NETmundial and the future of Internet Governance

by Digital Rights LAC on May 28, 2014

gobernanza de internet

The Internet Governance regime is going through a moment of re-evaluation and changes. Under the Unites Nations, several meetings will be held in preparation to the review of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS+10), which will take place in 2015.

By Marília Maciel*

1. A geopolitical shift and the role of Brazil

In parallel, the United States government announced its willingness to transfer the stewardship of the IANA functions, particularly of its unilateral oversigt over the root zone file (a server that is the base for the functioning of the domain name system) to the multistakeholder community. In the midst of these processes, the Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance (NETmundial), convened by the government of Brazil, was an important milestone.

The fact that a developing country took the lead on these discussions is a symptom of a shifting balance among governmental actors. The United States lost its moral high ground after the Snowden revelations, creating a relative vacuum of leadership. Therefore, there are political conditions to promote the redistribution of power in the regime in favor of developing nations and to try to move forward issues that have been stalled. Those seem to have been the goals of the Brazilian government when it decided to convene NETmundial.

The meeting was also marked by visible lack of coordination among BRICS countries on Internet issues. Russia heavily criticized NETmudial and did not accept the final document. India was more moderate and affirmed that the country could not endorse the document as a whole, although it contained many positive aspects. The meeting happened in the moment in which Brazil has established a positive dialogue with European countries, particularly with Germany, on Internet Governance issues. The problem of mass surveillance brought them together, but the collaboration is being extended to areas such as privacy and infrastructure.

In the institutional debate, Brazil argues for the need to conciliate multilateral and multistakeholder arrangements. The country defends the creation of a centralized platform to discuss public policy issues, with the full participation of all stakeholders, on the understanding that “fragmentation of policy spaces, among other factors, greatly undermines the ability of under resourced groups to engage with global Internet governance, because they are unable to be present in all places”. Brazil did not detail what kind of arrangement it envisions, but it would probably need the collaboration of other developing countries, such as India, in order to give political weight to its ideas. This puts Brazil in a challenging position, as it needs to develop a broad range of diplomatic alliances.

2. NETmundial outcome document

The agenda of NETmundial covered two main points. The first was the identification of universally acceptable principles related to the Internet. The second was the identification of a roadmap for the evolution of the institutional architecture of the Internet Governance ecosystem. This last topic encompasses the governance of domain names and IP numbers and the process for the development of global public policy issues related to the Internet.

In terms of substance, some important achievements were made in NETmundial. Human rights were mainstreamed: they should be equally respected online and off-line and should underpin the development of the whole ecosystem. The right to freedom expression and association, the right to development and the role of the Internet to promote it, for instance, were included.

Surveillance was an important topic as well. The document took into account the problem of collection and processing of data, not only by governments, but also by private actors. This approach that was positive, since existing documents seem to be focused on governmental activities. It was unfortunate, however, that the principle of proportionality – widely recognized in international legal doctrine – was not included as a limit to surveillance related activities.

The document recognizes the importance of the participation of all stakeholders in the discussion of cyber security issues and that international cooperation on topics such as jurisdiction, law enforcement, cybersecurity and cybercrime should be held in a multistakeholder manner. This is a remarkable process, if we consider that most of the processes in this area have been intergovernmental.

Multistakeholder participation – the involvement of governments, civil society, companies, the technical community and academics – was considered a pillar of the Internet Governance regime. It was also recognized that the respective roles and responsibilities of the stakeholders should be interpreted in a flexible manner with reference to the particular issue under discussion. By doing that, the document offers a more up to date interpretation of the roles and responsibilities set forth by the Tunis Agenda, which granted limited roles to non-governmental actors, which do not correspond to the reality of Internet policy development. Coupled with that, the NETmundial document also recognizes that the roles and responsibilities of actors is one of the topics that need further discussion and understanding, together with issues of jurisdiction, a benchmark to evaluate the implementation of the aforementioned principles and the issue of network neutrality.

A distributed, decentralized and multistakeholder model of Internet governance was endorsed by the meeting. The majority of participants seem to believe that it would not be appropriate to create one centralized body to deal with Internet issues, but to take advantage of multistakeholder networks and, possibly, of mechanisms for improving coordination.

Great emphasis was put in increasing transparency, accountability, effectiveness and globalization of institutions. That also applies to Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), responsible to the management of the domain name system. Participants expect that “the process of globalization of ICANN speeds up leading to a truly international and global organization serving the public interest with clearly implementable and verifiable accountability and transparency mechanisms”.

3. NETmundial: the process

NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement[8] – the outcome document of the Meeting – was ellaborated in a very open and participatory manner, by means of successive consultations. The Multistakeholder Executive Committee (EMC) was the body responsible to go through more than 180 contributions presented in the online platform and to draft an initial outcome document based on these contributions. This draft was put under public consultation online. More than 300 comments were presented.

The comments received online, the points that were raised from the floor during the two days of NETmundial and the comments made by remote participants (NETmundial hubs and individuals) were analyzed by the EMC to produce the final draft. On the last stage, this draft was presented to the High Level Multistakeholder Committee (HLMC) for political validation. This particular moment was one of the shortcomings in terms of process. HLMC’s main responsibility was to ensure that the international multistakeholder community would meanigfully engage in the NETmundial process. However, the valuable political resources of this committee remained underexplored until very close to the meeting. The HLMC had little contact with the process of drafting the NETmundial text and with the consultations being held, but it was informally given the capacity to veto parts of the text right before the final plenary session. This was the moment in which some controversial changes were made, such as the weakening of the text about the separation of the policy and operational aspects when seeking for a new model to perform the IANA functions, or the inclusion of an OECD text about the limitation of responsibility of intermediaries. This was considered an undue influence by some actors and this would be a procedural issue to improve for the future.

On a positive note, all the drafting sessions in NETmundial were open to observers, who could follow the changes made to the text in real time. The openness of the drafting process is an important legacy of NETmundial.

4. Conclusion

NETmundial was an unprecedented event, in which an outcome document was generated in a multistakeholder way. The meeting showed that it is possible to extract concrete outcomes from multistakeholder discussions: the methodology of NETmundial could be improved and maybe replicated in other global multistakeholder processes, such as the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Even if the outcome document is the result of compromise (therefore the language will certainly not please all the actors), it presents positive steps forward, both on principles and on roadmap.

The document will be as relevant as actors decide it to be. If the ideas contained in the document are good and useful, they will certainly be taken forward to other fora and upcoming meetings, serving as tool to influence the WSIS review process. Politically, NETmundial represents the existence of window of opportunity to promote a healthy redistribution of power in the Internet governance regime that could tip the balance towards the Global South.

* Marília Maciel – researcher and coordinator of the Center for Technology and Society of the Getulio Vargas Foundation Law School