NETmundial: Small but Important Steps Forward in Internet Governance

The NETmundial Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance wrapped up yesterday with a standing ovation for the Brazilian hosts and a recognition that the event’s outcome document moves Internet governance forward in small but important ways.  It was a roller-coaster of a meeting, from Nnenna Nwakanma’s enthralling opening speech representing civil society and President Dilma Rousseff signing into law the long-debated and much anticipated Marco Civil Act, to last-minute editorial interventions to the output document by government stakeholders. Through the ups and downs, one of the greatest successes of the event was the fact that it demonstrated multistakeholder engagement in action. The numbers alone speak volumes about the open and inclusive nature of NETmundial: 1227 participants from 97 countries, 188 submissions, 1370 comments on the drafts and 30 remote hubs. Drafting committees had equal representation from different stakeholder groups. Sessions were open. All stakeholders waited to speak in turn. In both content and process, NETmundial demonstrated that inclusion and diversity is not only valuable, but truly achievable, in the Internet governance sphere.

The outcome document reflects some gains and some losses.  In the Principles section there are strong references to the importance of human rights as a foundation for Internet governance.  There is significant support for multi-stakeholder approaches and open, inclusive, transparent, and accountable processes.  There are strong principles for Internet governance processes and participation, which should guide discussion in the future.  And there is robust support for open technical standards as well as open and distributed Internet architecture.  In the Roadmap section, there is strong support for the Internet Governance Forum and a call for the IGF to be stronger and more outcome-oriented.  The text commends the proposed IANA transition and notes that the convening process to develop a transition plan should extend beyond ICANN communities.  The document also calls for more cooperation and diverse stakeholder engagement on issues of security and stability.

There were also significant disappointments.  Civil society registered its dissatisfaction with several elements of the final text in the closing session.  For example, the language on surveillance in the document was a compromise.  In the Principles section, the issue is addressed under the Right to Privacy: “Procedures, practices and legislation regarding the surveillance of communications, their interception and collection of personal data, including mass surveillance, interception and collection, should be reviewed, with a view to upholding the right to privacy by ensuring the full and effective implementation of all obligations under international human rights law.”  Surveillance is also raised in the Roadmap section: “Mass and arbitrary surveillance undermines trust in the Internet and trust in the Internet governance ecosystem. Collection and processing of personal data by state and non-state actors should be conducted in accordance with international human rights law.  More dialogue is needed on this topic at the international level using forums like the Human Rights Council and IGF aiming to develop a common understanding on all the related aspects.” This weak language fails to reflect the emerging consensus that surveillance reform is seriously needed. In addition to initiatives by civil society and industry, there is also work underway to address surveillance in international human rights institutions. Notably, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is addressing the issue in a report to the General Assembly on the right to privacy in the digital age later this year. Language in the NETmundial outcome document should have reflected the importance and urgency of this issue.

Civil society representatives were also disappointed in language addressing intermediary liability and network neutrality.  The outcome document failed to ensure due process safeguards for intermediaries handling third-party content.  The issue of network neutrality was debated at length and ended up being merely noted as an issue that needed addressing in other fora.  This was a great disappointment to the Brazilian government (that took pains to include Net Neutrality provisions in Marco Civil) and all other advocates of an open and non-discriminatory Internet.

NETmundial was an ambitious event that became a conduit for many hopes and aspirations in the governance space. Not everyone walked away satisfied with the outcome. But as the Brazilian NETmundial Chair Virgilio Almeida said at the closing, the NETmundial meeting provides “undeniable proof that inclusiveness has its rewards, resulting in transparent and a democratic spirit towards a common goal.” We hope that this spirit will carry over to other governance events and processes on the horizon in 2014 and beyond.

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