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.