Could Brazil become the leader in Internet governance?

by Digital Rights LAC on November 22, 2013

Brasil CC (Thomás) BY 2.0 - E

By Claudio Ruiz

One of the surprises of the last Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was the emergence of Brazil as a country that could potentially overshadow U.S. dominance in these issues. However, the doubts of making concrete changes to the model persist.

As expected, no representative of the government of Chile attended the 8th version of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) held in October on the island of Bali, Indonesia. This was to be expected not only because of the poor, or rather nonexistent, digital strategy of President Piñera, but more so because strictly speaking, a representative of Chile has never attended this meeting organized by the United Nations, where government emissaries hold discussions on equal terms with the private sector and civil society about the issues and challenges of the regulation of Internet governance.

As was also to be expected, the agenda for this year was intense and mainly focused on aspects related to security, privacy and human rights. The first, a ‘classic’ topic for those who have been following this forum since the beginning, acquired greater importance after the revelations made this year by Edward Snowden, who unveiled the dubious activities of online surveillance on behalf of the U.S. government, putting in check much of the infrastructure on which the Internet rests, or at least as we know it.

With regard to privacy and human rights, both were analyzed with reference to Snowden’s revelations, although they have also been key elements of the discussion on Internet governance in the past. Unlike previous years, this was the first time that the discussion of human rights in the digital environment was treated with particular relevance, as part of an entire section of the program, and having, for the first time, a plenary session specially dedicated to the subject.

Nevertheless, there were two large “elephants in the room” present throughout many of the IGF discussions.

First, the tension between those who argue that the best form of Internet governance is one that seeks to maintain, with some variation, its current state, focusing on ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers): A model known as multistakeholder, which is controlled in a way that is usually considered benevolent by the more naive analysts of the U.S. Government. On the other hand, there is increasing pressure from a number of countries -some with questionable human rights records such as China and Russia- to deliver more democratic legitimacy to this governance, using existing structures of the United Nations like the ITU and thus avoid U.S. control of the critical infrastructure.

This tension has become increasingly present after the latest revelations about the NSA and also due to pressure from Brazil, a top-flight actor when it comes to diplomatic relations, with a slightly less dubious record compared to its main partners on this crusade.

Closely related to the above, is the glowing appearance of Brazil as a key player that could stand up to the United States. The full frontal reaction of Dilma’s government to the revelations of espionage on the federal government, as well as on key energy companies, was by no means an accident, nor was the fiery speech of the president before a plenary session at the UN.

In many of the main countries of the south the moves surrounding the spying revelations -which, without going any further, include Chile’s and Mexico’s president-elect- have been rather gimmicky with varying levels of hype and very little substance, but in the case of Brazil it seems to have become a turning point for taking the lead as a legitimate and vigorous voice for the respect of human rights on the Internet.

The approach taken by Brazil has been nothing short of surprising.

Only days before the IGF, and after meeting with Fadi Chehade, on behalf of the ICANN, Dilma announced a global forum using the multistakeholder model to discuss these issues in Brazil in April-May 2014. Without any clear objectives or expected results, and the surprising support of Chehade, there is some concern on the part of civil society representatives that this new forum may seek to undermine the IGF as the global stage for debating these issues.

In principle, it does not seem necessary to create a new global instance, taking into account the need for having real multisectoral participation, which is still not specifically guaranteed by Brazil, and the existing legitimacy of the IGF today, even with all its problems.

The need to create workspaces and debate around how we want the Internet to be built in the future is not only inevitable but also urgent. It seems unreasonable to think that strengthening the benevolent self-regulation and monitoring by the U.S. government into a multisectoral model full of vices, is the best way of solving the current problems. The role of governments is also important and urgent, but with the respect for human rights and multisectoral involvement as a starting point. Hopefully the Chilean government can also take an active role in this area in the short term.

Claudio Ruiz is the executive director of Derechos Digitales NGO.

Translated by Franklin Roach