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.
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.)
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Civil society has also played an important role on Internet matters, especially at community level, and should continue to play such a role.
- Intergovernmental organizations have had, and should continue to have, a facilitating role in the coordination of Internet-related public policy issues.
- 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.
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.