A global discussion on Net governance tries to bring vision of multiple stakeholders in line with democracy
NETmundial, a conference in Sao Paulo to thrash out principles for internet governance, has ended on an irresolute note. There were 188 proposals that spoke of human rights, privacy, national security, and information access, as well as reform of the “multi-stakeholder” concept that seeks to keep the internet free of overweening government control. Even if its outcome is a non-binding document, Brazil’s initiative is a necessary one.
The internet is a zone exempt from an international legal framework, or even common rules governing it. This is because of the nature of the internet, consisting of a diffuse set of unowned technologies, where protocols are generated through open processes and unincorporated organisations. But the lack of a structure for cooperation, or even interlocking structures, to negotiate the interests of users, corporations and governments, has been a source of great anxiety around the world, not just for control-freakish states like China and Russia, especially after the revelations of NSA surveillance established that the informal US stewardship was not as benign as once imagined, and that there was no real recourse for a non-US citizen against these intrusions. ICANN, which performs the functions of top-level numbering and name assignments, is relinquishing part of its functions to a more internationalised system, but the US insists on a “multi-stakeholder” oversight body, rather than one solely controlled by governments through the UN’s International Telecommunication Union or some such. While a multilateral government takeover is a mere bogey, there has been much debate around the convenient emptiness of the multi-stakeholder concept, and the ways it may end up serving the needs of powerful corporations with the imprimatur of civil society.
There is no single answer. Internet governance would necessarily have to be a plural arrangement with a role for democratic governments as well as multi-stakeholder forums. Meanwhile, before offering to lead such negotiations, national governments should enact their own internet constitutions in line with the future they would like to see. Brazil has just passed a groundbreaking civil rights bill for the internet, Marco Civil da Internet, underscoring its commitment to user rights and net neutrality. India’s position envisions greater say to governments, and accountability on the nature of civil society participation. But these fine words are undercut by its own failure in catalysing such a conversation, and its record on internet freedom and privacy.