Reflections on the Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul

Written by Matthew Shears, Emma Llansó

The ninth Internet Governance Forum (IGF), held this year in Istanbul, closed last Friday with a broad cross-section of stakeholders calling for renewal of the IGF, reflecting the meeting’s success meeting and the widespread recognition that IGF should to continue beyond 2015.  (The UN General Assembly is scheduled to decide on the renewal of the IGF in December 2015.)  As with all IGFs, the scope of discussions – in workshops, roundtables, main panels, and hallway conversations – was vast, ranging from network neutrality and human rights, to the IANA transition and the outcomes of the NETmundial meeting in April 2014.  Over 2,300 people attended the IGF, with more than a thousand others participating remotely.

IANA and ICANN Discussions at the IGF

As we predicted in our IGF preview post, the NETmundial Initiative announced by the World Economic Forum and ICANN in late August received a fair amount of discussion (though, thankfully, did not completely dominate the conversation). The IGF presented an excellent opportunity for WEF representatives to hear from diverse stakeholders as to why the initiative had been received coolly.  Many people conveyed the message that the NETmundial Initiative needs to be more inclusive, transparent, and focused, and warned against duplicating or undermining existing efforts (such as the IGF).

The IGF community was clear that accountability and the IANA transition go hand-in-hand

The IANA transition and ICANN’s broader accountability were also hot topics and were featured in a main session and a number of workshops. (Matthew was a panelist on ICANN globalization and co-moderated the ICANN accountability main session.)  These sessions came at a critical time: a few weeks before IGF, ICANN announced an accountability review process that had been poorly received by the community, and IGF provided an open opportunity for ICANN insiders and outsiders alike to discuss their concerns.  The IGF community was clear that accountability and the IANA transition go hand-in-hand – it is difficult to conceive of a credible IANA functions transition plan without significant improvements to ICANN’s own accountability mechanisms – and participants drove home the message that it is vital that neither process be rushed.

We made precisely this point in our chapter on the IANA transition for Beyond NETmundial, which discusses the IANA transition in the context of the broader Internet policy and governance discussion. In our chapter, we outlined the importance of the IANA transition (and enhanced accountability at ICANN) to proponents of multistakeholder approaches to Internet governance – even if one is not an ICANN junkie, these processes are relevant to the global debate over Internet governance.

Perhaps the most telling ICANN-related moment was when ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadé admitted in the ICANN Open Forum that it has become clear that ICANN cannot “be without the US government contract and without some activities to strengthen our accountability to the global interest and to all of you.”  He went on to say that ICANN will ensure that the IANA transition and ICANN accountability processes will “move in parallel” and that ICANN will “ensure that these processes are interdependent where they need to be so we can finish the job together but do it right.”  Chehadé also noted that accountability was important so that “all of us in the US and outside the US have the comfort that when the US government is not there, ICANN can function in a way that is accountable to the global public interest, that it’s not a capturable organization, neither at the board or at the legal level, and that it has processes of accountability and appeal and redress that can stand the scrutiny of our community and the global public interest….” After months of consternation over ICANN’s apparent insistence that ICANN accountability was an independent issue from the IANA transition, this was a welcome change. ICANN also agreed to put its recent accountability process proposal out for public comment, after the entire ICANN community voiced its concerns over the way the proposal had been developed and delivered.

Beyond ICANN: Net neutrality, Zero-Rating, Data Localization, and Human Rights

Network neutrality featured prominently in policy discussions, in part because the topic had been deferred from the NETmundial meeting earlier in the year, given disagreements across stakeholders as to how it should be approached.  Fortunately, IGF is an excellent venue to explore these disagreements. A number of sessions focused on various angles of net neutrality, including the panel CDT organized on zero-rating practices, and the main session aimed to bring these threads together. Relieved from the pressure of needing to agree to a negotiated text, IGF participants were able to voice disparate views and raise a number of challenging questions.  In our panel on zero-rating, for example, advocates from Wikimedia Foundation and Access debated whether Wikipedia Zero presents a hazard to the open Internet in developing countries, and experts on development in Latin America and Southeast Asia highlighted the importance of understanding the local context of Internet access and adoption when considering the potential impact of zero-rating programs. As background, in the developing world, many telcos are offering “zero-rated” access to certain apps (including Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia), meaning content used by those apps does not incur data usage charges or count against data caps.  (Much more on our zero-rating panel – and key unanswered questions – to come. You can watch the panel here.)

Legal requirements to store data in a country will do little to keep that data out of US intelligence or law enforcement hands… and they will make that data more vulnerable to domestic government access

Edward Snowden’s revelations of pervasive communications surveillance by the NSA, GCHQ, and other government agencies continued to drive other policy discussions.  CDT and ISOC co-organized a panel on data localization mandates and other “Internet localization” proposals that have been posed as potential “responses” to surveillance by foreign governments. (Video available here.)  But, as Emma discussed in a recent op-ed, legal requirements to store data in a country will do little to keep that data out of US intelligence or law enforcement hands. These mandates will also make that data more vulnerable to domestic government access, and residents of every country should be pushing for greater legal protections against government access to their communications.  The panel was broadly in agreement on these points, and also discussed the risks that local-data mandates pose to innovation and entrepreneurship, as well as the efficiency and reliability of the global network.  We explored the difference between data localization that is required by law (which raises these technical and practical risks) and voluntary efforts to increase network capacity and efficiency, such as creating Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) to keep more traffic local, or adding to the bandwidth of the global Internet through the introduction of additional undersea cables.  The panel concluded that the problem of mass government surveillance is best approached through legal and policy reform (including strengthening legal protections for individuals’ data and reforming the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) mechanisms), as well as the increased use of encryption to shield data from prying eyes.

Participants in a range of workshops kept the links between human rights and Internet policy front and center, and the week culminated in the launch of the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms, a document developed through extensive multistakeholder processes to promote human rights in Internet policy in Africa, and to serve as an advocacy and organizing tool.  Turkish activists organized a parallel event called the Internet Ungovernance Forum, which included a session focused squarely on the Internet and human rights in Turkey – this was particularly necessary given that the few IGF workshops that did focus directly on human rights lacked a specific focus on the situation in Turkey. We hope that this deficiency will be rectified at the next IGF and that the Internet policy and governance regime of the host country will be considered an appropriate focus of the IGF itself going forward.  (Given that the next meeting is hosted in Brazil, one of the world’s leaders in multistakeholder Internet policymaking processes, this should not be a very controversial idea.)

Why the IGF is Important

The scope – and clearly interconnected nature – of issues discussed at the IGF encourages participants to step back and look at the broader Internet governance landscape and its evolution.  The IGF is a critical component of the Internet ecosystem and Internet governance, as was highlighted at NETmundial.  Precisely because it is not constrained to producing negotiated outcome documents, IGF provides participants — governments, advocates, technical experts, and members of the private sector – the opportunity to interact and exchange opinions, information, and ideas about solutions to the most pressing Internet policy issues of the day.

IGF also provides a wonderful opportunity for civil society organizations to meet, strategize, and identify issues where there might be common purpose and a desire to work together.

IGF also provides a wonderful opportunity for civil society organizations to meet, strategize, and identify issues where there might be common purpose and a desire to work together.  The number of new participants who attended the meeting of the BestBits civil society platform was encouraging and civil society activists and advocates were able to spend valuable time learning from and coordinating with each other.  CDT joined others in the BestBits platform in producing a sign-on statement supporting the continuation of the IGF in addition to calling for stakeholders to build on the outcomes of the NETmundial meeting and expressing concern over the “shrinking space for freedom of expression and access to information” in Turkey.  Another joint initiative, which was lauded in the IGF closing ceremony, was the letter to the UN Secretary General seeking an open-ended mandate for the IGF – in other words, seeking to ensure the IGF’s future as an essential venue and to remove the burden of fighting for renewal every five years.

Another critical component in the Internet ecosystem is ICANN, which was also singled out in the NETmundial outcome document.  ICANN is unique in that it is a decision-making multistakeholder entity with a clear mandate that has a central role in the Internet ecosystem.  Both IGF and ICANN are under significant scrutiny: the IGF is up for renewal – a decision that rests with the UN General Assembly – and ICANN is trying to wind its way through the intertwined complexities of the IANA transition and the evolution of its own accountability framework.  We are facing a challenging 18 months or so: the WSIS+10 review that will occur at the end of 2015 culminates in an intergovernmental “summit” that will decide the future of the IGF and that will certainly feature governments trying to reassert their primacy in Internet governance matters at the international level.  A successful IGF in Brazil (as well as a ground-swell of support for the IGF’s continuation), an NTIA-endorsed transition of its DNS-related functions to the global multistakeholder community, and an ICANN whose community is satisfied that the organization is truly accountable and transparent will be critical to seeing the continued evolution of the open Internet and the participatory Internet governance ecosystem.

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