Building a Pluralist Future for the Internet

This Week’s Internet Conference in Istanbul Follows an Historic Debate at Brazil’s NETmundial

“History,” John W. Gardner reputedly said, “never looks like history when you are living through it.” Maybe that is why one of the recent years’ biggest events in shaping the future of the Internet got so little attention recently. Global news media largely ignored the conference, called NETmundial, which took place in April in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Yet some potentially historic developments took place there. In true Internet form, the results were slightly ambiguous.

NETmundial was one of a series of conferences and debates that gradually are shaping the future model of governance for the Internet. Its biggest impact may have been to reverse the momentum in that debate away from those (led by Russia) who favor an internet run mainly by governments – and toward pluralists (mostly from liberal democracies) who want to keep civil society and the private sector involved. Still, this battle will continue, leading up to what is seen as a potentially critical conference to be held in fall 2015 in New York. And the discussions at NETmundial suggest that the pluralist, or “multi-stakeholder” vision for the Internet may need a little help if it is to survive.

The next event in this gradual shaping of the Internet’s future governance takes place this week in Istanbul – a UN-sponsored event called the Internet Governance Forum. This ninth annual forum likely will be the biggest UN-run meeting ever on the Internet’s future, and one of its tasks will be to pick up the discussion that was shaped by April’s NETmundial.

‘Emergency Meeting’ on Governing the Internet

At Sao Paulo’s NETMundial, nearly 1,000 delegates accepted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s invitation to an “emergency meeting on the future of the Internet.” Although Rousseff had been particularly irritated by reports of US National Security Agency spying on Brazil, the co-initiator of the conference Fahdi Chehade, CEO of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), made clear that the meeting was not to be about surveillance, and especially not governments. Instead, it was to help secure something more obviously under threat – the “multi-stakeholder approach” to governing the Internet.

Currently, the Internet is managed by a hodge-podge of largely self-organizing groups within governments, the private sector, and civil society. This pluralist model is supported by the West and most liberal democracies. Countries such as Russia that view the state as paramount oppose this idea and dislike its implicit equalization of the private sector and civil society with governments.

This conflict escalated in 2012 at conference in Dubai sponsored by the International Telecommunications Union, the UN-sponsored body of governments and private institutions that coordinates international communications standards and connectivity.  At the Dubai event, the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), a debate on future internet governance suddenly saw a mass of (mostly developing) countries following Russia’s lead and voting for a text that seemed to leave the door open for greater government involvement in the running of the Internet. Eighty-nine countries signed the document, which critics said was a significant threat to the multi-stakeholder approach, while fifty-five countries rejected it. 

NETmundial Seen an Advance for Pluralists

If the Dubai conference was seen as a victory for those advocating “state sovereignty” (read: government supremacy) in Internet affairs, then Sao Paulo is being heralded as a triumph for the current pluralist model.

At Sao Paulo, the final document gave everyone what they wanted – more or less. Privacy advocates were able to keep “surveillance” (read: government-backed espionage) issues firmly in the spotlight, albeit streamlined into more useful language than in the original draft. The private sector was able to limit the liability of intermediaries (such as internet service providers) for activities conducted over their networks. A number of governments were happy that a particular sticky point that the US and ICANN had tried to keep out of the draft document – namely the transition of the so-called Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) contract – was at least mentioned in the final version.

Everyone seemed to welcome the strengthening of the UN-sponsored Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the only multi-stakeholder forum that has been officially sanctioned by the United Nations. Yes, Russia was very unhappy, India refused to support it, but overall most delegates – only 20 percent of whom actually were from governments – seemed to have gone home with a good feeling that something great had been accomplished.

Sao Paulo’s Invisibility in Mass Media

Unfortunately, this success wasn’t apparent to the world’s media. The BBC gamely tried to give the issue some proper coverage, but didn’t manage to get it further than its online the tech pages. Businessweek and the Economist did intelligent articles, none of which made it to their print editions. While a few European broadsheets such as Le Monde or the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung penned thoughtful contributions, much of the US media seemed to have ignored the conference. A Bloomberg stringer writing live at the NETmundial closing statement was stunned at the low rate of hits her article was scoring from readers.

Some reservations of the US media may have been down to some suspicion that the meeting was fundamentally anti-American (due to an emphasis amid the debates on surveillance), and like other “anti-American” conferences would play no significant role in actual policy. While this assessment was bad enough, others are even more worrying for policy specialists: the subject matter may just be too dense for anyone other than the seasoned expert to appreciate.

Even the technophile magazine Wired resorted to soccer metaphors to convey the importance of NETmundial, calling the meeting the “World Cup” of the “little known field of Internet governance.” The magazine labeled the event “technocratic” – and this was not intended as a compliment. When even Wired magazine decides a field is too geeky for its readership it is probably time to pause and take stock.

Much of the media coverage before and after the event concentrated on surveillance. Some of the most heated discourse at the conference and in its preparation was on the issue, even if it was rather thin on technical detail. Indeed, all other security topics – such as the stability of the Domain Name System (DNS) itself – disappeared in the shadow of the largely atmospheric surveillance debate.

A Focus on Internet Access

Issues of “access” – infrastructural, technical and social – received more mention and arguably played a much stronger role than the media response, something largely overlooked in initial analyses of the conference. Its importance was beautifully illustrated by the rousing keynote address at the beginning of the conference by an African civil society representative, Nnenna Nwakanma. She gave a stirring speech that many will remember as being partially about surveillance (and Edward Snowden), although it was virtually all about Internet access in its various forms.

While the issues of access vary, all reflect a need for financial and material support to developing nations to let them more fully “realize the promise of the Internet,” in the words of Rwandan telecommunications minister Jean Nsengimana. Comments in this direction represented easily the majority of interventions and speeches at NETmundial.

If implemented across the board, this “cross-subsidy” of the multi-stakeholder approach would, however, mean the transition of the “liberal” Internet to something markedly more “social” – if still not “governmental.”

Improving Access: A Key to Keeping Pluralism

As unpalatable as this prospect is to some, it may be the only practical solution for those who wish to both keep pluralist governance for the Internet, and prevent it from fragmenting. The most prominent voices at NETmundial were from the “swing states” – mostly developing countries whose governments seem undecided about which approach to Internet governance best works for them.

The United States and other developed countries supporting the pluralist approach should take note of these voices. Much of the developing world had sided with Russia and China against “the West” at the 2012 Dubai meeting, which led to the final, polarizing “West against the Rest” vote that was a low point in the history of not only Internet governance, but global governance as well. After this vote, many Western governments asked how they had “lost” so much of the world, especially those established and aspirational democracies in South America and Africa, and blamed it on a failure to properly explain the multi-stakeholder approach.

Instead of simply improving the “strategic communication,” however, NETmundial may show another engagement opportunity for liberal democracies: supporting Internet capacity development, within infrastructural, technical and even social dimensions. For “capacity development” is the direct answer to questions of “access” and was equally present at the NETmundial meeting.

Build Internet Capacities in Developing Countries

Infrastructure capacity development already is a focus of the World Bank Group and other international financial institutions. This involves building up telecommunication infrastructure in partner countries, and support for a more liberalized information and communications technology service industry as a whole. In 2012 the World Bank announced an investment strategy to greatly increase its engagement in this space from its current project portfolio of $2.7 billion. USAID also is expanding its initiatives around the Global Broadband and Innovations Program, for instance targeting Latin America for enhanced cooperation.

Some of the most imaginative and visible connectivity initiatives have come from the private sector: Google’s research on using balloons in the stratosphere to provide satellite-like Internet access, particularly for the Southern Hemisphere. These projects probably make a lot of development sense – bringing the Internet to billions who do not yet have it. It is not clear, however, how well they are integrated with political goals.

It was striking that most persistent supporters of the resolution at Dubai came from countries, such as South Korea or Mexico,  where single telecommunication companies have an actual or near monopoly, and wield a lot of influence over their respective government agencies (often the infrastructure ministry or similar). Globally, telcos have been the most persistent advocates of some sort of “Internet tax” on companies such as Google or Amazon who, as they see it, make their (US-taxed) fortunes on the telephone companies’ very backbones. No matter how one feels about the logic or morality of this proposal, good politics would be to target and win over these actors.

Governments’ Needs in Developing Nations

Technical capacity-building includes the development of government cyber-security structures (such as Computer Emergency Response Teams), and even help in paying their employees’ wages. It also may help these governments engage directly in Internet governance, and thus support the global multi-stakeholder approach. The EU has started to directly finance technical capacity-building (under the heading of “combating cybercrime”) in Balkan countries, and it may expand this program. The US State Department and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office maintain programs with considerable scope for helping governments to improve their operational and policy capabilities.

A particular challenge for many developing countries is the staff and money required to engage on Internet governance issues. For instance, although in theory virtually all of the world’s 193-odd governments could engage in ICANN’s Government Advisory Council (GAC), only thirty regularly do.  Although these thirty governments represent 80 percent of current Internet users, their dominance feeds a narrative of “unequal representation.”

Countries that now are under-represented are likely to make up at least a third of the world’s Internet-using population within two decades. A cheap way to “democratize” government representation on the GAC (as demanded notably by China) would be to help fund Internet governance agencies in these under-represented countries, including travel to key meetings for their personnel.

Building the Civil Society’s Role

Finally, and at least as important, is “social” capacity-building, outside of government. One diplomat who rejected the NETmundial document described the entire Sao Paulo process as “a fix,” implying that the civil society actors there were the knowing or unknowing pawns of governments and businesses.

This criticism is indicative of a worldview that fundamentally rejects civil society as an actor group altogether. It also taps into a wider conversation, often held between Europeans and Americans, of what constitutes civil society, and whether civil society can be funded by governments (as is overwhelmingly the case in most European countries).

Indeed one observer at NETmundial felt the need to ask what constituted a “real” civil society organization. This faulty line of argument is the opposite of what supporters of pluralism should try to achieve, namely a proliferation of organizations that consider themselves (and are considered by others) to be true civil society bodies – be they academic, from the technical community, or civil rights advocates.

NETmundial showed that not only the West has muscular civil-society actors. Indian, South American and African groups made strong showings. In fact, Brazil managed to present itself as being something of key “multi-stakeholder power”, with non-state actors in the majority on the Brazilian national Internet steering committee (called CGI).  These actors had helped push the world’s first “Internet bill of rights” (Brazil’s Marco Civil da Internet) into law. Parts of the US State Department do actively support civil society groups in developing countries, including Brazil. Even better would be to expand ways for the private sector and the Internet itself – in particular organizations such as the Internet Society (ISOC), and ICANN – to help build “social capacity” within emerging economies. Suggestions to use “Internet resources” to help fund these programs should be taken very seriously.

Critical Next Steps for Internet Governance

The existing “liberal” Internet was seemingly questioned at NETmundial. In fact, it has long been questioned. Some “capacity development” programs are already a decade old, and are nothing else then subsidies for actors that can’t otherwise afford to engage in the management of the Internet.  However an Internet that depends on government subsidies and development aid to function (or, more accurately, to claim “legitimacy”) would surely seem to be a different beast than the Internet defined by organic growth and self-organization.

Indeed some voices claim that it would better for the technical community to turn its back on governments rather than compromise in this fashion. This would be a dreadful mistake. Like the world’s media reporting on NETmundial, the opaque nature of this subject has managed to shield Internet governance from government interest for an astonishingly long time.

But now governments of all persuasions are firmly focused on the subject. In October, when the International Telecommunications Union holds its most senior-level meeting (called the Plenipotentiary) in Korea, the multi-stakeholder approach can be expected on the agenda. That meeting, like this week’s Internet Governance Forum, will prepare the way for probably the United Nations’ most significant meeting ever on the Internet. That event, the World Summit of Information Society (called WSIS+10), is to be held in New York, probably in the fall of 2015.  Some observers have long considered WSIS+10 to be the defining moment for the multi-stakeholder approach, and thus for the Internet as we know it. At present, the compromises needed to keep much of the multi-stakeholder approach intact are relatively small. That might not stay that way.

Alexander Klimburg is an associate at the Harvard Kennedy School and senior adviser at the Austrian Institute of International Affairs.

Image: Nnenna Nwakanma, an African activist for wider public access to the Internet, notably in developing countries, spoke alongside Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff, right, at the NETmundial conference in Sao Paulo. (Flickr/ Roberto Stuckert Filho/CC License)