Net Freedom Campaign Loses its Way

Posted by Sunil Abraham at May 10, 2014 07:00 PM |
A recent global meet was a victory for governments and the private sector over civil society interests.

The article was published in the Hindu Businessline on May 10, 2014.

One word to describe NetMundial: Disappointing! Why? Because despite the promise, human rights on the Internet are still insufficiently protected. Snowden’s revelations starting last June threw the global Internet governance processes into crisis.

Things came to a head in October, when Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, horrified to learn that she was under NSA surveillance for economic reasons, called for the organisation of a global conference called NetMundial to accelerate Internet governance reform.

The NetMundial was held in São Paulo on April 23-24 this year. The result was a statement described as “the non-binding outcome of a bottom-up, open, and participatory process involving … governments, private sector, civil society, technical community, and academia from around the world.” In other words — it is international soft law with no enforcement mechanisms.

The statement emerges from “broad consensus”, meaning governments such as India, Cuba and Russia and civil society representatives expressed deep dissatisfaction at the closing plenary. Unlike an international binding law, only time will tell whether each member of the different stakeholder groups will regulate itself.

Again, not easy, because the outcome document does not specifically prescribe what each stakeholder can or cannot do — it only says what internet governance (IG) should or should not be. And finally, there’s no global consensus yet on the scope of IG. The substantive consensus was disappointing in four important ways:

Mass surveillance : Civil society was hoping that the statement would make mass surveillance illegal. After all, global violation of the right to privacy by the US was the raison d'être of the conference.

Instead, the statement legitimised “mass surveillance, interception and collection” as long as it was done in compliance with international human rights law. This was clearly the most disastrous outcome.

Access to knowledge: The conference was not supposed to expand intellectual property rights (IPR) or enforcement of these rights. After all, a multilateral forum, WIPO, was meant to address these concerns. But in the days before the conference the rights-holders lobby went into overdrive and civil society was caught unprepared.

The end result — “freedom of information and access to information” or right to information in India was qualified “with rights of authors and creators”. The right to information laws across the world, including in India, contains almost a dozen exemptions, including IPR. The only thing to be grateful for is that this limitation did not find its way into the language for freedom of expression.

Intermediary liability: The language that limits liability for intermediaries basically provides for a private censorship regime without judicial oversight, and without explicit language protecting the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. Even though the private sector chants Hillary Clinton's Internet freedom mantra — they only care for their own bottomlines.

Net neutrality: Even though there was little global consensus, some optimistic sections of civil society were hoping that domestic best practice on network neutrality in Brazil’s Internet Bill of Right — also known as Marco Civil, that was signed into law during the inaugural ceremony of NetMundial — would make it to the statement. Unfortunately, this did not happen.

For almost a decade since the debate between the multi-stakeholder and multilateral model started, the multi-stakeholder model had produced absolutely nothing outside ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a non-profit body), its technical fraternity and the standard-setting bodies.

The multi-stakeholder model is governance with the participation (and consent — depending on who you ask) of those stakeholders who are governed. In contrast, in the multilateral system, participation is limited to nation-states.

Civil society divisions

The inability of multi-stakeholderism to deliver also resulted in the fragmentation of global civil society regulars at Internet Governance Forums.

But in the run-up to NetMundial more divisions began to appear. If we ignore nuances — we could divide them into three groups. One, the ‘outsiders’ who are best exemplified by Jérémie Zimmermann of the La Quadrature du Net. Jérémie ran an online campaign, organised a protest during the conference and did everything he could to prevent NetMundial from being sanctified by civil society consensus.

Two, the ‘process geeks’ — for these individuals and organisations process was more important than principles. Most of them were as deeply invested in the multi-stakeholder model as ICANN and the US government and some who have been riding the ICANN gravy train for years.

Even worse, some were suspected of being astroturfers bootstrapped by the private sector and the technical community. None of them were willing to rock the boat. For the ‘process geeks’, seeing politicians and bureaucrats queue up like civil society to speak at the mike was the crowning achievement.

Three, the ‘principles geeks’ perhaps best exemplified by the Just Net Coalition who privileged principles over process. Divisions were also beginning to sharpen within the private sector. For example, Neville Roy Singham, CEO of Thoughtworks, agreed more with civil society than he did with other members of the private sector in his interventions.

In short, the ‘outsiders’ couldn't care less about the outcome and will do everything to discredit it, the ‘process geeks’ stood in ovation when the outcome document was read at the closing plenary and the ‘principles geeks’ returned devastated.

For the multi-stakeholder model to survive it must advance democratic values, not undermine them.

This will only happen if there is greater transparency and accountability. Individuals, organisations and consortia that participate in Internet governance processes need to disclose lists of donors including those that sponsor travel to these meetings.