NETmundial’s promises of grassroots internet governance leave a lot to be desired

It’s hard carrying the weight of internet governance on your back. skunkworksphotographic, CC BY-NC-SA

The way in which the internet is governed has shifted from technical debates held in obscure committees to a hotly contested field in which various nations vie for influence. Online surveillance, cybersecurity and how to treat undesirable content are now widely discussed topics that affect us all – so it makes sense that this is reflected by including a wider range of people in deciding how the net is governed.

The newest addition to the group of internet governance organisations – and one that says it will bring a wider range of stakeholders into the process – is the NETmundial Initiative. Perceptions of NETmundial vary, from a grass-roots discussion forum to a “UN Security Council for the internet”. However, in contrast to its claims to promote citizen participation, the initiative more resembles an attempt by governments and large corporations to maintain their hold on power.

Surveillance sours the pudding

Back in June 2013, the revelations from whistleblower Edward Snowden about mass surveillance by intelligence agencies such as NSA and GCHQ upended the public debates about “internet freedom”. Until then, those debates had, with careful nurturing by the US State Department, focused on human rights in countries such as China and Iran. Now Western governments suddenly emerged as the aggressors as leaked documents revealed how surveillance was conducted against whole populations, politicians, and corporations.

Addressing the UN general assembly in September 2013, Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, accused the US of violating international law, arguing:

In the absence of the right to privacy, there can be no true freedom of expression and opinion and therefore no effective democracy. In the absence of the respect for sovereignty, there is no basis for the relationship among nations.

Countries such as Germany and Brazil discussed ways in which the internet could be used in a way that is less dependent on US internet companies and telecommunications infrastructure monitored by intelligence agencies.

A third way

Perhaps most significantly, the Brazilian government hosted a conference to discuss the future of internet governance, called NETmundial. Representatives of national governments, private sector and civil society met in Sao Paulo in April 2014 to develop new principles of internet governance and a road map for the future.

Participants, particularly from civil society and the developing world, praised NETmundial’s open and participative nature that allowed them opportunities to voice their concerns. ICANN, one of the chief regulatory organisations for the internet, had often been criticised for its close connections to business and the US government. But efforts by many countries outside the West to transfer some of its regulatory role to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) were even more controversial, as they would allow authoritarian governments to increase their influence.

So in the context of this disagreement, NETmundial was a welcome arrival to encourage debate and – particularly – address the pressing, post-Snowden issues.

Same name, new aim

The recently launched NETmundial Initiative uses the same name, includes Brazil’s Internet Steering Committee and might seem to continue these aims. But on closer inspection the new project raises serious doubts. Its leadership group now includes the World Economic Forum – an organisation known for its close links to big business and political elites, rather than its commitment to participatory, grassroots politics and ground-up internet governance.

This new NETmundial’s website claims its goal is “to energise bottom-up, collaborative solutions”. But assigning a core role to an exclusive, elite club seems to contradict these claims. With the World Economic Forum at its heart, the new NETmundial seems more like an attempt by what the Occupy movement called “the 1%” to capture the NETmundial brand and sweep inconvenient debates such as those triggered by the Snowden files back under the rug.

The NETmundial Initiative is led by a Co-ordination Council with five “permanent members” modelled after the UN Security Council and 20 further members. ICANN, the Brazilian Steering Committee and the World Economic Forum have awarded themselves a permanent seat each, while the 20 non-permanent members will be drawn from academia, civil society, government, business and world regions.

While this is in line with a multi-stakeholder approach, the central role of an institution like the World Economic Forum leaves doubts over ICANN chair Fadi Chehade’s claims that “everything will be done bottom-up, this is the mother of all bottom-up processes”. ICANN’s role in the new initiative has been questioned, too, as ICANN is explicitly a technical body whereas NETmundial is due to focus on non-technical issues.

Civil society groups, internet organisations and activists are faced with a conundrum. Working with the NETmundial Initiative offers a way to be a part of the governance process and push for a new policy direction. But by doing so they may offer legitimacy to a return to elite-driven, business-as-usual politics and – potentially – to an attempt to draw a line under the many important debates triggered by the Snowden revelations.