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After NETmundial, Multistakeholder Statement Criticized as "Weak, Toothless...Sterile"

BY Antonella Napolitano | Tuesday, April 29 2014

A peaceful protest during NETmundial (photo by Camille François/Twitter)

“I went to Brazil and all I got was this lousy, non-binding document.” I imagine this could have been the t-shirt logo for NETmundial attendees.

The idea of organizing NETmundial, a global meeting on Internet Governance, arose right after Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff openly condemned the massive electronic surveillance conducted by the U.S., during her opening speech at the UN Assembly, back in September 2013.

The two-day forum, held in São Paulo last week, brought together more than 800 people from governments, private sector, civil society, academia and the technical community.

While Netmundial did advance some important issues, such as recognizing the Internet as a global resource and the right to development as enabled by the Internet, the culmination of the conference, with the drafting of the Multistakeholder Statement did not live up to the expectations of many attendees, especially the members of civil society who had come to address issues like privacy, net neutrality and the future of Internet governance.

At issue was the conference's multistakeholder approach, which sought to include the voices of thousands of those from government, academia, the private sector, civil society and the technical community, but failed to address power imbalances which gave some voices more weight, even disproportionately, one might argue.

A Lobbying Free Fall

“People have become not only consumers of information but providers of information, so the stakes in the media/ICT world are massive. Unprecedented. Therefore, around major issues confronting the Internet, decision making should be as participatory as possible,” said UNESCO director Indrajit Banerjee to researchers of the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS).

But how do you create participatory decision-making with a multistakeholder approach?

Apparently, at NETmundial the process was flawed from the start, after the long opening session techPresident previously reported on.

“On the first day, the actual work started at 6pm, said Marianne Diaz, a Venezuelan lawyer who spoke at the latest GV Face, a weekly Global Voices hangout that last week focused on Netmundial. Later, when it became clear that there wasn't enough time for everyone to speak on the debate floor, speaking time was shortened to 30 seconds for each person, she recounted. As a result, many speakers could not convey a proper message and many discussions did not happen on camera.

When it came to drafting the sections of the Multistakeholder Statement, the process was even further detached from the debate on the floor, with the grip of governments and a stronger influence of the private sector, explained researcher Ben Wagner, who also joined the GV Face hangout.

Wagner, an academic based in Berlin, was in São Paulo and followed the whole event. During the GV Face installment, he described the drafting session as a deeply flawed process, with the language of the draft being shaped unevenly by those with more power.

“The drafting session developed into a lobbying free fall.” Wagner said, “It got to the point where representatives were going in and out of the table, consulting with their constituencies and coming back with language […] written by large corporations – but also, to a certain extent, by the technical community and civil society.”

If "multistakeholderism" was the keyword at the beginning of the conference, "rough consensus" became widely used by the end of the two days. And this "rough consensus" seemed only to reinforce the established pecking order: governments, corporations, and then civil society.

With such a premise, it doesn't look surprising to see that mentions of several key points such as privacy and surveillance were watered-down, while others like copyright protection, made it to the final text, even if it was not present in the earlier drafts.

Two Faces: Is this the Future of Internet Governance?

If NETmundial was a picture of what Internet governance is today, there is probably no better way to summarize it than the sort of disconcerting two faces of the conference as seen at the beginning and at the end of the meeting.

The conference started with the approval of Marco Civil, praised worldwide and even dubbed the Brazilian Bill of Rights, and with an inspiring speech by Nnenna Nwakanma, Africa Regional Coordinator of the World Wide Web Foundation.

“We kicked off with a basic understanding that all stakeholders have a place, a role, and a contribution. As we move further along, the multistakeholder approach is becoming muddled and is losing its meaning,” Nwakanma said. ”It is time was came back to the drawing board. If we need to revisit the notion, or upgrade it, please let us do it."

In the end, though, the result of the conference was a non binding-document that uses "rough consensus" language to address problems that are crucial for the future of the Internet, from net neutrality to mass surveillance, the very issue that gave impetus to NETmundial.

But not all stakeholders are created equal.

While acknowledging that NETmundial organizers initiated an open and collaborative process, Access Now's Deborah Brown noted: "By promoting 'equal footing' among stakeholders without putting in place mechanisms to better facilitate the inclusion of underrepresented and marginalized groups, as well as increased transparency and accountability, the same powers will continue to dominate."

The Multistakeholder Approach: Better than Nothing?

“What was evident throughout the two days of discussions in São Paulo is that a 'multistakeholder' approach to Internet governance—however vague a term, or however difficult a concept to implement—is a far more inclusive and transparent approach than any process where only governments have a seat at the table,” wrote Eileen Donahoe, Director of Global Affairs at Human Rights Watch.

While many civil society organizations agree with this perspective, a "new wave" of civil society activists might have a different view on how to develop the process.

“NETmundial’s fully multistakeholder and unusually transparent process and the 'virgin' territory it represents, coupled with a projected focus on surveillance issues, have provided groups previously at the margins of Internet governance with an opportunity to make their voices heard,” noted Stefania Milan, a researcher who attended NETmundial on behalf of the Annenberg School for Communication's Internet Policy Observatory.

Milan mentions people like Tor Project's Jacob Applebaum, who called for strengthening the language of the outcome document, especially regarding mass surveillance, and La Quadrature du Net's Jérémie Zimmermann, who even advocated for the adoption of a disruptive approach: "If anything, the Net should be “governed” by citizens directly, independently of these circles and without waiting for the “global consensus," he wrote on his organization's website on the day after NETmundial.
On the day before, he had also tweeted that he considers any edition of the Chaos Communication Congress much more important for Internet than NETmundial.

"Is there a new guard in charge of civil society in Internet governance?” Milan asks in her piece.

This supposed "new guard" does not particularly like the multistakeholder approach, though. On April 25th, Zimmermann wrote that the final NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement was “weak, toothless and disappointing” and kept criticizing the global multistakeholder approach to Internet Governance, that produced only “sterile discussions that keep citizens busy, in which corporations and governments have the final word, and from where nothing concrete that defends the general interest ever results.”

What could be next for Internet governance, then?

In an interview to the Centre for Internet and Society, Media for Change's Subi Chaturvedi, an academic-activist based in Delhi, was blunt about the role of different actors in such an approach: “Will I be able to make interventions not just in the dialogue but in the decision making process? […] We will never have equal stakeholders. And who gets to represent the stakeholder communities?” she pointed out.

“I don't think power imbalances get resolved, and I think it's a deeply flawed process. It's not perfect. But what worries me is the alternative," says Chaturvedi. "So give me a better alternative.”

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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