Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

For Internet Freedom Activists, Dubai is a Warning: Finally Live Up to the "Inclusive" Label, Or Else

BY Nick Judd | Friday, December 14 2012

Internet freedom advocates: Internet regulation coming before the ITU signals a failure of current online governance. Photo: ITU

Ongoing in Dubai and expected to end Friday, the World Conference on International Telecommunications has been causing a lot of heartburn for Internet freedom advocates who say that it is the wrong forum to talk about the future of the Internet. WCIT-12 is a treaty-making conference for members of the International Telecommunications Union, an agency of the United Nations, and that, they say, is no replacement for the "inclusive and transparent" "multistakeholder" network that runs the Internet today.

There's just one problem. While Internet freedom activists say their "multistakeholder" model is open and inclusive, photograph any meeting of any of the organizations within it and a certain kind of face will appear far more often than any of the others: the white, Western male. As the Internet grows more important in the developing world, non-Westerners are not entering the leadership of "multistakeholder" organizations at a similar pace.

"The reason why these challenges to the existing system keep coming up," says Rebecca MacKinnon, author of Consent of the Networked, "and the reason why the authoritarian countries like China and Russia and Iran keep getting support, keep managing to get support from developing countries, many of which are democratic to different degrees, is because they make the argument successfully that ICANN is full of white people in the developed world speaking English, and increasingly that's not what the Internet-using world looks like."

MacKinnon still says the ITU is not the right forum for conversations about Internet issues, and that the "multistakeholder" model really is open and inclusive. It's just not open and inclusive enough.

Take the Internet Engineering Task Force, for example, the loose organization of working groups that figures out the particulars of how to make packets coming from one part of the world arrive successfully in another. The IETF hosts three meetings a year that are duly publicized online well in advance, and open to anyone. These meetings are continuations of conversations that take place on working group email lists, also free to join. But 2013's meetings will be held in Orlando, Fla., Berlin, Germany, and Vancouver, B.C., in Canada — not exactly convenient to engineers from India or Ghana, who must also foot the bill for airfare and hotel. Some organizations sponsor employees to take part — but unless someone from the developing world has such a sponsor, they're hard-pressed to do so. Even attempting to follow along remotely can be an issue in parts of the world with low bandwidth, MacKinnon observed to me.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which manages domain name and IP address handling, is another example. The organization's chief executive officer, newly appointed this year, is Fadi Chehadé, a citizen of Egypt, Lebanon, and the United States. But of ICANN's 20 other board members, 11 are white European men and four are white European women. ICANN's last organizational meeting, in October, was in Toronto.

"One of the big appeals of the ITU as a venue has been the one-country one-vote ethos of UN agencies," said Emma Llansó, a policy analyst at the advocacy group the Center for Democracy and Technology, "and that's a known table that every country knows they have a seat at. If you don't feel like you can participate in other bodies, that's going to be appealing."

Organizations like ICANN and the IETF understand this is a problem, Llansó said. IETF has a fellowship program that provides training to people in developing countries in how to participate as well as foots the bill for them to attend meetings.

At its Toronto meeting, ICANN announced a plan in conjunction with Africa's Internet numbers registry, AfriNIC, to bring more African voices into that "multistakeholder" model. ICANN also appointed a vice president for Africa, Pierre Dandjinou, of Benin, who had previously served for 12 years as a regional policy advisor on ICT for development e-governance for Africa at the UN Development Programme.

One problem, Dandjinou told me in a Skype interview Tuesday, is that people in many African countries are not aware of how to participate.

At the start of this year, ICANN announced it was taking applications for new top-level domains, like .book.

"We had close to 1,930 applications, and only 17 of them were coming from Africa," Dandjinou said. "And of the 17, in fact I think 11 or even 14 of them came from solely from South Africa. So this was telling that something was wrong. Either the Africans were not well informed of the process, either there was no interest or maybe there was no business or no industry proceeds from Africa."

Absent this participation, Dandjinou said, issues are not being addressed from the perspective of users in low-bandwidth, intermittent-connectivity developing countries, whose telecommunications providers are casting about for new ways to fund development of new Internet infrastructure.

"Access is not always available and access also is not always affordable," Dandjinou said. "Available because of the poor infrastructure that most countries are having so far, meaning there is no backbone, there is no Internet exchange point in most places, and of course most communication has to go out of the country, transmit in other places before coming back to the countries which causes what they call the transit fees. So all of this makes access to the Internet from developing countries much more expensive."

"Transit fees" refers to peering fees that networks sometimes pay one another to move traffic from one network to another. One proposal brought to WCIT-12 would have companies like Google also pay local ISPs in developing countries for the privilege of delivering their content to consumers there — thus, or so the hope goes, solving the problem of how to pay for Internet infrastructure that is now lacking. Absent some mechanism to pay, Dandjinou said, coastal countries with one of a growing number of submarine cable connections between Africa and other continents might have a shot at developing faster Internet speeds, but landlocked countries, like Mali, have to wrangle out the legal terms for moving their Internet traffic across networks and across national borders. Until these problems are solved, there will be fewer Internet users there and the ones that do use the web will encounter issues that Western users will not.

The usage patterns in Africa are also different. Whereas Western countries often deal in landline connections to the Internet for laptops or PCs for speakers of Western languages, in many African countries the typical Internet user is accessing services through a mobile phone and is a native speaker of one of any number of different local languages. While Western users clamor for access to more high-speed data services or better video streaming, companies trying to serve low-bandwidth users in some African countries have to figure out how to reach people who use languages with non-standard character sets on a mobile phone's tiny screen, or to deliver the same service in many different languages.

"If we consider a country where I live, Benin, of 8 million people, maybe 1-2 million only understand French which is the local language here and is the administrative language. The other 6 million, they all speak their own languages," Dandjinou said. "If you are able to generate [compatibility across] those languages, those people can become users of the Internet."

Internet executives and telecommunications representatives could hash this out within that "multistakeholder" soup of the World Wide Web Consortium, IETF, and ICANN, Dandjinou said — but they don't know how. What they do know is the ITU, which is actually older than the United Nations and to which many of these countries already belong.

"What I am trying to say here is the multistakeholder model is a little bit new and it will require many years, many meetings, so that countries understand that this model maybe fits better with the development of the Internet than what we are seeing with ITU," Dandjinou told me.

Until people in the "multistakeholder" model figure out how to make their structure work for developing countries, those countries will continue to seek recourse in forums like the ITU — giving legitimacy to other nations that want to make the ITU a preeminent forum for Internet governance, like Russia or China, who are doing so for reasons that Internet freedom activists deem to be less wholesome. And so it is that Internet users around the world sit and wait, on the edge of their computer chairs, to know whether their cat videos will remain safe from the troubling proposals being discussed in Dubai.

MacKinnon, the author and Internet-freedom-watcher, is optimistic.

"I think frankly given how much hoopla there is about them, most of them probably will not pass," she said.

But keeping the UN's hands off the Internet still doesn't create a venue for Internet regulation that is safer for freedom of speech.

"It's a nontrivial problem," MacKinnon said, "but if it's not addressed, we're going to continue to have this pressure from the non-West to dismantle the existing institutions and move it to the UN where they're more comfortable."

News Briefs

RSS Feed today >

Civic Hackers Call on de Blasio to Fill Technology Vacancies

New York City technology advocates on Wednesday called on the de Blasio administration to fill vacancies in top technology policy positions, expressing some frustration at the lack of a leadership team to implement a cohesive technology strategy for the city. GO

China's Porn Purge Has Only Just Begun, And Already Sina Is Stripped of Publication License

It seems that China is taking spring cleaning pretty seriously. On April 13 they launched their most recent online purge, “Cleaning the Web 2014,” which will run until November. The goal is to rid China's Internet of pornographic text, pictures, video, and ads in order to “create a healthy cyberspace.” More than 100 websites and thousands of social media accounts have already been closed, after less than a month. Today the official Xinhua news agency reported that the authorities have stripped the Internet giant Sina (of Sina Weibo, the popular microblogging site) of its online publication license. This crackdown on porn comes on the heels of a crackdown on “rumors.” Clearly, this spring cleaning isn't about pornography, it's about censorship and control.

GO

wednesday >

Another Co-Opted Hashtag: #MustSeeIran

The Twitter hashtag #MustSeeIran was created to showcase Iran's architecture, landscapes, and would-be tourist destinations. It was then co-opted by activists to bring attention to human rights abuses and infringements. Now Twitter is home to two starkly different portraits of a country. GO

What Has the EU Ever Done For Us?: Countering Euroskepticism with Viral Videos and Monty Python

Ahead of the May 25 European Elections, the most intense campaigning may not be by the candidates or the political parties. Instead, some of the most passionate campaigns are more grassroots efforts focused on for a start stirring up the interest of the European electorate. GO

At NETmundial Brazil: Is "Multistakeholderism" Good for the Internet?

Today and tomorrow Brazil is hosting NETmundial, a global multi-stakeholder meeting on the future of Internet governance. GO

Brazilian President Signs Internet Bill of Rights Into Law at NetMundial

Earlier today Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned Marco Civil, also called the Internet bill of rights, during the global Internet governance event, NetMundial, in Brazil.

GO

tuesday >

Ruck.us Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like Democracy.com

Ruck.us launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new Ruck.us is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and Democracy.com. And strangely enough, Ruck.us seems to want its early users to ask Democracy.com for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.

GO

monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.

GO

The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.

GO

More