Reflections on the 2013 Internet Governance Forum

Written by Matthew Shears, Emma Llansó

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) wrapped up last week and despite funding issues that put the Forum in jeopardy back in August, it was generally regarded to have been a success. While this year’s theme was ‘Building Bridges – Enhancing Multi-Stakeholder Cooperation for Growth and Sustainable Development,’ much of the discussion revolved around surveillance, human rights, principles of multistakeholderism and the dynamics of “enhanced cooperation.”  CDTers Emma Llanso and Matthew Shears participated in the BestBits civil society pre-event and the IGF, and share their thoughts below on their week in Bali.

Maneuvering on Global Governance

The National Security Agency surveillance revelations fueled much of the discussion at IGF – both directly and indirectly. Following months of revelations about U.S. and other state surveillance activities, the U.S. government has taken a significant hit to its credibility as a global champion of “Internet freedom”, and many initiatives are rushing to fill the resulting power vacuum. Discussions in Bali focused on three: 1) the proposal by President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadé for a new Internet governance “summit” in Brazil next year, 2) the Internet technical community CEOs’ Montevideo Statement and the future of ICANN and the IANA contract, and 3) the “coalition of the willing” – an initiative proposed by the Internet technical community to engage stakeholders in re-asserting the importance of multistakeholder, bottom-up governance and the open Internet.

It became clear during the course of the week that the details of the summit proposed by President Rousseff and Fadi Chehadé were fluid and largely yet to be determined.  While the various stakeholder groupings in Bali had a flurry of meetings with representatives of the Brazilian government, the technical community, and Chehadé, the specifics of the “summit” remained murky. Brazilian Ambassador Fonseca Filho said Brazil’s intent was to “devise and launch a process that would lead [the] international community to achieve principles and norms that would guide use and operation of [the] Internet.” But there is still no real sense as to what the impact of the “summit” will be. There were, however, verbal commitments from Brazilian officials and members of the technical community to multistakeholder planning, agenda-setting, and implementation of the event, after significant push-back from civil society over the potential for this summit to turn into yet another government-dominated meeting.

There was less discussion of the Internet technical community’s Montevideo Statement than one might have expected, but this is largely because it was superseded by the announcement of the “coalition of the willing” that would, according to representatives of organizations in the Internet technical community, seek to reclaim the initiative in Internet governance following the increase in calls for multilateral governance following the WCIT and the NSA surveillance revelations. For the past few years, governance debates have been dominated by fears of government takeover of multistakeholder processes on the one hand, and frustration, especially from stakeholders in developing economies, with the largely U.S.-driven status quo on the other. While details about the scope or focus of this new coalition were thin on the ground, it appears to be aimed at shifting the debate back to a focus on the benefits to the Internet (and its users) of a decentralized, bottom-up system of governance. Potential elements of this coalition could include a global grassroots campaign and the possible use of an ICANN strategy panel of experts to brainstorm innovations in Internet governance.

State Surveillance and the NSA

The elephant in the room, of course, was the NSA. While the issue of mass surveillance had been touched upon in various workshops and discussions throughout the conference, the Friday session on ‘Emerging Issues’ was dedicated to the thorny issue. For many non-government stakeholders, it was a crucial opportunity to hear directly from governments about their surveillance programs, and to challenge their assertions that such surveillance is necessary and appropriately targeted. Scott Busby, from the U.S. State Department, insisted that the U.S. is “not interested in spying on ordinary people.  Our intelligence is focused, above all, on finding the information that’s necessary to protect our people, and in many cases protect our allies….” He did acknowledge that “such intelligence efforts must be fully informed by our international commitments, our Democratic principles, our respect for human rights, and the privacy concerns of people around the world.”

Johann Hallenborg, from the Swedish Foreign Ministry, stated that “it’s important to remember that there is no tradeoff between human rights and security … It is not about balancing,” and noted that the Swedish government had held consultations on the principles and their applicability to Sweden’s own surveillance program.

Many comments from the floor were directed at the US government’s Busby, including from German Parliamentarian Jimmy Schulz. Schulz noted that NSA Director Keith Alexander had suggested that those who encrypt are treated as potential terrorists, and asked Busby pointedly: “Do you think I am a potential terrorist?” One refrain on the panel and throughout IGF was that users have lost their trust in the Internet. But, as Matthew commented from the floor, users have not lost trust in the Internet, but rather in institutions that use the Internet to undermine their fundamental rights. The IGF summary of the surveillance session is available online.

What’s next for the IGF?

While this year’s IGF was considered a success, there is still much work to do. The IGF’s own review process will begin soon and should provide an opportunity for participants to give feedback on the Bali meeting and to suggest improvements for next year’s IGF, planned for September 2-5, 2014 in Istanbul. But it’s no longer as simple as a few tweaks here and there. The Internet governance landscape is changing, with the planned summit in Brazil, new initiatives by various stakeholder communities, and the push for the multilateral governance of the Internet still looming large. 

The IGF must evolve substantially between now and next year, which means putting in place sustainable funding mechanisms and establishing a structure so that both the event and the outputs are relevant to policy-shapers and policy-makers. Above all, as we saw in this year’s Emerging Issues session on surveillance, the IGF must continue to embrace and encourage open and frank discussion of the real challenges of the day.

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