2013 Internet Governance Forum in Review

The 8th annual U.N. Internet Governance Forum wrapped up late last month in Bali, Indonesia. This year’s official main theme was “Building Bridges – Enhancing Multi-stakeholder Cooperation for Growth and Sustainable Development”; however, mass online surveillance and a recently announced 2014 world summit on internet governance dominated many discussions at the IGF.

The political landscape around global internet governance has changed dramatically since last year’s IGF held in Baku, Azerbaijan, when discussions centered around the upcoming, controversial the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). In Baku, the U.S., the European Union, and allies were warning of attempts by authoritarian governments to regulate, censor, and surveil the internet through an international telecommunications treaty being negotiated at WCIT. By way of contrast, this year, ongoing revelations of mass surveillance primarily by the U.S. National Security Agency, have meant that many of the same governments have lost their moral authority as leaders in “internet freedom.”

The IGF, which brings together civil society, companies, the technical community, governments and all interested stakeholders to discuss internet policy, afforded the opportunity to raise concerns on surveillance in both a public and private way with the governments and companies that are at the center of the scandal. While criticized by some participants as being too much of a polite UN-style meeting, the IGF provided an inclusive venue to share perspectives on how to reach a proper balance between security concerns and human rights, to address the lack of trust in the technical institutions and companies that play a key role in the functioning of the internet, and perhaps most importantly, to strategize on how to rein in mass surveillance.

Surveillance and Human Rights: A balancing act or two sides of the same coin?

From the high-level pre-event on “Cyber Ethics” when Citizen Lab director Ron Deibert opened his remarks by mentioning the “E” word– “Edward”, as in Edward Snowden– to the final main session on “Internet Surveillance,” surveillance and human rights was a major theme.

The “Internet Surveillance” main session, which included representatives from the U.S. government, Google, civil society, the technical community, and others revealed a critical difference in government views on the relationship between surveillance and human rights and are worth noting here. Scott Busby, from the U.S. State Department, explained that there is a balancing act between security concerns and human rights, whereas Johan Hallenborg from the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted, “it’s important to remember that there is no tradeoff between Human Rights and security. It is not about balancing. It is about securing the respect for Human Rights, but doing it in a way that is secure.”

Too often, governments present a stark choice between security and human rights to justify illegal and disproportionate surveillance regimes that violate the right to privacy, freedom of expression, and other human rights. Access views that choice as a false dichotomy and believes that human rights and security are mutually reinforcing. We therefore welcome Hallenborg’s unequivocal statement on this issue and urge other governments to follow Sweden’s lead.

Several panelists referenced the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance as a valuable framework for evaluating national surveillance legislation. The Principles, which Access helped develop, explain how international human rights law applies in the current digital environment, particularly in light of the increase in use of and changes to communications surveillance technologies and techniques. Joana Varon, the civil society representative on the panel, suggested that all governments, including the United States, measure their national laws against the Principles. Brazilian Ambassador Benedicto Fonseca Filho who spoke immediately after Varon associated himself with her remarks, saying that it was the “kind of approach we’d like to take in that regard.”

Additionally, in a flash sessioned co-organized by Access, participants highlighted ways that they are using the Principles to push for reform domestically and internationally, for example, through the Universal Periodic Review mechanism at the UN Human Rights Council, where the Principles were launched earlier this year.

The “Other” Internet Governance Summit

While the 135 focus sessions, workshops, open forums, and flash sessions were the official focus of the IGF, much time and energy was focused on the recently announced internet governance meeting to be hosted by Brazil in 2014.

In the weeks immediately preceding the IGF, the core technical bodies responsible for the internet’s functioning, collectively known as the I* organizations, made a major announcement, the Montevideo Statement on the Future of Internet Cooperation. With the statement, they “agreed to catalyze community-wide efforts towards the evolution of global multistakeholder Internet cooperation” and “called for accelerating the globalization of ICANN and IANA functions, towards an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing.” The statement is viewed as signaling a significant shift away from the special relationship between the U.S. and ICANN in order to restore user trust and maintain a global interconnected internet.

Days after the Montevideo statement, ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who made a forceful speech on surveillance and human rights at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September, announced that Brazil would be hosting a world summit on internet governance in the spring of 2014. As a result, the IGF provided an excellent opportunity for all stakeholders to share notes and strategize on how to prepare for this event.

The problem, however, is that meetings with ICANN and the Brazilian government revealed more questions than answers, as well as a lack of clarity as to who is driving the process. At this point, it is known that the meeting will aim to produce principles for internet governance, in line with the “international civilian framework” that Rousseff called for at the UN, and to advance efforts to internationalize ICANN, consistent with the Montevideo Statement. The meeting may also address decision-making on internet governance and other topics.

The I* organizations and Brazilian delegation were both clear that they support the multistakeholder framework and do not intend for the meeting to compete with or contradict the work of ongoing institutions, such as the IGF or the review of the World Summit on Information Society, which is also taking place over the next year.

Other than these common points, there was a lot up for discussion, including who is organizing the meeting and how the planning will proceed. The Brazilian government will be announcing more information on the meeting in early- to mid-November. It has already established a planning committee domestically, and civil society has designated liaisons to input into the process. The I* organizations have committed to establishing a multistakeholder dialogue that will inform the planning for the Brazilian meeting as well as other internet governance processes, but the dialogue does not appear to include governments, a key stakeholder, and civil society engagement thus far has been limited. More should be clear in the coming weeks.

IGF 2013 in context

There were a number of achievements with this year’s IGF. For example, this year marked the first time there was a main session on human rights, which proved highly relevant given the prominence of human rights (and surveillance) issues on this year’s agenda. Even with the focus on surveillance, the IGF proved again to be a useful opportunity for face-to-face meetings and the launch of new initiatives. For example, this year’s IGF featured the first meeting of the Dynamic Coalition on Net Neutrality and launch of the Dynamic Coalition’s inaugural report, which included Access’ recent position paper on net discrimination.

Next year’s IGF will be held in Istanbul, Turkey from 2-5 September. A few improvements we would like to see at the 2014 IGF are stronger links between the global IGF and its national and regional iterations; sustainable funding; and deeper links between the traditional human rights and internet communities. One concrete way that the latter could be achieved is by inviting key players in the human rights sphere, such as the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, her staff, experts from the U.N. Human Rights Committee and Special Procedures, and representatives from the U.N. Human Rights Council to attend to facilitate knowledge sharing on internet-related human rights issues.


Relevant documents:

Net Neutrality- Ending Network Discrimination in Europe: https://s3.amazonaws.com/access.3cdn.net/653b3b0adb37e88f4b_u7m6vw480.pdf

Forgotten Pillar-The Telco Remedy Plan: https://www.accessnow.org/wp-content/uploads/archive/docs/Telco_Remedy_Plan.pdf

International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance: https://en.necessaryandproportionate.org/text