A conversation with the technical community

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A conversation with the technical community
User: terminus
Date: 6/5/2013 8:28 pm
Views: 4796
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In my series of posts about Internet freedom in a world of states (beginning with this one), I tried to condense my thoughts on Internet governance reform into the simplest possible terms. But still I have had to clear up misunderstandings, and state my position even more starkly. I've been doing that on an ISOC mailing list, from which I present some key excerpts below. (This conversation is kicked off by Dave Burstein, but has been carried on between myself and Nick Ashton-Hart over the past couple of days.)

Dave: One issue is that much of the world is angry they are effectively excluded from Internet governance. They are right, and the powers that be should broaden the process.

Nick: I don't agree. What processes related to the development of the Internet exclude anyone - except those, like the ITU, which explicitly don't allow everyone in the room? I don't know of any, from IETF, to W3C, to ICANN, the RIRs, the London process on spam, etc.etc. etc.

What processes, specifically, do you believe exclude 'much of the world'?

Jeremy: Whatever "processes related to the development of the Internet" might mean, it's certainly narrower than "Internet governance" if it is limited to those organisations that you list.  What about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is currently negotiating rules about free flow of information online, and intermediary liability amongst other topics, all behind closed doors?  What about the OECD which is pushing its Council Recommendation on Principles for Internet Policy Making as globally normative?  What about APEC which is rewriting cross-border privacy laws and is in many ways even less open and transparent than the ITU?  What about the US government itself that makes decisions that impact the global Internet - such as seizure of domain names owned and operated by and for foreigners - without affording a hearing to those affected?

I'm sure that those who support the status quo and oppose reforms to Internet governance such as enhanced cooperation think they are doing the right thing.  But it is a very short-sighted if not blinkered approach, which often has unintended consequences.  For example, WCIT need never have happened if the IGF had been allowed to assume the role that the Tunis Agenda laid out, involving the development of non-binding recommendations, which could have provided a safety valve for the disquiet and frustration that blew up at WCIT instead.  The IGF might now be a lost cause, but we are again at a similar crossroads with the enhanced cooperation process.  This could go either way depending on whether the technical community continues to obstruct the evolution of existing arrangements on the false pretext that the status quo is fully inclusive, or is willing to keep an open mind.

Nick: Sorry, but if we go looking for places where the Internet is in some way connected to the dialogue, we rapidly include every public policy framework in the world on every subject. Suggesting that because there are places where the Internet is touched that have a barrier to participation in that context becomes meaningless.

Jeremy: Well, now we are getting somewhere. You are disagreeing with the definition of "Internet governance" which is rather fundamental. All of the above issues and institutions that I list are unambiguously Internet governance issues under the accepted definition of WGIG. I am not just going off on a lark by suggesting that discussions of enhanced cooperation might relate to issues such as these, rather than technical issues dealt with by the I* bodies.

It seems to me that the knee-jerk reaction that technical community representatives have against suggestions of reform to existing arrangements nearly always stems from misunderstanding that it is suggested that reforms to technical processes are being sought. With the exception of the big one (US control of the root), this is not the case. There are real and current concerns about public policy issues such as intellectual property enforcement, privacy, freedom of expression and so on that are central to civil society's concerns about Internet governance reform.

Nick: And central to many others, who work on these now and in many cases have for many years. Putting everything into one giant basket and suggesting it all has to be linked to everything else just guarantees no problem ever gets solved.

Jeremy: Whereas ensuring that these issues continue to be restricted to their North-based silos just ensures that civil society voices and developing countries are left out when policies that affect their interests are made - which suits those who benefit from the status quo just fine.

Nick: The many advocates from all over the world working on IP, privacy, and freedom of expression would take umbrage at your blanket assumption that none of them are engaged, I think.

Jeremy: They (and I am one of them) are engaged in less open, multi-stakeholder institutions, most of them controlled by developed country blocs and/or multinational corporations, which do not have any or adequate means of receiving public interest perspectives into their deliberative processes. I gave a list of a few of them earlier in this thread.

What such advocates want is the opportunity to benefit from the same open, multi-stakeholder policy development processes that the Internet technical community has, mostly, enjoyed all these years (though even those can be improved, as we have been discussing). Is this too much for them to ask?

By obstructing the development of enhanced institutional mechanisms, processes, fora, platforms or what-have-you, that could enable those who are excluded from current mechanisms to participate in public policy development on a more equal footing, you (here a collective you, meaning the technical community representatives) are denying them what you already have.

You are in effect telling them that multistakeholderism is fine for us, in our narrow technical sphere of Internet governance, but we don't want you to have the same opportunities in advocating for broader Internet governance principles to support the public interest. You can just demonstrate in the streets or write letters to your politicians if you want to have a voice in Internet governance arrangements - or if you're a small developing country, you can ask the ITU to step in.

Frankly, the technical community has no place in denying excluded stakeholders a voice in Internet governance arrangements that fall outside its own mandate. Whilst it may feel that it is only protecting its patch by opposing reforms to the IGF or at the CSTD Working Group (yes I know I'm jumping the gun, so prove me wrong in six months time), fine then: focus your energies on protecting that patch.

The Tunis Agenda already makes clear that the enhanced cooperation mandate extends only to "international public policy issues pertaining to the Internet, but not in the day-to-day technical and operational matters, that do not impact on international public policy issues". So keep that as your touchstone, and stop attempting to derail the broader process.

It is no business of yours to obstruct the broader enhanced cooperation mandate, or to perpetuate the falsehood that the mandate has already been fulfilled. This stance is doing untold damage to the interests of communities that you do not represent, including future generations of those who will be affected by laws and policies that are being made today, without multi-stakeholder input.

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