Who are the Just Net Coalition and what can we expect from the Internet Social Forum?

Today, the Just Net Coalition (JNC) has broadcast (on seven mailing lists alone that I subscribe to) its plans for an Internet Social Forum, modeled on the World Social Forum, the well-known anti-globalisation summit. Just as the World Social Forum is held in opposition to the annual Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), so the Internet Social Forum is framed as an alternative to the NETmundial Initiative, which JNC describes (inaccurately) as a project of the WEF.

Before saying anything more, I should clarify that I too have been critical of the NETmundial Initiative, I too believe that the Internet governance status quo is overdue for reform, I also share concerns about a concentration of market power in the hands of US-based Internet companies, and I do believe that governments have an important role to play in future Internet governance arrangements. However, I won’t be supporting the Internet Social Forum, because the Just Net Coalition’s objectives are misguided, and its mode of engagement with the rest of civil society has been profoundly dysfunctional.

History

Who are the Just Net Coalition? I briefly mentioned them in my last post, but today’s announcement has raised further questions among some of my contacts, and led others to express support for the proposal despite not knowing much of the history of those proposing it. This post is to provide some of that necessary background, so that those who choose to endorse the Internet Social Forum will not be taken by surprise when its proposed “People’s Internet Manifesto” takes a course with which they may profoundly disagree.

The founding meeting of what became the Just Net Coalition in February 2014 was invitation-only, and invitations were issued, in the first instance, only to those known to by sympathetic to the views of the organisers. (A few key individuals excluded from the first round of invitations were, at the urging of the meeting’s funder, subsequently approached with late invitations to attend; speaking for myself as one of these, the approach came far too late for me to make the necessary arrangements even to obtain a visa.) Consequently, the content of that meeting’s outcome document, the Delhi Declaration for a Just and Equitable Internet, was largely predetermined.

The political programme of that document (more on this below) has a long history in a disagreement between a few individuals who were members of the Civil Society Internet Governance Caucus (IGC), that has frequently threatened to tear that group apart. On some accounts, indeed, it has already done so – opinions vary on when or whether the IGC “jumped the shark”, but many count it as the day at an IGC meeting in 2013 when a prominent JNC member almost came to blows with a female attendee in an argument, ironically, over his own overbearing behaviour.

The formation of Best Bits in 2012 was (at least on my part, as one of its founders), partly in response to the decline of the IGC and the need for a more action-oriented, globally-inclusive civil society community that could speak on Internet governance and human rights issues, without requiring a full consensus which (for the IGC, at least) had become completely unachievable. Those who now lead JNC, at the time, also held hopes (as did we) that they too could make effective use of Best Bits as a platform for actions and statements on which a broad consensus could be reached, which for a time they did, but what ultimately transpired will be recounted later.

So who are these individuals to whom I am obliquely referring? Although I don’t wish to unduly personalise this post, it is relevant that they be identified in order to give context to the following section of this post; and equally, it is quite proper that as spokespersons for the group, they should be held accountable for their public behaviour and statements. (I should also add before going further that I have had a long record of working fruitfully with the individuals named both online and in person, dating back to 2004. I have even retained one of them as a paid consultant on a project I managed.)

Amongst the key individuals who have spoken publicly for JNC and who sit on its steering committee are Parminder Jeet Singh who leads Indian NGO IT for Change, Michael Gurstein who is a Canadian academic and edits the Journal of Community Informatics, Norbert Bollow who is a Swiss systems analyst and FOSS developer, and Richard Hill, former senior staff member of the ITU, who continues to advocate for an expanded role for the ITU on Internet-related public policy issues. Many of the groups shown as supporting the Internet Social Forum in today’s announcement are vanity or hobby projects of these founding individuals. For example Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training is Gurstein, GodlyGlobal.org is Bollow, and Association for Proper Internet Governance is Hill.

(You might note that the majority JNC’s most vocal key figures, including others not mentioned above such as Louis Pouzin and Jean-Christophe Nothias, are white men from industrialised countries. Now as a white man myself I’m certainly not one to point fingers at them, but as an organisation that purports to be “globally concerned with…social justice”, as JNC does, this lack of diversity perhaps bears mentioning.)

Objectives

The positioning of the Just Net Coalition against multi-stakeholder Internet governance, and in favour of a state-centric model, although now quite overt, became evident gradually. The Delhi Declaration covers this obliquely, stating “The right to make Internet-related public policies lies exclusively with those who legitimately and directly represent people” (ie. states). Another coded phrase the JNC has used to call for the centralisation of Internet governance authority in states is its call for “legitimate political authority”.

A turning point came at the meeting of the Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation on Public Policy Issues Pertaining to the Internet (WGEC) of the UN Commission for Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) in April 2014. To the surprise of other civil society and technical community delegates at that meeting, Parminder Jeet Singh insisted that support for paragraph 35 of the Tunis Agenda be retained in working group’s report, as the representatives from Saudi Arabia and Iran also forcefully argued. Up until then, indeed for an unbroken decade, opposition to paragraph 35 had been a unanimous civil society position.

Paragraph 35 states (my emphasis):

We reaffirm that the management of the Internet encompasses both technical and public policy issues and should involve all stakeholders and relevant intergovernmental and international organizations. In this respect it is recognized that:

  1. Policy authority for Internet-related public policy issues is the sovereign right of States. They have rights and responsibilities for international Internet-related public policy issues.
  2. The private sector has had, and should continue to have, an important role in the development of the Internet, both in the technical and economic fields.
  3. Civil society has also played an important role on Internet matters, especially at community level, and should continue to play such a role.
  4. Intergovernmental organizations have had, and should continue to have, a facilitating role in the coordination of Internet-related public policy issues.
  5. International organizations have also had and should continue to have an important role in the development of Internet-related technical standards and relevant policies.

In supporting this paragraph that constricts civil society’s role in Internet governance, Parminder said:

I have clarity about what is the role of different stakeholders being quite different to one another and I don’t appreciate that non-governmental actors would have the same role in decision-making than governmental actors. That should not be acceptable at a global level.

This, translated into JNC policy and the agenda for its Internet Social Forum, marks a profound shift away from the decentralised and horizontal model of Internet governance that civil society had heretofore supported, towards an hierarchical, state-led model.

For a time, JNC attempted to explain away this change by drawing a straw man distinction between “democratic multi-stakeholderism” (which JNC supports) and “equal footing multi-stakeholderism” (which it doesn’t, mischaracterising it as “governance by self-selected elites”). But it has since mostly abandoned that pretense and become more overt in promoting an intergovernmental model of Internet governance, stating for example in a more recent statement, “We invite all countries to call for a Framework Convention on the Internet and to take up leadership in developing global Internet-related policies,” and averring that “[w]ithout governmental support, it is difficult, perhaps impossible to combat the dominance of global Internet monopolies”.

Now, I have argued elsewhere why governments ought not to have a monopoly on the development of Internet-related public policies, and why a model of multi-stakeholderism that includes governments as a key, but not dominant stakeholder can still be counted as democratic. You can accept those arguments or not. If you don’t, then you might come down on JNC’s side on this issue, and that would be perfectly legitimate.

But that’s only half of the problem with JNC. The other half is the toxic relationship that its representatives have cultivated with the rest of civil society.

Relationship with civil society

At the first Best Bits meeting in 2012, much time and many pains were taken to accommodate the demands of those future JNC committee members who attended, and this effort did successfully result in a consensus text to which they were willing to put their names. But from this point, their participation in Best Bits became less productive and more divisive, largely over two issues, which were intertwined.

The first has already been mentioned: the fundamental ideological disagreement over the legitimacy of multi-stakeholder Internet governance, which was accepted by a majority of Best Bits participants, but not by those who were later to split off into JNC. This disagreement took on greater currency when the NETmundial meeting was announced and Best Bits participants began to coordinate the development of several joint inputs. When the future JNC leaders found themselves unable to influence the drafting of these statements to sufficiently accord with their view that governments should have an outsized role in Internet governance, the next best option became to disrupt the development of those statements by hectoring, intimidating and disparaging participants who expressed pro-multistakeholder views.

As good an example as any, and a more recent one, is Gurstein’s reaction in November 2014 to the qualified support of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) for the NETmundial Initiative, to which he wrote to Anriette Esterhuysen, APC’s Executive Director, “I’m taking from your argument that because the NMI offers some possibility, however remote for the advancement of human rights, you are completely abandoning perhaps irrevocably, the pursuit of social justice.” To anyone who knows of the many years of devotion that Anriette and APC have given in the cause of social justice (and Gurstein certainly does), this is a farcical insult.

The second issue to which the disruptive behaviour of JNC representatives has been directed, which probably arose from the first, were criticisms of various processes that they found themselves unable to influence, including not only those of Best Bits, but also 1net, and the Civil Society Coordination Group (CSCG). In a rising tide of authoritarian behaviour, those who became JNC’s leaders would demand appointment to a position of authority or that these fledgling groups hold elections immediately, insist that other participants in those groups disclose their sources of funding, and cause a commotion about any strategic discussions that took place off-list or in closed groups.

The response of a relative outsider, Milton Mueller, to Gurstein’s demands for inclusion in 1net aptly record the frustration that many others felt:

Stop pretending that CI [Community Informatics] is some massive grassroots movement related to Internet governance that deserves special representation; and stop pretending that  your frustration with not being selected by CS means that their procedures were illegitimate.

You are your group are free to contribute position papers to the process and to attend, as far as we know. Why don’t you see how far you can get on persuasion and education, if that’s really your mission?

To give another example, Bollow, who had earlier demanded a full accounting of the funding sources of Best Bits participants, wrote in November 2013, “I hereby request the members of the BestBits steering committee, the members of the IRP Steering Committee, and the coordinators of the IGC to disclose any direct or indirect financial relationship to any ‘capacity building’ or similar kind of project where a US government agency is among the funders.”

Then again he wrote in October 2014 to the moderators of a closed strategy list formed for the recent ITU Plenipotentiary meeting – a list that he had not joined – demanding the right to “inspect” its archives on behalf of JNC. As for the CSCG, even after it acceded to JNC’s requests and added Bollow as a representative, JNC betrayed that trust by publishing an account of its private deliberations which criticised other CSCG members, falsely stating that they had decided to support the NETmundial Initiative.

Although some of JNC’s demands of other civil society groups and networks may have been reasonable in themselves – Best Bits, for example, always intended to hold steering committee elections and did hold them within a year of its formation – these demands were delivered with such hubris and entitlement that the effect has been to isolate JNC from other civil society groups and networks and to sow seeds of discord that will have lasting effects.

Ironically the result has been exactly the opposite of what JNC intended. Discussions have retreated from public, open lists into private, closed lists – or private cc groups that are not list-managed at all – precisely to avoid unproductive exchanges with JNC members.

Even more ironically, JNC does not hold itself to the same standards of transparency and accountability that it demands of others; it has never publicly disclosed, for example, receiving funding from ThoughtWorks, and even the list of signatories of the Delhi Declaration, which formed the JNC’s first membership list, was not made public for months after its supposed founding, even while further statements continued to be issued. Neither does JNC operate an open mailing list, despite vociferous demands that other civil society networks, such as Best Bits, should do so.

It might be countered that as pernicious as the behaviour of key JNC members may have been, they are only individuals, and this should not be attributed to the organisation as a whole. Whilst none of the other JNC members has ever “broken ranks” and spoken up against even the founders, this may not be because they are condoning their behaviour, but because they are unaware of it, since it takes place on other civil society mailing lists. Might a change of leadership of JNC be all that is required? This is hard to say, and at present a moot question since no such change is on the horizon.

Conclusion

What, then, can we expect from JNC’s Internet Social Forum? Sadly, we can expect that any participants who support a distributed, multi-stakeholder model for Internet governance will be required to check those convictions at the door, and to embrace instead a UN-based model that places governments firmly in control of Internet public policy development. We can expect those who deviate from this line to be interrogated mercilessly, and accused of being props for neoliberal hegemony and corporate domination. May JNC’s “take no prisoners” approach serve them well.

This is a shame, because a well-reasoned leftist critique of Internet governance arrangements and reforms that directs its ire at powerful incumbents, rather than at those who seek to forge a middle path of inclusive multi-stakeholder governance, would actually be very valuable. To date, JNC has exhibited no desire to provide such a sober, productive critique, instead preferring to focus its destructive anger on easier, weaker targets – its own civil society colleagues.

Civil society talks tough to the NETmundial Initiative, but holds back on a boycott

The following letter was sent to the organisers of the NETmundial Initiative today by the Internet Governance Civil Society Coordination Group (CSCG), an umbrella organisation of which I’m a member on behalf of the Best Bits network.

Responding to concerns raised by the CSCG’s constituents, the letter makes some very pointed criticisms of the Initiative, but in distinction from the stance taken by ISOC and the Just Net Coalition (JNC), does not boycott the Initiative altogether, instead placing a series of conditions on the CSCG’s participation. 

(To complicate things, JNC is itself a CSCG member, but has always had a combative relationship with other civil society groups and networks. Splitting off from Best Bits and the Civil Society Internet Governance Caucus following a closed meeting in New Delhi in February 2014, but often continuing to mount attacks on these groups on public lists, JNC favours UN-based multilateralism in Internet governance, and is critical of multi-stakeholderism which it sees as a mask for neo-liberal hegemony.)

The letter follows:

Dear Virgilio, Richard and Fadi,

As members of the Internet Governance Civil Society Coordination Group (CSCG), we write to express our appreciation for your openness in working with us to negotiate the terms of civil society’s participation in the NETmundial Initiative; in particular, by accommodating our expectation, drawn from the NETmundial Principles, that if we are to participate on the Coordination Council, we should nominate our own representatives.

Since our initial agreement on this principle, we have been consulting with our constituents about whether civil society ought to avail itself of this opportunity at all.  We must say that this has been a difficult question, at the end of which there remain some very significant misgivings across a broad segment of civil society about the merits of our prospective involvement.

Among the underlying concerns of many are that the involvement of the World Economic Forum in the initiative signals an attempt by economic and political elites to secure a central role in Internet governance; that the Initiative has been organised in a top-down manner that privileges its three promoters above other stakeholders; and that devoting time and resources to the Initiative may detract from other processes such as the Internet Governance Forum.

On the other hand, others recognise the opportunity that exists for civil society to help shape the NETmundial Initiative into a mechanism (but not the only mechanism) that can advance the NETmundial roadmap. Despite significant shortcomings in the NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement stemming from influence exerted by powerful actors towards the end of the process, much of the document, including the roadmap, does enjoy broad civil society support.

Our involvement and process

In the end we have decided to facilitate the involvement of those from civil society who do wish to apply for membership of the Coordination Council, while acknowledging others have decided as a matter of principle that they do not wish to be involved—and indeed would rather that civil society did not participate at all. We acknowledge and respect that our colleagues from Just Net Coalition have taken that position and will not be participating with us in this exercise.

The process we have agreed to work with is

  1. At the close of nominations (December 6), CSCG Nomcom will review all nominations for civil society participation and evaluate each candidate’s suitability.
  2. CSCG Nomcom will recommend one candidate per geographic region, and submits names to Transitional Council with reasons.
  3. If necessary, NMI Transitional Council will convene a (virtual) meeting with CSCG Nomcom to discuss any issues arising, with a view to reaching a rough consensus agreement if there are any issues with our nominations. If there is a strong dissenting voice from another area of civil society they may also be invited to participate after discussion.

Conditions and considerations

Although we will work with the NETmundial Initiative’s organising partners to select willing civil society representatives from amongst those who self-nominate through the Initiative’s nomination process, we also outline five simple conditions that we believe representatives are likely to affirm following their appointment to the Coordination Council:

  1. We would like the Co-ordination Council to discuss whether CGI.br, WEF and ICANN should have permanent membership of the Coordination Council and what that implies. Whilst it is acknowledged that the above organisations are jointly funding the operational expenses of the Initiative for its first year, this might not remain so. We are not convinced that funding support is sufficient justification for such a role, and we believe that the full Coordination Council itself should approve any permanent seats and what that implies.
  2. To the extent that a stated objective of the Coordination Council is “promoting the distributed Internet governance model,” we want to point out that the status quo in Internet governance does not represent the fulfilment of this model. The NETmundial Initiative should not be used to legitimise existing inequalities and deficiencies of the present system and should not hold civil society back from advocating necessary reforms.
  3. While we acknowledge the progressive elements of the NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement, it is not the final and definitive statement of Internet governance principles; indeed the Statement itself acknowledges that it is only a work in progress. So we do not see the NETmundial roadmap as an immutable document. We look forward to its refinement and/or augmentation and hope that NMI ensures a bottom up collaborative process to undertake this work.
  4. A key performance indicator for the NETmundial Initiative must be the extent to which its activities strengthen and support the Internet Governance Forum, which remains the most significant global hub for general multi-stakeholder Internet governance policy discussions. If the IGF develops the capacity to assume further activities that currently might not fall within their capabilities, this should be facilitated, not opposed.
  5. We will wish to evaluate from time to time whether this engagement is providing effective and worthwhile results for our constituencies.

We trust that our participation in this Initiative can be accepted with these conditions, and we look forward to working with you to select a balanced, inclusive and capable slate of civil society nominees to join the Coordination Council.

Sincerely,

CSCG Nomcom for NMI Co ordination Council

Participating member coalitions

Association for Progressive Communications, represented by Chat Garcia Ramilo, Deputy Executive Director

Best Bits, represented by Jeremy Malcolm, Steering Committee member

Diplo Foundation, represented by Ginger (Virginia) Paque, Internet Governance Programmes

Internet Governance Caucus, represented by Dr Mawaki Chango, Co-Coordinator

The Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group, (NCSG) represented by Robin Gross, NCSG Executive Committee

Ian Peter, Independent Chair

Strengthening the Internet Governance Forum: A Perspective from Civil Society

I am the author of a chapter on strengthening the IGF from a civil society perspective, published in the book Beyond NETmundial: The Roadmap for Institutional Improvements to the Global Internet Governance Ecosystem, edited by William Drake and Monroe Price that has been released at this year’s IGF.

Talk of strengthening the IGF, in the abstract, is not particularly descriptive. How it could be strengthened, and what reforms might accomplish that strengthening, are questions cannot be answered without first asking what are the outcomes or capabilities that we require of the IGF, as this will point us to the reforms required to deliver those capabilities.

That in turn will depend upon one’s position in the existing Internet governance regime. For large corporates, well-funded technical organizations and powerful governments, an IGF with the capacity to produce recommendations may seem to offer little added value in the short term, and indeed may threaten existing power relations. But for civil society of course, that is exactly the point.

The premise of the chapter is therefore that various stakeholder groups that participate in the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) assess its value differently, because they have different needs. For those stakeholders who already possess the strongest voices in global governance processes, the IGF’s potential to directly influence those discussions was not seen as particularly valuable, and indeed may have been perceived as a threat.

Other stakeholders’ priorities

The stakeholders from outside of civil society (aside from some governments) were initially indifferent or actively hostile to the idea of the IGF. They tended to emphasize the IGF’s role as a discussion forum, and to attempt to confine the IGF to that limited role (though more recently most of those have since come around, at least rhetorically if not substantively, to the idea of an IGF that could act as a coordinating body between other institutions and could issue recommendations to policymakers and other stakeholders, as indeed the IGF’s original 2005 mandate demands).

As such, the priorities characteristically declared by other stakeholder groups for the IGF are somewhat different than those generally found within civil society. This was most evident in the positions taken within the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD)’s Working Group on Improvements to the IGF. (For example, the United States government expressed its view that submissions to the Working Group had “overwhelmingly affirmed that the Internet Governance Forum has succeeded because it has adhered to the original mandate and purpose set out in 2005.”)

This does not mean that these non-civil society stakeholders have no recommendations to improve the IGF; they would agree that there are the various ways in which the IGF could be strengthened to better facilitate coordination between governments or outreach for industry stakeholders. But the chapter does not attempt to address these, focusing instead on how the IGF could be strengthened to make it more useful in meeting the needs of civil society organizations, and particularly to those engaged in global ICT policy advocacy.

A civil society perspective

For civil society I argue, the stakeholder group with the weakest voice in policy processes, the IGF has considerable potential within its existing mandate to amplify that voice. The chapter groups the “forgotten” paragraphs of the IGF’s mandate into four categories – coordination, discussion, documentation and participation – and explains how the IGF has fallen short in its implementation of these. It then goes on to suggest how the IGF might be reformed to better fulfil these parts of its mandate, and how this might make global Internet governance processes better informed, more inclusive and more just.

This should not be taken to suggest that the IGF must forever be limited to the wording of its mandate in the Tunis Agenda; which after all, although stimulated by civil society input to WGIG, was ultimately not a multi-stakeholder compact but an intergovernmental one. It therefore ought to be possible for the multi-stakeholder IGF community to determine the course of its own evolution, and indeed it has already commenced to do exactly this. (The NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement represents a progression from the Tunis Agenda in several respects, for example in refining the WSIS process criteria, and in acknowledging that “The respective roles and responsibilities of stakeholders should be interpreted in a flexible manner with reference to the issue under discussion.”)

But even if we limit our attention to the wording of its mandate as it now stands, the IGF has more than enough scope to have a very significant and positive impact on the extent and effectiveness of civil society participation in global public policy development.

Bridging the gap

The gulf between the two visions is now so large, that it is no longer tenable to bridge it through the kind of incremental reforms that we have seen so far, such as tinkering with session formats, or issuing new summary reports. We should make no mistake that the reforms required in order to remake the IGF into a body capable of fulfilling its mandate are significant enough that they may require the complete reinvention of structures – the MAG, for instance – that have long held it back from doing so.

Whilst the greatest immediate benefit from this would be to those stakeholders whose voices are the weakest, ultimately our entire networked society and economy would benefit from a more deliberative, just and inclusive approach to global Internet-related public policy development.

This has just been an overview of the themes of my chapter, which I encourage you to download and read in full for free.

NETmundial Initiative takes a top-down approach to implementing the NETmundial Principles

Earlier this year, a global meeting called NETmundial was held in Saõ Paulo, Brazil, at which participants collaborated upon a set of norms, or non-binding (sometimes called “soft law”) principles. The NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement that encapsulated these principles was ultimately disappointing. Even so, in some areas it does make some important points (such as that “Rights that people have offline must also be protected online”), and it has been cited as a rough consensus statement of these principles by other influential governance institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council.

The question raised yesterday was, will these NETmundial principles turn out to be “just talk”, like the IGF’s meetings often are, or could they have a real (and hopefully positive) impact on people’s rights and freedoms in the real world? The purpose of the NETmundial Initiative was to make sure that it would be the latter, the hope being expressed that the Initiative could “apply the NETmundial Principles to solve issues in concrete ways”, through a series of activities building upon those principles.

So far, so good. But the execution of the event was a significant departure from the earlier NETmundial meeting in Saõ Paulo with which it shares both its name and a parent in the form of ICANN CEO, Fadi Chehadé (but little else). The Saõ Paulo event was relatively transparent and open to all, from the agenda setting phase through to the drafting, and was executed by a structure of multi-stakeholder committees to which stakeholder groups nominated their own representatives.

The Geneva NETmundial Initiative on the other hand was hosted by the World Economic Forum (WEF), a think-tank of the world’s largest companies. The participants and, from amongst those, the proposed steering committee members, were hand-picked by the organizers rather than being nominated by their own stakeholder groups (as, ironically, the NETmundial Principles set out as a best practice). The agenda was pre-written and released less than two weeks ahead of the meeting, but only after it had already been leaked. As for the meeting itself, much of the time allotted was taken up with closed-door bilateral meetings. In what scant few hours remained for discussion of the WEF’s proposals, little receptivity was shown to those being reopened for discussion, or alternative proposals being entertained.

When civil society representatives took issue with these shortcomings, we were bizarrely accused (here, at 1:15), of being exclusive and elitist for rejecting what the WEF had come to offer. Now, surely nobody will stops the WEF or any other entity, multi-stakeholder or not, from executing initiatives designed to further the NETmundial Principles. But we are entitled to object to what is essentially a pre-cooked, big business initiative (well intentioned as it may be) from co-opting the name of an overtly more inclusive and grassroots-directed Internet governance meeting.

Too often there is a division between Internet governance processes that are truly open, inclusive and transparent on the one hand, and on the other hand those with the potential to actually produce tangible results that make a difference to real people’s lives. Unfortunately the NETmundial Initiative scoping meeting maintains that distinction, in proposing a laudably action-focused agenda to take forward the NETmundial Principles, but by means of a rather closed, top-down and opaque process.

This is an excerpt from Internet Governance and the NETmundial Initiative: A Flawed Attempt at Turning Words into Action published on EFF’s Deeplinks blog.

The NETmundial Initiative exposed

The NETmundial Initiative finally came out of the closet this week with ICANN head Fadi Chehadé’s blog, An Initiative for Action. I am fortunate, if confused, to be one of eleven civil society representatives (really more like eight, if you look more closely at the list) invited to attend the first meeting of the Initiative in Geneva ahead of the 2014 IGF.

The expressed purpose of the initiative is to “carry forward the cooperative spirit of Sao Paulo and work together to apply the NETmundial Principles to solve issues in concrete ways to enable an effective and distributed approach to Internet cooperation and governance”. That much, I fully support.

Like others, I am less convinced that ICANN ought to have struck a deal with the industry-dominated World Economic Forum, of all organisations, to carry forward the initiative; as I noted once before, the criteria for membership of the Forum includes a cool $5 billion annual turnover. Best intentions aside, it’s not a good look and makes the W3C look positively grassroots.

On the other hand I also understand why it may have done so. First, “any port in a storm”, as they say. The Internet Governance Forum has proved itself, time and again, to be both unwilling and unable to shoulder the responsibilities expected of it by the Internet community, and required of it by its mandate in the Tunis Agenda (I’ll say no more on that here, but stay tuned for my next post.)

Second, this is absolutely Fadi’s Chehadé’s modus operandi. The silver-tongued smooth operator does not lack for grandiose ambition, and he is charismatic enough to do deals with whomever he needs to, from the President of Brazil to the Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, to bring his visions to reality.

Fadi pulled off a coup with the NETmundial meeting in April, although he fell foul with the disappointing 1net – and the NETmundial Initiative carries forward that same vision, to establish an equivalent institutional framework for broader Internet public policy issues as already exists in ICANN for narrower issues of naming and numbering.

Fadi’s weak point, however, has always been in consultation outside a narrow circle of advisers; he simply doesn’t have the patience for this. When he committed the technical community to the NETmundial event, and then installed 1net as the supposed co-host of that meeting, it was with a similar lack of consultation as he has exhibited again with the co-establishment of the NETmundial Initiative.

For some within civil society, process is everything, and these early deficiencies alone may amount to a deal breaker. Some are already talking of walkouts, and pre-emptively drafting statements bemoaning the deficiencies of the NETmundial Initiative’s inception meeting in Geneva. For me, this is premature.

I too believe that the lack of transparency and inclusion around the formation of the Initiative flies against the NETmundial principles that it claims to be advancing, and will I also be advocating for the World Economic Forum to pass on its mantle to a more open and multi-stakeholder host for the NETmundial Initiative at the earliest opportunity.

However I also know that a balance between top-down and grassroots organising is required to make any institutional changes, particularly in such a fraught area as Internet governance. Do we reject the IGF because it was the product of a relatively closed intergovernmental process at WSIS? We could, and some do, but most are more forward-looking, and so am I.

This leads into the question of the relationship between the NETmundial Initiative and the IGF. Of course Fadi states that the NETmundial Initiative will “not in any way replace” the IGF, and goes on to explain:

The Initiative’s work will not serve as a substitute for the IGF, but rather complement its efforts by formulating solutions, engaging in capacity development and broadening participation in Internet cooperation.

But this is diplomacy speak. We all know that the IGF has been a disappointment and has failed to deliver. The same disclaimers about supporting rather than displacing the IGF were given ahead of the April NETmundial meeting, which I predicted would actually come to mean the death of the IGF. With the IGF still in its extended death throes, I am yet to be proved wrong.

There was a time not too long ago when I had basically decided to wash my hands of the IGF. Given the failure of the subsequently-convened CSTD Working Group on Improvements to the IGF to effect any such meaningful improvements at all, I’m beginning to feel like that again. There comes a point where the IGF runs out of chances, and with the second extension of its mandate due this September (or otherwise), that time must surely be now.

Therefore if its process deficiencies can be overcome, I may well find myself willing to cast my lot in with the NETmundial Initiative for lack of a strong contender. We may indeed need a successor to an IGF in the event that its mandate is not renewed, or in the much more likely event that, like other United Nations organisations, it continues to lurch around, stubbornly refusing to keel over long after the point of its natural demise.

The most important outcome of NETmundial 2014 wasn’t in the text

Perhaps a more important outcome of NETmundial than the multistakeholder statement of São Paulo is what its participants have learned in experimenting to jointly create a multi-stakeholder conference, inclusive of online and offline participants from all sectors, that produces shared outcomes.

The process was designed as an open one, in which the organising committees were (mostly) self-selected by their communities, and who shepherded the process of compiling a basic text from 188 comments that were contributed online by participants from 46 countries.  This compilation was then opened for comment using an online tool that drew 1370 paragraph-level comments and ratings.  Further comments were taken during the meeting itself, both from those present in person, and others interacting online or from remote hubs.

This kind of process has been practised in Internet technical fora such as the IETF for many years, but until now has not been successfully tried in developing broader public policy principles.  For example the Internet Governance Forum, another Internet governance institution, has drawn criticism for being just a “talk shop”, and its improvement is a focus of some of the recommendations of NETmundial.

Whilst successful to a point, NETmundial shows that multi-stakeholder Internet governance remains a work in progress.  It was still possible for industry lobbyists to dictate language when the text moved from the plenary meeting into smaller, multi-stakeholder drafting groups.  But even then, those groups were exposed to public view, with the drafting process being open to all stakeholders to observe.  This lies in very stark contrast to the closed process of negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, whose negotiators often claim that text on contentious issues cannot be negotiated in public – a claim that NETmundial now shows to be false.

NETmundial is not a continuing event; its conclusions will have to go into other fora to be taken further.  So too, hopefully, will its innovative methods.

NETmundial 2014 intervention on a deliberative plenary process for the IGF

My name is Jeremy Malcolm and I’m now speaking only on my own behalf, though some of these points do enjoy broader support. The document that we produce I believe should be a declaration of its participants, rather than a mere Chairman’s summary.

I would also like us to concretise some of the general and aspirational statements that currently appear in the roadmap section.

First, the European Commission in a statement from Vice-President Kroes has put forward a set of concrete suggestions about what steps could be taken next and when, in relation to improvement of the IGF, strengthening of the multi-stakeholder model and so on. Those suggestions do not seem in any way controversial and I suggest that we add them to the outcome document.

Secondly, paragraph 39 of the document acknowledges one very important issue, but puts it into the “too hard” basket” – the “Different roles and responsibilities of stakeholders.” I suggest that we don’t just acknowledge the issue but specify where it could be discussed next, and I feel that that should be the IGF.

However, we should also encourage the IGF to adopt a deliberative plenary process for this task, based on that conducted at NETmundial. NETmundial is a one-off forum, so we need to make sure the value of this innovative process is not lost, and the IGF is a perfect forum to take it up, in fulfilment of its mandate to make recommendations where appropriate.

NETmundial 2014 submission on evolution of the Internet governance ecosystem

This submission takes as its starting point the submission from participants of the Best Bits network on “Roadmap for the Further Evolution of the Internet Governance Ecosystem – institutional mechanisms”, which I participated in drafting and generally agree with (“the Best Bits submission”).

In particular, I take for granted the following points that are either drawn from, or at least are fully consistent with the Best Bits submission, and I will not explain them further here:

  • There are certain policy issues that cannot be addressed within the current Internet governance ecosystem in a way that adequately fulfils basic procedural criteria, due to underlying institutional deficits.

  • In addressing these deficits certain criteria must be fulfilled, including a rights-based approach, preservation of the global nature of the Internet, and the use of multi-stakeholder democratic processes.

  • To redress these deficits requires a new coordinating mechanism to direct stakeholders towards the appropriate existing fora to deal with policy issues, as well as one or more new multi-stakeholder working groups to address issues that have no existing home.

  • The new multi-stakeholder working groups referred to would in most cases develop soft law only, rather than binding rules such as treaties, though they could in appropriate cases make recommendations to external treaty bodies or to the UN General Assembly.

  • It would be appropriate for the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to take a key role in the operationalisation of these required changes, which would require the most significant reforms to the IGF since its establishment.

There are however two problems that the Best Bits submission does not explicitly acknowledge, nor suggest a way to overcome, which are the subject of this submission:

  1. There remains a substantial disagreement between (and even within) stakeholder groups, over whether governments should have a preeminent role and responsibility over international public policy issues pertaining to the Internet, or whether the roles of all stakeholder groups in Internet policy development processes should be equal. Practically speaking, there is no likelihood that NETmundial will see any resolution of this fundamental disagreement.

    In the narrower context of ICANN, the GAC is an unsuccessful attempt to compromise between these two demands, by giving governments certain rights in the policy development process that no other stakeholder group has (which upsets those who demand equality between the stakeholder groups), but by making its recommendations purely advisory (which upsets those who demand government sovereignty).

    It may seem that this problem is irreconcilable, in that any governance institution must choose either one or the other – either making all stakeholders equal, or giving governments sovereign rights. But counter-intuitively, it may be possible to satisfy both demands, and to do so without creating any new body or process, other than those referred to in the Best Bits submission. The solution involves the following two elements:

    1. First, there are some issues and contexts in which, as a factual matter, governments do not claim a primary role in policy development, nor ever have (and the same is true in other governance domains also). As these typically involve technical issues, the drafters of the Tunis Agenda accounted for this fact by drawing a (simplistic) division between “international public policy issues pertaining to the Internet” and “day-to-day technical and operational matters, that do not impact on international public policy issues”.

      A less simplistic approach requires a case-by-case analysis: whenever the coordinating function as described in the Best Bits submission is exercised, it should consider not only whether and where policy is being developed, but also what the appropriate roles of stakeholders are for that issue. Factors relevant to that determination include agreed high-level global Internet governance principles (if any), roles and responsibilities historically exercised in respect of that issue, and the governance mechanisms that are likely to be effective in dealing with the issue.

      To give some possible examples, it may be found that governments are entitled to take a leading role in developing global rules on money laundering via the Internet, but that they should take a back seat in the development of spam filtering standards, and should participate as equals with other stakeholders in the development of policy for transnational intellectual property enforcement policies.

      By engaging in this analysis (which would itself be conducted by a multi-stakeholder deliberative body), a more reasoned determination can be made of the appropriate roles of governments and other stakeholders in a given issue area, than can be had by resorting to fixed descriptions of stakeholder roles, or an arbitrary demarcation between “public policy” and “technical and operational” issues. The result will be that the appropriate role of governments in determining any given policy issue can be defined with more particularity than simply making a blanket claim of sovereignty.

    2. Second, for areas in which the coordinating function assesses that governments do have an appropriate role to play along with other stakeholders, the only way in which to resolve the disagreement mentioned above is if the multi-stakeholder policy development process is so designed that the stakeholder groups are formally equal – but allows governments to veto decisions. Logically the only way in which both those conditions can both be true is if all stakeholder groups can veto decisions.

      This describes a consociational multi-stakeholder process, where a consociation is a power-sharing arrangement comprising a coalition of stakeholder groups who cooperate in making decisions together, but who share a right of mutual veto allowing any stakeholder group to block a joint decision, if there is consensus to do so within that group. Note that governments, having a legal monopoly on the use of force, have a de facto right of veto in any multi-stakeholder policy development process anyway; the consociational structure simply formalises this and grants the other stakeholder groups the same right (Malcolm 2008, pp.293-294, 466-467, 478-482).

      Does this mean that the power of veto would always be exercised, so that nothing would ever be agreed? Of course it is possible, as it is in any organisation that depends upon consensus. But by adopting deliberative democratic processes, the likelihood of a veto power being used strategically become less likely, especially as the social capital invested by the stakeholders into the IGF compounds. A stakeholder group will not use its power of veto lightly if this may damage its own longer-term prospects of using the IGF to advance its own interests later on.

  2. Whilst I support the decentralised model of Internet governance put forward in the Best Bits submission, there is a second problem that the submission does not acknowledge. The problem lies in the fact that it allows for the fact that there are a multiplicity of existing fora where global Internet public policies are developed, but also demands that all of them adopt (afresh, any many cases) a multi-stakeholder policy development process. Although absolutely sound in theory, there are two practical faults with this:

    1. It is very optimistic, to say the least, to call for these existing multiple fora to be transformed into multi-stakeholder formats. In many cases – the ITU, for example – it will only take one member state to object to multi-stakeholder reforms in order to close down such transformation. Therefore in practical terms, this ideal is likely to be impossible to achieve.

    2. Even if the previous objection were somehow overcome and there were a multiplicity of fully accessible and multi-stakeholder fora dealing with Internet policy issues, the task of addressing all these fora would massive exceed the scope of civil society’s limited financial and human capacity. As the least well resourced stakeholder group, this would put civil society at a further disadvantage when compared to governments and the private sector.

    To correct for these faults requires a slight gloss upon the recommendations in the Best Bits submission, that I outline here. Essentially, it involves allowing for a broader role for the Internet Governance Forum, at least in the short term, whereby the IGF – as the most accessible, central policy forum for Internet policy discussion – would be tasked with developing recommendations for other institutions in the Internet governance ecosystem, if those institutions do not themselves yet have a similar multi-stakeholder process.

    This conforms with the IGF’s existing mandate to “promote and assess, on an ongoing basis, the embodiment of WSIS principles in Internet governance processes” (Tunis Agenda paragraph 72(i)), and to “identify emerging issues, bring them to the attention of the relevant bodies and the general public, and, where appropriate, make recommendations” (paragraph 72(g). It is also consistent with its mandate to be non-duplicative (paragraphs 72(b) and 77), since a multi-stakeholder recommendation to an external institution is not to be considered duplicative of that institution’s less inclusive decision-making process, even if they both concern the same subject matter (Malcolm 2008, p.439).

    Thus notwithstanding that there may be a plethora of other Internet governance bodies, the development of high-level principles to guide the work of bodies that are not multi-stakeholder in their own right remains an appropriate activity for a reformed IGF.

    Whilst the Best Bits submission does contend that “it is a mistake to think that one body, and one set of experts, could possibly be responsible for effective policy making on all Internet-related matters”, this is not what I propose. The IGF would continue to have a very broad mandate, yes. But so too does the General Assembly of the United Nations, and we do not hear complaints that it lacks expertise to cover all subject areas. This is because the principal contribution of the General Assembly is not its expertise, but its legitimacy – and, so it is with the IGF, only extending to other stakeholder groups besides governments.

    Naturally the operational decision making that takes place by reference to the high-level principles that the IGF develops will remain the responsibility of more specialised bodies, just as the implementation of resolutions of the General Assembly falls to national parliaments and specialised agencies, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity.

In summary and conclusion, I fully accept the merits of a distributed model of Internet governance as set out in the Best Bits submission. But I also caution as to two limitations that the submission does not cover.

The first is that it does not address the fundamental and irreconcilable disagreement over whether governments should or should not have greater policy authority than other stakeholders. I suggest a way of overcoming that disagreement by firstly engaging in a more thorough analysis of the claims of each stakeholder stakeholder group to participate in policy development in a given issue area. For issue areas in which governments are found to have a role, I suggest that the concerns of governments that their sovereignty is threatened could be addressed by structuring the policy development process according to a consociational model, that would give governments (and other stakeholder groups) a right of mutual veto over recommendations that they cannot support.

My second caution is that trying to retro-fit multi-stakeholder democratic legitimacy to a multitude of existing bodies, in the short term, is likely to prove a quixotic endeavour. It is also unnecessary when there is already a multi-stakeholder Internet governance institution – the IGF – that possesses a UN mandate to make recommendations across a broad range of Internet public policy issues, already has the trust and support of all non-governmental stakeholders, and is much more accessible to civil society than that plethora of other bodies could ever be.

In this way the IGF, with its proposed coordinating function, can act as a proxy to receive multi-stakeholder input into the development of high-level principles for the guidance of other, less multi-stakeholder institutions. At the same time, the IGF can host multi-stakeholder working groups to develop policy on issues for which there is no existing body to deal with them. In both cases, significant reforms to the IGF would be required – but these are much more achievable than the similar reforms required to transform the entire ecosystem of Internet governance institutions.

Bibliography:

Malcolm, Jeremy. Multi-stakeholder Governance and the Internet Governance Forum. Terminus Press, 2008.

The love-hate relationship between the Internet technical community and civil society

I’m Australian, but I’ve been living in Malaysia for almost six years. One thing that you may not know about Malaysia is that they have an active stand-up comedy scene here. One of the staples of the scene is that the Chinese, Indian and Malay comedians will all make fun not only of their own race – which is something they could do in Australia too – but also of the other races, using some pretty offensive stereotypes, that I’m not going to repeat here! So in honour of that, I’m going to do the same thing, though it’s not going to be stand-up comedy, and the races that I’m going to be talking about are not Chinese, Indian or Malay, but the Internet technical community, and civil society. And I can do this, because I myself have a technical and a civil society background; so if I offend anyone here, be assured that I am offending myself as well. Having said that, in present company it seems safest to begin by offending civil society. To techies, “civil society” is a bogus concept, referring to a bunch of failed career politicians who lack a basic understanding of the technology behind the Internet, have no legitimacy to represent Internet users as they claim to do, and litter their conversation with stupid acronyms like “WSIS”, “MDGs” and “LDCs”. To civil society, the technical community are a bunch of narrow-minded, politically libertarian geeks, who can’t (or refuse to) understand the policy dimensions of technology, or how it is shaped by power and money, and who litter their conversation with stupid acronyms like “BGP”, “MPLS” and “DNSSEC”. Civil society loves to use human rights to justify all sorts of demands, and are endlessly critical of big business, and America, and other rich countries, for not fulfilling those supposed rights, but they never display an ounce of gratitude for the fact that without those same companies and countries, supported by the technical community, they wouldn’t even have any Internet to complain about. The technical community on the other hand has a massive superiority complex. They think that because they know about routing or DNS, they also know politics. In fact they know it better than the politicians do, because the technical community’s processes for standards development and resource allocation are actually the best processes in the world for doing anything, and can be applied without any changes to the political realm. So this is where we are at. Both the Internet technical community and civil society think that they know it all, and that the other side is stupid and naive. And since I identify with both sides, you can just imagine the extent of my self-loathing. But we have to move on from that, because the future of the Internet depends on the two sides learning to get along. Both need to recognise their own limitations, and the value of what the other side has to contribute. Civil society and the technical community may hate each other sometimes, but could they really be a perfect match? I think the answer is yes. And the reason is Edward Snowden. Now I know what some of you are thinking – changes to Internet governance have nothing to do with Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance – and you’re right, in a narrow sense; the DNS root, for example, is not going to be any less secure just because the NSA is headquartered in the same country as ICANN. But what Edward Snowden did do is to bring the technical community and civil society together in agreement on one point – that the status quo needs to change. And that is the turning point for our communities. The Montevideo Statement, Fadi Chehadé’s role in the establishment of the NetMundial 2014 meeting, and most recently ISOC’s announcement that it would finally support the IGF developing recommendations – none of these would have happened without Edward Snowden. And it’s not all one way. Civil society is also realising that it needs to expand its own horizons beyond its little goldfish bowl. Two years ago I perceived that there was a disconnect between the NGOs that I was working with on Internet governance issues, and the digital rights groups from North America who were campaigning for “Internet freedom”, many of whom were closely linked with the technical community. We were doing similar things, but weren’t coordinating very well with each other, or even talking. So we formed a new civil society network called Best Bits to bring those movements together. Taking this a step further was the formation of the 1net initiative last year by the technical community organisations, who invited civil society in too. 1net has taken some missteps, but the promise of this initiative is to bring the Internet technical community and broader civil society together to share their own different experiences of the Internet, their own opinions of what its core values are, and their ideas about joint strategies to preserve its value and to address its shortcomings. So I hope and believe that the future of the Internet technical community and civil society is together. When we fight with each other, it gets ugly, and I know this better than most. But together, we could just save the Internet. This is the text of a Lightning Talk given at APRICOT 2014.

Tectonic shift at ISOC: embracing outputs from the IGF

As readers of this website since 2006 will know well, one of the most staunch opponents of the IGF developing the capacity to produce non-binding policy outputs has been ISOC. Until now.

Yesterday, ISOC posted this submission to the IGF, which dramatically reversed years of opposition to paragraph 72(g) of its mandate (see below), and opens the door to an IGF that delivers tangible, soft law policy documents as outputs.

In the past, former CEO and President Lynn St Amour insisted, “I don’t think the IGF is a place for decisions, or for recommendations”, and this has been a consistent position in all ISOC’s submissions about the IGF since then.

But in its latest statement, the shift in thinking that we saw in the Montevideo Statement on Internet Cooperation, and in ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadé’s (albeit very contentious) support of Netmundial 2014, continues with the most dramatic turnaround seen from ISOC to date.

“Now is the time to take the IGF a step further, towards more tangible outcomes, as recommended by the CSTD WG on Improvements to the IGF”, ISOC writes.

Drawing on the processes of the IETF in the field of technical standards development, the submission suggests:

The Internet Society believes a good starting point would be to develop intersessional work on substantive issues, build on the work of the Dynamic Coalitions and create working groups chaired by MAG members or relevant experts of the IGF community, focused on particular topics or issues. The working groups would mostly work online, and meet physically during the MAG and Open Consultations meetings as well as the IGF. Ultimately, the IGF would have to develop a process that allows for adoption, by rough consensus, of documents, which would not be binding, but open to voluntary recognition and adoption by all stakeholders.

Essentially, then, ISOC’s position is now the same as that for which civil society has been advocating for for a decade, with ISOC until now fiercely opposed. Consider, just to name a few, the Internet Governance Project’s Building an Internet Governance Forum, Avri Doria’s proposal The IETF as a Model for the IGF, Vittoria Bertola’s An Implementation Proposal for the Internet Governance Forum, and indeed my own writings such as Lessons for the Internet Governance Forum from the IETF and my 2006 GIGANET presentation.

The ISOC statement is unconvincingly pitched as consistent with ISOC’s previous policy, and to the extent that any rationale for the backflip is given at all, it is that:

While Para 72 (g) of the Tunis Agenda (“Identify emerging issues, bring them to the
attention of the relevant bodies and the general public, and, where appropriate, make recommendations.”) allows for the possibility of making recommendations, the IGF, in the first years of its existence, would have been too fragile to allow for a robust discussion on how to work towards a consensus.

But ISOC also (correctly) recognises that:

2014 will be a pivotal year for Internet governance. The accelerated pace of Internet governance discussions in 2014-2015 is exemplified by the many major conferences … shaping the future agenda, with some of them aiming to restructure existing arrangements. It will, therefore, be important for the IGF to contribute to the shaping of a new international consensus on Internet governance. This context provides a unique opportunity for the IGF to occupy a central place in this debate.

Although I won’t soon forget eight years of bashing my head against a wall, I can’t argue with that. Now let’s see if the rest of the IGF MAG agrees, and makes the changes that will be necessary to see this happen.