Information & Communication Technology

Principles, Roadmaps & Recommendations: What’s next for Internet Governance?

Commentary, 09 May 2014

By Lucy Purdon, Policy Officer, Privacy International; Research Fellow, IHRB

Closing NETmundial 2014, chairs of the Executive Multistakeholder Committee and chairs of the High Level Multistakeholder Committee present the event's final document that incorporates a balance of the considerations presented by all stakeholders.

The world wide web turns 25 this year, and the year is shaping up to be crucial for the Internet’s future. Concerns over allegations of mass surveillance of digital communications by intelligence services fuelled two recent conferences - NETmundial in Brazil and the Freedom Online Coalition conference in Estonia.

Though unconnected, both events produced principles and a proposed roadmap for the future of Internet governance, as well as recommendations for governments on strengthening Internet freedom. An Internet “Bill of Rights” was also signed into Brazilian law.

Despite the flurry of activity, many questions remain unanswered as to how these documents prescribe action on the most pressing issues. A short overview of both events may help shed some light on where the debate may move in the months ahead.

Nearly 1,200 people from 97 countries gathered in Sao Paolo, Brazil, at NETmundial to discuss the future of Internet governance and the continuing concerns over the spread of mass surveillance. The roots of NETmundial can be found in the fallout from last year’s allegations of US NSA mass surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff responded to revelations that citizens and state oil company Petrobras had been a target of US NSA spying, and that her personal communications had been intercepted, with a series of actions including cancelling a State visit to the US and speaking out against mass surveillance at the UN General Assembly in September 2013.

Brazil also co-sponsored a resolution with Germany, which had its own concerns over mass surveillance, on strengthening privacy in the digital age, which was adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in November.

President Dilma Rousseff used the occasion of NETmundial to sign the Marco Civil, essentially a legally binding bill of rights for Internet users in Brazil. It aims to strengthen privacy through increased data protection and user consent for collection of data. An earlier version of the bill had included a controversial proposal, which would force Internet companies to host data of Brazilian nationals within Brazil’s borders. That proposal was broadly rejected and did not make the final document.

It is also a step forward in preserving net neutrality, offering services in a non-discriminatory way i.e. treating Internet traffic equally, which is widely seen as being essential for a free and open Internet. An absence of net neutrality could see services compete with each other, and preferential treatment of traffic given by the internet service provider to the highest bidder. The Marco Civil may serve as inspiration for other countries to follow suit with their own Internet bill of rights, reinforcing the recent UN resolution that rights applied offline also apply online.

At the heart of the conference was the question of who should govern the Internet – the United Nations, a few select countries, or a group of independent individuals and organisations or some other arrangement? This has been a topic of vigorous debate for some time.

NETmundial also discussed an action plan for transition, after the US government’s recent announcement that it would cede control of Internet domain name functions, and that ICANN would oversee transition to a “global multi-stakeholder community.”

With trust in the Internet diminishing following allegations of mass surveillance by a number of governments, this is a critical time for the future of Internet governance, which can be a complex affair with many different institutions and meetings, as this visualisation shows. But NETmundial was designed as a one-off meeting with defined goals and outcomes.

Principles, Roadmaps & Recommendations:  What’s next for Internet Governance?
President Dilma Rousseff used the occasion of NETmundial to sign the Marco Civil, essentially a legally binding bill of rights for Internet users in Brazil.

NETmundial had two objectives: Firstly to agree on a set of non-binding Internet governance principles, following multistakeholder discussions. Secondly, to agree on a roadmap for their implementation. Several committees drafted the principles and roadmap, ultimately named the Multistakeholder Declaration of Sao Paolo. While the final document is far from perfect, the process shows potential for the future, especially if civil society can keep human rights at the core, since these commitments may not always be the priority for business and individual government interests.

Stakeholders were polarised on some key issues including mass surveillance and net neutrality. Civil society groups and the tech community stressed the importance of condemning mass surveillance, but some stakeholders from business and government, including Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, maintained that surveillance had nothing to do with Internet governance, a view which unfortunately prevailed in the final document with a weak statement on mass surveillance and the absence of much consideration of legal safeguards.

Business representatives said that the document’s “principles” and “roadmap” were not the place to discuss net neutrality because there was no global consensus on the term. They called for further discussion of this subject in the context of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), perhaps in an attempt to ensure the IGF remains the central point for policymaking at the international level on Internet governance.  However, it is disappointing that at least a reference to net neutrality did not make the final document. There is an interest on the part of some businesses in opposing net neutrality, as preferential treatment for content such as video delivered at higher speeds can give companies delivering these services a competitive edge, but it is bad for competition and also means more analysis of information users send and receive, and thus more opportunities for surveillance.

During the initial public discussion, all parties agreed it was important to limit intermediary liability and protect intermediaries, such as internet service providers, search engines and social media platforms, from being held liable for material uploaded by their users, although this was not the principle that prevailed in the final document.

However, while the issue of intermediary liability was inserted into the principles during the drafting process, the language was weakened from the one that civil society generally applauded. Civil society participants felt that business lobbying was more effective in the drafting process and that business had a more powerful voice with language leaning towards protection of copyright rather than human rights online.

NETmundial was convened as an experiment in multistakeholderism and there is clearly a long way to go before all stakeholders feel their concerns have been adequately addressed.  The challenges could be seen, for example, in the positions of Russia, Cuba and India, which withheld support, criticising the process of preparing the documents. Civil society criticised the weak language on mass surveillance and intermediary liability, and the absence of net neutrality. All eyes will be on the IGF in Istanbul in September to consider the outputs of NETmundial.

A few days later, the fourth Freedom Online Coalition meeting was held in Tallinn, Estonia. While not connected to NETmundial, many participants overlapped and conversations about what was good or not about the principles and roadmap adopted in Brazil continued on the sidelines. The Freedom Online Coalition consists of 23 governments (Brazil is not among these), and differs from NETmundial as the process is government-led. The coalition aims to coordinate diplomatic efforts and engage with civil society and the private sector to support “Internet freedom”.

In its fourth year, the Coalition released at the Estonia event recommendations to members to ensure a free and open Internet for all.

The document seems to compliment the Multistakeholder Declaration of Sao Paolo, recognising the importance of multistakeholder processes in moving forward. The recommendations call on government members to promote “effective domestic oversight relating to electronic surveillance” and acknowledge net neutrality by referring to the fundamental importance of “non-discriminatory” access to the Internet. There was little reference to the private sector, other than noting the importance of business as a stakeholder in respecting human rights online. At least civil society has something with which to hold Coalition members to account next year.

One of the appeals of different members hosting Freedom Online in different countries every year should be so participants can learn more about local issues and engage with local civil society, as was achieved with some success in previous years in Nairobi and Tunis. The interplay of human rights and technology has been important in recent upheavals in Eastern Europe, and yet Eastern European activists or businesses were either not invited or did not attend in Tallin to tell their stories.  For example, it would have been important to hear from the Ukrainian ISP Volia which maxed out wi-fi signals during protests in December or the Latvian social networking website Ask.FM, which has had to deal with serious issues of cyber-bullying.

The fact that the governments of Latvia and Lithuania are instructing companies to block Russian TV channels was not discussed. Ukrainian and Russian activists too were absent. Regional flavour, which could have added timely context to some of the general issues of Internet freedom being discussed, was missing. 

Three documents and principles have emerged in the past few weeks - the Marco Civil in Brazil, the Multistakeholder Declaration of Sao Paolo and the Recommendations for Freedom Online. The extent to which these can form the basis of Internet governance and enable stakeholders to hold governments to account regarding their duty to protect rights both online and offline remains to be seen.

There has been enough groundwork laid now to expect some real action later in the year at the IGF, in particular strengthening the multistakeholder model. To do this, civil society needs to regroup and be ready to engage business effectively on the thorny issues of net neutrality and intermediary liability, and continue to challenge government policies on mass surveillance.  All stakeholders – government, business, civil society, the tech community, and academia – must continue to play their parts in the process, to protect the principles on which the Internet was built: open, free and secure for all.

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