Civil society’s role in the Internet Governance debate

by Digital Rights LAC on June 30, 2014


By Amalia Toledo*

A couple of months ago I had the opportunity to organize and moderate a panel discussion at the Online Freedom Coalition (FOC) conference, which took place in Tallinn, Estonia, from 28 to 29 April 2014. The panel “Experiences of Civil Society to nurture the international debate on Internet Governance” aimed to generate a dialogue on how to promote civil society participation in the global Internet agenda.

The panel was formed from activists from Latin America and Africa—Paz Peña from the NGO Derechos Digitales (Chile) and Lilian Nalwoga from Collaborative on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (Uganda)—, and academics from North America and Europe—Robert Guerra from CitizenLab (Canada) and Kristina Reinsalu from the e-Governance Academy (Estonia). As ideas were shared and developed, the dialogue with the audience became vibrant and passionate, allowing us to share, reflect and present concerns and opinions about civil society involvement on Internet Governance.

During the conversation, it was emphasized how the multistakeholder model has allowed an increasing civil society participation in international discussions on this matter. However, this has not been translated into an entirely democratic and egalitarian model for stakeholders. Many times, those who hold political and/or economic power cornered civil society and the many interests that it brings to the table. In this sense, Paz Peña said that, at the international debate, the public interest has lost place, so it is time to put back into the agenda the recognition that the Internet is a public good. She added that the cyberspace, on the other hand, is a place that offers the opportunity for networking, bringing distant and disparate groups close together sharing many needs and interests. And this may serve, among others, to challenge the dominant patriarchal models in order to empower women and transform the established power structures in the interest of creating a more egalitarian society.

On the other hand, Kristina Reinsalu shared some Estonian efforts intended to promote citizen participation, leveraging digital technologies and, thus, fostering more transparent models. One example she offered us was the notion of crowdsourcing for the development of initiatives that arise from civil society and which are made possible thanks to the networks woven in the cyberspace. In Estonia, she told us, civil society has developed an online crowdsourcing platform in which citizenship has worked on policy proposals that have the potential to improving the country’s democracy. In mid-April, the President of the Republic submitted 15 proposals that were born of this process. As of today, the proposals are under review and discussion in the legislature. Several aspects can be highlighted in this process. Undoubtedly, Estonia boasts a robust civil society, able to propose. This goes hand in hand with the recognition and promotion by government political branches of the civil society role in the construction and advancement of a participatory democracy.

Robert Guerra highlighted some of the benefits bringing by civil society, such as the ability to attract online users, contributions to global discussion agenda—i.e., narrative related to development, disability, gender, human rights—, activism that has managed to question governmental actions, demanding accountability, etc. However, Internet is a place of challenges and transformations. And as regards to Internet governance and the multiplicity of meetings and forums that are addressing the issue, he stressed the massive difficulty for participating in them. Therefore, he drew attention to the need to promote mechanisms to facilitate civil society participation.

East African panorama, according to Lilian Nalwoga, is far from the Estonian. There are few civil society organizations that are working on the subject, four in Uganda and a few others in East African countries. She told us that encouraging participation with other stakeholders is a real challenge, because there is no political will, lack of knowledge and understanding on the subject by both the government and social sectors, and because the issue is not yet seen as one of public interest. The trend, however, has been the adoption of laws to silence the voices of users, to stifle the critics. In this sense, Lilian stressed the need for both civil society and the private sector to find common ground, and promote closer dialogue with governments. In this way, she said, the subject could be brought to the national and local arena in East African countries.

Other ideas were highlighted. Responding to the question how the FOC could support, in the long term, civil society, the answer can be summarized in the following sentence: “You have to practice what you preach.” That is, if this intergovernmental coalition seeks to advance Internet freedom, fostering a forum for governments to coordinate efforts and work with civil society and the private sector in a multistakeholder process in order to support the capacity of people to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms online, then, it is expect that commitments made and actions taken are based on that aim and do not remain empty words. At the end, governments represent their citizens; therefore, they shall protect interests by the group as a whole, and not a select few.

A constant concern is the funding source for civil society and its participation in international forums. Although no response to this difficult issue was offered, it was stressed that in order to promote a balanced debate on Internet governance, it is required to tackle this problem and offer greater stability and opportunities for civil society.

Finally, the panel closed with a reflection that called for activating solidarity mechanisms among civil society. And on that, the Latin American civil society has a lot to show and share with the world.

*Amalia Toledo is Project Coordinator at Karisma Foundation’s Law, Internet and Society Group