UPDATED: Why I’m going to Geneva for the NetMundial Initiative

UPDATE: 1st September 2014

After a few days of reflection following the initial meeting of the Net Mundial Initiative in Geneva, I wanted to update my original post below. I largely share the sentiments of my colleagues Anne Jellema from the Web Foundation and Jeremy Malcolm from the EFF, who were also in Geneva, and Anriette Esterhuysen at APC who wasn’t, so I won’t attempt now to echo what they have already so eloquently stated.

I appreciate that ICANN and WEF are committed to improving and strengthening internet governance. I also appreciate the numerous attempts by ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade to reach out in an attempt to improve the process. It was unfortunate, however, that instead of honoring the NetMundial principles of openness, inclusivity, and transparency, the Geneva meeting still came across as a somewhat pre-cooked agenda, with pre-planned initiatives, and many important voices not represented at the table. Many at the event see the need to move to action as important, but were left scratching their heads as to where the Initiative was headed.

My main concern coming out of the meeting is that if the future of internet governance is reflected by this meeting, we risk supporting an infrastructure that may well fail to truly support an open, distributed, and rights-respecting internet. The elite nature of WEF and those who were invited to Geneva sets this initiative on a path in which future decisions could be made at events like Davos and GSMA — both of which are antithetical to multistakeholderism. Traditionally, their approach and their participants does not include the voices that are necessary ingredients for a truly participatory governance framework with human rights at its core.

I’m not concerned about participation for participation’s sake, but I am concerned that decisions will be made by those at the table. For example, when there was talk of getting the next billion online in the final session on Wednesday, my immediate worry was whether the NMI would look to Facebook Zero and Internet.org to get it done; when the Egyptian Minister talked of national governance structures, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Alaa Abd El Fattah’s hunger strike and the imprisonment of many of Egypt’s prominent online voices. I raised this issues directly with him at the time.

Ultimately, we ended the day with a lack of clarity. We didn’t leave Geneva with a better sense of the terms of reference for the NMI, who the early champions might be, or what might be the role of the Interim Steering Committee moving forward. I find this initiative hard to support in its current form, because supporting it may result in the creation of governance infrastructure that ultimately delivers outcomes that are not what Access would support.

Hopefully, there will be a greater articulation of the purposes and trajectory of NMI at the IGF this week. We’ll be reserving our final decision on how and whether to participate in NMI until after the IGF concludes.

Original post:

This has already been a historic year in internet governance, from the NetMundial to the first steps of the IANA transition to the announcement of the modalities for the WSIS+10 Review and the ITU Plenipotentiary ahead.

As governments, corporations, civil society, and the technical community assess this changing landscape, we should now add the NetMundial Initiative (NMI), which will hold its first meeting in Geneva this week.

Born out of the Ilves Commission, initiated by Fadi Chehade (the CEO of ICANN), and hosted by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the NMI is nominally an attempt to further the outcomes of NetMundial. We at Access found quite a lot to like, and a lot to be worried about, in those outcomes from NetMundial back in March (we outlined our thoughts here), so one reason we’re attending this Geneva meeting (at our own expense) is to help make sure that the best aspects of the final NetMundial text are enacted and the weakest elements are strengthened.

Before we even discuss the substance of those critiques, however, we must note that the initial steps of the NMI have largely run counter to the openness, transparency, and inclusivity that were the hallmarks of (most of) NetMundial. The NetMundial Multistakeholder Statement makes clear as its first process principle that “internet governance should be built on democratic, multistakeholder processes, ensuring the meaningful and accountable participation of all stakeholders.”

While there have been several attempts at outreach to civil society by ICANN, and later by WEF, thus far, it appears that they together have ultimately decided who from civil society should be invited to this week’s meeting (you can view the participant list here), who should be hosting the event, and what the agenda should be. This week, two attempts by civil society organizations to bring additional voices representing the Global South were rejected.

Clearly, we need a process that ensures a diversity of perspectives — especially of women and groups from the Global South — with a wide range of civil society organizations seated at the table from the start. That is not the case here. Given that the agenda has been shaped without civil society input, and that the WEF has claimed initial ownership of much of the governance process (all NMI documents are on WEF letterhead), it’s more important than ever that we re-commit to a truly multistakeholder process with actions, not just words. This approach again was confirmed in the so-called Ilves Report which says that multistakeholder “forums and dialogues” are indispensable parts of the emerging IG ecosystem.

While the agenda for the August 28th event leaves only a few hours for substantive conversation, powerful voices will be at the table, including — uncharacteristically for an event like this — many government representatives.

It’s important that civil society and the communities we serve have a say in these conversations, which is the second reason why I’m attending. It’s important to note that certain parts of civil society are far more skeptical of this process than Access, and we have reached out to them and our broader community to help inform our own position.

Fadi and Richard Samas, the Managing Director of WEF, have indicated that they hope to formalize an interim steering committee for the NMI at the Geneva event. I’ve been invited to join this interim steering committee, but I’m waiting to learn more in Geneva about its plans, purposes, and processes before making a decision on how and whether to participate. That said, I’m not going to Geneva without an agenda, here’s what I’ll be advocating for:

  • Openness. As noted, the process going forward needs to be true to principles of openness, transparency, and inclusivity with mechanisms to ensure the participation possible of civil society members as full, equal, and meaningful partners. I am pleased to see there will be livestreaming of the event.
  • Legitimacy. The choice of WEF to host this meeting is symbolically and functionally problematic. For this ongoing process to be seen as legitimate, we must view WEF’s participation as transitional. WEF has indicated as much by setting itself a six-month timeline leading up to Davos. Nevertheless, WEF’s current role should certainly not continue beyond this initial start up period. Moreover, if there is to be significant conversation of or about the NMI at the WEF’s annual meeting in Davos, there needs to be serious consideration of how civil society will participate in this prohibitively expensive gathering. (Disclosure: I am a member of WEF’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of the Internet).
  • IGF. The NMI should not subsume or supplant the mandates or efforts of the IGF and other existing internet governance processes and coalitions. Again, support for these process and coalitions was confirmed in both the NetMundial outcome documents and the Ilves Report, and was certainly nodded to in the NMI documents.
  • Human Rights. Defending and extending human rights online should be the focus of the NMI and at the core of its mission. Yet human rights are only mentioned once in the briefing document, in passing in the FAQ, and not at all in the day’s agenda. NMI should work within the framework set out by the UN Human Rights Council and reasserted in the NetMundial outcomes documents, which makes clear that “human rights are universal as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that should underpin Internet governance principles. Rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in accordance with international human rights legal obligations.”
  • Furthering the NetMundial Outcomes. The NMI should seek to further the positive outcomes from the NetMundial, and to advance the rights-respecting language that many members of civil society and other stakeholders called for but was not included — especially the language concerning net neutrality, gender equality, and surveillance reform (in particular, the adoption and implementation of the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance).
  • Value Add. We must identify the medium to long term goals of the NMI. Specifically, we need to clarify the NMI’s added value, specific purpose(s), and the clearly identifiable and achievable goals that it is going to set for itself. For example, if one goal is capacity building in developing countries or distributed governance groups, why are there just eight representatives from developing countries and apparently only one from civil society at this meeting in Geneva?

In the leadup to the NetMundial meeting earlier this year, Access asked our global community to identify the most pressing digital rights issues being discussed. The majority were concerned about protecting net neutrality, followed by surveillance reform and censorship and freedom of expression. We’ll be using this opportunity in Geneva to highlight these issues and make sure they’re adequately represented in the post-NetMundial agenda. (Next week we’ll be taking these concerns to the Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul. More on that to come). The positions I articulate will not be on behalf other civil society groups nor will I purport to represent civil society more broadly.

With the IGF mandate up for renewal at the UN General Assembly, the ITU Members meeting to outline the ITU’s strategy for the next four years (at its Plenipotentiary meeting in Busan), a high level WSIS+10 review, and other events on the horizon for internet governance, we hope the NetMundial Initiative furthers the name of that historic conference and rises to the challenges ahead. We’ll be watching, deliberating, and tweeting (via @solomonbrett).