveillance, the government of Brazil and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) announced a joint initiative that would bring together government, industry, civil society, and academia in a meeting in Brazil in April 2014 to discuss the future of internet governance. The initiative grew out of strong reactions from Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and the core technical bodies responsible for the internet’s functioning to the surveillance revelations, uniting them for the purpose of restoring user trust in the internet and ensuring that fundamental rights, including the right to privacy, are protected online.

This evolved to become the Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance, better known as NetMundial, an initiative of 12 governments -- Argentina, France, Ghana, Germany, India, Indonesia, South Africa, South Korea, Tunisia, Turkey, and the United States have since joined Brazil -- with representatives of civil society, academia, and the technical community participating in various planning committees.

The basics

NetMundial will take place from April 23-24 at the Grand Hyatt - São Paulo. A number of events will be held around NetMundial, including a Civil Society Coordination Meeting on April 22, with the objective of empowering civil society participants to present a unified and effective front at the meeting. Remote participation will be available through hubs in 23 countries, and the meeting will be livestreamed for anyone wishing to follow along.

NetMundial is meant to produce two outcome documents: internet governance principles and a roadmap for the further evolution of the internet governance ecosystem. The organizers facilitated an open submission process, enabling all interested parties to submit contributions with proposals to shape the outcome documents. In total 187 submissions were received from all regions of the world. The largest number of submissions came from civil society (31%), followed by the private sector and governments.

The latest

A leaked draft of the outcome documents was published online on April 8. This version was drafted by the Executive Multistakeholder Committee (EMC), which is composed of non-governmental actors (academia, civil society, the private sector, and the technical community) plus the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee (CGI.br). Comments from members of the High-Level Multistakeholder Committee (HLMC), which includes ministerial-level representatives of the 12 host governments plus non-governmental members were also leaked, indicating points of contention (see following section).

An updated draft based on the EMC’s and HLMC’s comments is now with the group of co-chairs for the meeting, which is also multistakeholder, with one representative from academia, civil society, the private sector, and the technical community and overall leadership from the Brazilian government. Unlike the EMC and HLMC, whose members were selected by their respective communities, the co-chairs were appointed with little transparency. It is unclear at the moment what exactly the group of co-chair’s role will be in editing the outcome documents. If they were to take a robust role in shaping the documents, which were drafted by the more representative committees, the legitimacy of the outcomes could come into question.

It is expected that a new draft outcome document will be released for public comment on in the next few days.

Key issues to watch

In response to the leaked draft Access joined a group of organizations and individuals from civil society in issuing a statement to the EMC, Chair, and co-Chairs, highlighting priority issues to take into account and maintain in the structure of the draft as they develop the next version. These issues are reproduced and in some cases expanded upon below.

Human Rights

The draft outcome document acknowledged the importance of human rights, in particular the critical point that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online. Human rights should be a foundation of internet governance, and all internet governance principles and processes should be underpinned by and aligned with human rights. The joint statement underscored that the final outcome of NetMundial must recognize the inextricable link between human rights and internet governance principles, policies, and processes. Furthermore, the statement makes the point that open and inclusive processes depend upon the freedoms of expression and association and are empowered by them.

Privacy

The right to privacy was also explicitly affirmed in the draft text, which noted specifically that “People should be able to exercise their right to privacy online the same way they do offline, including avoiding arbitrary or unlawful collection of personal data and surveillance.” An influential report by UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Frank La Rue reaffirmed that privacy is a fundamental human right, and is central to the maintenance of democratic societies. It is essential to human dignity and it reinforces other rights, such as freedom of expression and information, and freedom of association, and is recognized under international human rights law. 

Given that the revelations of mass surveillance were the impetuous behind this meeting, it is essential that NetMundial builds on the recent steps at the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council and affirms the right to privacy in the digital age.

Surveillance

The draft document also addressed the issue of mass surveillance, asserting that it “undermines trust in the Internet and trust in the Internet Governance ecosystem” and “contradicts some of the principles proposed in this document.” Our joint statement welcomed this language, noting that it is of crucial importance to rebuild trust amongst stakeholders and to bring mass and arbitrary surveillance programs in line with human rights jurisprudence and principles, and strengthen transparency and oversight. 

The text could have gone further to say that mass and arbitrary surveillance constitute a violation to the human rights principles proposed in the draft document, and recognized the role that the more explicitly recognized the role that governments and the private sector are playing in conducting mass surveillance. Nonetheless, Access is pleased to see that the Necessary and Proportionate Principles were included in the draft text, with the recommendation that surveillance be conducted in line with framework they lay out.

Development and Access to the Internet

Given that the internet is an enabler and catalyst of human rights, and, ultimately, to the right to development, we welcomed the inclusion of development among the human rights that underpin internet governance principles. With two-thirds of the world’s population still not yet online, we would have liked to have seen a stronger emphasis on development, including a reference to the right to digital inclusion and affordable, high-quality access to the internet.

Internet Infrastructure

The draft text advanced a set of principles related to preserving a globally interoperable, secure, stable, resilient, sustainable, and trustworthy internet. Our joint statement endorsed these principles, but we would like to see an explicit reference to the concept and term “net neutrality” as a core principle in the next draft. It is important that net neutrality be viewed as an internet governance principle, with implications for users’ rights, not simply an infrastructure issue.

With the recent progress in enshrining net neutrality into law in both the European Union and Brazil, NetMundial presents an excellent opportunity for the global internet community to embrace net neutrality at the global level.

Evolving internet governance

We were encouraged to see that the draft text made recommendations on ways to improve the current internet governance framework, recognizing that there are shortcomings that can be improved upon so the system can better serve as a catalyst for sustainable development and promotion of human rights.

NTIA transition and ICANN

The draft text did not focus heavily on the announced IANA transition away from U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), but it did acknowledge it and emphasized the importance of including all stakeholders in the convening process, including those beyond ICANN bodies and I* organizations. With the joint statement, we stressed the importance of the global multistakeholder community be able to participate in the discussion about the transition and in the transition proposal itself. Further, it is important to reinforce the need for improved effectiveness, transparency, and accountability of ICANN in the globalization process, as well as the separation of the policy development process and the IANA operations.

Distributive and Coordinated Internet Governance

We were especially supportive of the option put forward in the draft of multistakeholder internet governance coordination mechanisms, and we suggest it is reinforced as a recommendation, not only as an option “recommendable to analyze.”

To quote the joint statement: “Further analysis, monitoring and information sharing about and within the internet governance architecture as a whole is duly needed. It might help us to identify weaknesses and gaps in the coverage of important issues and, in light of empirical evidence, would help us evaluate the merits of any alternative decision making processes. A multi-stakeholder coordination mechanism could also be useful to promote dialogue, build consensus or at least provide inputs into other processes tasked with actual decision making.”

Internet Governance Forum

The draft outcome document expressed support for the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) and offered suggestions on how to strengthen it, based on recommendations from the Working Group on IGF Improvements. This included improving the IGF’s outcomes, ensuring funding, promoting dialogue between annual meetings, and extending the IGF’s mandate to make it a permanent multistakeholder forum. We support these recommendations, and would like to see them feed into other internet governance fora, like the WSIS+10 process which is considering the future of the IGF.

What’s at stake?

The Brazil meeting represents a valuable opportunity to make progress on critical stumbling blocks in the global internet governance debate: namely agreement on globally applicable internet governance principles and a framework for evolving the current institutional framework for internet governance that more fully embodies open, decentralized, transparent, multistakeholder decision-making. These are laudable goals, but they are not new.

The fact that the Brazil meeting is taking place outside of traditional internet governance policy spaces, like the IGF, WSIS, ICANN, CSTD, etc. comes with both opportunity and risks. On the one hand, breaking with institutional molds and convening siloed communities brings the possibility of overcoming deadlock with new energy and collaboration. On the other hand, this type of ad hoc high-level meeting risks capture in a highly politicized environment. Even if the meeting successfully produces the outcomes it sets out, the legitimacy of those outcomes really depends on how some of the process points are resolved.

The innovative structure of NetMundial, also comes with risks. The effort by the organizers to put all stakeholders on even footing -- from the planning committees to contributing content for the outcome documents-- makes NetMundial an innovative experiment in multistakeholderism. Should the processes break down along the way, this would be a considerable setback for the mutlistakeholder approach.

That said, NetMundial presents an excellent opportunity to advance some critical issues at a pivotal moment. The meeting could forge common agreement and commitments around net neutrality and the right to privacy, for example, and find common ground around ways to improve the current internet governance processes so that they better empower users and encourage internet use as a catalyst for human rights and development.

Finally, it is important to consider how the Brazil meeting’s outcomes will impact or feed into other internet governance processes. For example, if an agreement is reached on outputs, could they be endorsed more officially through WSIS review process? If there is no agreement, will players who are not satisfied with the direction of the discussion pursue their position in other venues, like the ITU plenipotentiary meeting?

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