Forums on internet governance reveal tensions over how the web should be regulated

Turkey may censor its internet but there is still, internationally, deep divisions over how the internet should be governed. Miguel Carminati, CC BY-SA

How the internet is governed is no longer a matter seen fit to be left to mere technical committees. With the extent of online surveillance, so dramatically revealed by the Snowden files, increased content filtering and blocking, and the issue of net neutrality, which would allow telecoms firms to “create fast web lanes” for some companies, it is a contentious area with major social and political implications.

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which has just met for the ninth time in Istanbul, revealed the extent to which the internet’s decision-making bodies such as ICANN are heavily disputed, with schisms developing not just between governments but also different groups of civil society. A parallel Internet Ungovernance Forum was organised by activists, advocates and academics to expose the areas of discussion not up for debate at the IGF and question the fundamental ideas of governance on which it rests.

Created following the UN’s World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2003 and 2005 and held annually since then, the IGF brings together government, business and civil society to try and build consensus around how the internet should be governed. As a forum for debate (with no mandate for action) it complements ICANN’s decision-making executive powers on a narrower range of critical internet resources.

The IGF is an open forum, anyone can register without a fee or other accreditation requirements. There are a huge range of workshops, talks and meetings on issues such as bringing broadband to the developing world, cyber-security, and freedom of expression. The current controversies over net neutrality – which would allow companies to discriminate between certain data on their networks based on content, or how much the content’s owner has paid – was high on the agenda this year. The ongoing fragmentation of the internet into national jurisdictions and networks, each with different content limitations and legal requirements, was also a cause for concern.

But the Snowden files, whose revelations continue to expose mass surveillance by the likes of the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), were less prominently discussed than one might expect. Similarly the debate on content censorship was rather mute, particularly considering the practices of host country Turkey, where services such as Youtube and Twitter have been repeatedly shut down, and thousands of websites remain blocked. Turkish activists and academics had proposed several workshops on censorship in Turkey, but all were rejected by the IGF.

The official reason was that IGF workshops have to address broader issues than just one country – but this also reflects a long-standing IGF practice of treating the host country with cautious deference.

In response activists organised their Internet Ungovernance Forum as an alternative where the implications of censorship and surveillance are top of the agenda. Participants from around the globe discussed how information from dissidents is suppressed, in Turkey and elsewhere. They raised ways in which people are profiled, persecuted and even killed through the help of mass data collection, and how technical infrastructure and its functions are captured and controlled by the state or by the business sector. However they also explored ways to thwart such control with alternative, secure systems, such as activist-based online communication services and encryption tools.

Here, the keynote speakers were not government and business leaders but the likes of Tor developer and journalist Jacob Applebaum and, by video link, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (replacing Edward Snowden, who had to cancel due to technical difficulties). Shuttle buses to this parallel forum’s venue were even laid on to ensure that IGF participants could hear the alternative views.

However, the goals and arguably the significance of the Ungovernance Forum went beyond putting forward a different agenda. Its name is more than just a pun on the official forum. Whereas the IGF is a so-called multi-stakeholder process involving governments, business and civil society, the Ungovernance Forum questions the practice of engaging or collaborating with the governmental and commercial bodies, many of which abuse human rights and are striving to transform the internet into space of consumption and control.

While civil society groups participating in the IGF support this multi-stakeholder process and lobby for its continuation, the activists outside highlight the need for clear alternatives rather than the inevitable (and often imbalanced) compromises such a process leads to. They claim that civil society may not be in a position to significantly make its mark on an agenda dominated by others with diametrically opposed interests, instead only lending it a legitimacy it doesn’t deserve.

The IGF and the IUF thus highlighted different approaches towards understanding, developing and regulating the internet. The next IGF will take place in Brazil next year, and discussions about another alternative forum are already starting.