07 May 2014

Last week, I attended the NETmundial conference in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Here are my comments, analysis and insights. The event itself was unprecedented – both in it's scope and it's format. Hence, it was hard to take in everything at the event itself.

My analysis also covers my impressions and my interpretation of the underlying trends at the event. Firstly, let me start with an observation:

A group from Chennai in India made a remote video comment. They made a brief statement which could be summarized that – the group did not endorse the statements made recently (at the event) by their own country delegation (India). 

That comment encapsulates all which is going on at NETmundial: the question of who (governments vs multi-stakeholders) will govern the Internet. 

In a nutshell,  the question boils down to: Should the Internet be regulated by governments (similar to United Nations) OR Should civil society, technologies, business interests have a say in the governance of the Internet. The former is the multi-lateral model (one country – one vote and no votes for anyone else). The later is the “multi-stakeholder” model. 

Governments are used to the Multi-lateral model. The Internet, as it currently runs, is based on the multi-stakeholder model. The multi-stakeholder model is also familiar to the various technologies/protocols for example ietf

NETmundial was designed as a multi-stakeholder event. Like many people who approach the Internet from the perspective of Openness and from a technology standpoint, it's hard for me to see how the Internet can be governed by Governments only. However, many governments see the alternative (multi-stakeholderism) as 'influenced by the USA'. Therein lies the crux of the debate.

The event itself was brought out by Brazil's response to the mass surveillance.  Reflecting a new world order, the event was triggered by Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff as a two pronged strategy. Internally, within Brazil – the Marco declaration was announced for Brazillian citizens. The Marco declaration now guarantees of freedom of expression, protection of privacy and personal data, network neutrality and openness to Brazilian citizens. 

NETmundial was proposed as the global face of the same idea.  

Unlike the Marco bill however, the outcome documents of NETmundial are not law – but can be seen as an important step forward.


At the start of this event, European Commission vice-president Neelie Kroes argued for more "concrete and actionable" goals.

While the concluding eight-page outcome document/statement is non-binding and it is far from the proposed "Magna Carta for the Internet" which Tim Berners Lee called for in his opening address; NETmundial sets the stage for other events where this discussion will continue – most notably, the IGF meeting in Istanbul and the ITU meeting in Busan.

The scope of NETmundial was unprecedented.

With representatives from 97 countries, 1,500 delegates, 188 presentations; 30 global hubs(which sent video submissions and comments) and thousands of tweets – the event was huge.

The key innovation of the event was two-fold:

a) To bring together a range of participants who normally engage in separate groups. Specifically, the country delegations alongwith companies, technical experts, advocacy groups (ex EFF) and technical groups (ex IETF and Mozilla)

b) The engagement format – equal amount of time to countries, civil society, technical fora and videoconferencing hubs. High level government officials were treated the same as anyone else. In the comment phase, there were a set of microphones for different classes of participants (civil society, business, technical community, government). Government ministers who wanted to comment had to queue behind the government microphone and everyone had the same 2 minute limit – no matter which class (government, civil society, business etc). People could also participate from 'Remote hubs' – globally – and many did.  

Thus, the format itself was a success factor and mirrored the ethos of the Net (to treat everyone as equal). As far as I can tell, this has never been done before and these two innovations in themselves are a  success!

Themes and Perspectives

In the following section, I touch upon the important themes, players and perspectives at the event.  

National government agendas v.s. the rights of Internet users across boundaries

The differing viewpoints between national governments  one side and the wider multi-stakeholder community on the other side was a recurring theme for the event. Comments from many governments (especially India, China and Russia) made this difference very clear. There was talk of adopting the Tunis agenda – but it is not clear how the Tunis agenda fits with the multi-stakeholder model since it also calls for UN leadership. 

This leads to more wider questions – will IGF be a decision-making entity? Will we see more government participation at IGF? etc

Funding for Internet governance

There were calls for  more funding for Internet governance and this will be an ongoing discussion.

Mass survaillance

Mass surveillance was at the backdrop of the event but the final document did not make a direct reference to the incidents of the last year. It only said "Mass and arbitrary surveillance undermines trust in the Internet and trust in the Internet governance ecosystem. Collection and processing of personal data by state and non-state actors should be conducted in accordance with international human rights law."

Intellectual property, Open source, Net neutrality

There was a lot of discussion in the comments section about net neutrality, open source and Intellectual property. But these ideas did not make it necessarily to the final document. When they did – they were caveated with sub-clauses for example – for intellectual property - Freedom of information and access to information: Everyone should have the right to access, share, create and distribute information on the Internet, consistent with the rights of authors and creators as established in law.

Similarly, Net neutrality language did not end up in the final document, which is another source of disappointment for many.

Corporate entities

The goal of the global tech corporates like Google, Microsoft and Facebook was to try and ensure that data flows openly and that politicians do not encourage local alternatives/national storage mechanism for Data especially in light of mass surveillance revelations. (see comments on Marco declaration below and comments on balkanization)

Learning from the Marco declaration

The Brazilian Marco declaration (referred to before) provides an early example of the issues at stake. Unlike the outcome document from Netmundial – the Marco legislation is legally binding in Brazil. 

The passage of this legislation in Brazil went through it's own parliamentary process. The Marco regulation adopted Net neutrality provisions (Telecoms companies cannot charge customers higher fees to access data intensive services) but significantly – it back-tracked from the idea that would have required internet firms to store data about Brazilian users within the country's borders. 

The idea to store data locally was opposed by Google, Twitter and Facebook on grounds of cost. As it stands, the bill now says companies handling data about Brazilian citizens will be subject to local privacy laws even if the data involved in a case is held abroad.

Balkanization: Data/Privacy battleground

The threat of Balkanization of the Internet was at the background of the event. Internet balkanization is an emotive term which refers to the splitting of the Internet along various factors, such as technology, commerce, politics, nationalism, religion, and interests.

John Perry Barlow's 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace - highlights the issue in it's opening sentence: Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

Governments who have not heeded this warning like the Turkish government recently – have found themselves at the losing end and in conflict with their own citizens who have bypassed restrictions.

But, there is another side to this:

It is now argued that the commercial beneficiaries  of "free and open" are the companies who benefit from the currency of Data. This could be seen as another form of Balkanization. On one hand, we have countries being accused of Balkanization. But on the other hand, the commercial companies who call for Openness could be also seen to engage in 'Data' balkanization.  

Given the character of this discussion I would not be surprised to see governments and regions taking a more proactive role here. Starting with a move to store data locally and promotion of companies who do so at a regional level.

Hence, the attempt by the Marco legislation in Brazil to store data locally (or at least to ensure that Brazilian law applies to Brazilian data – wherever it is stored) is very significant.

The way forward?

The average person on the street is an Internet user but has no clue as to how the Internet is governed.  The passion, contributions and comments of the global participants may change that going forward – and that's a good outcome of NETmundial.

For years, Internet Governance remained 'light touch' and under the stewardship of the USA, the Internet has become a force for grassroots change and innovation.

But now, things are uncertain with calls for a wider participation from many countries.

The proponents of the multi-stakeholder model believe that the Internet should be largely leaderless – with decisions being driven by a wider collection of stakeholders (as opposed to only nation states).

But as we saw at Netmundial, nation states want to play a key role. It is also not clear, if nation states will want to play an equal role to the others.

In that sense, while NETmundial was about non-binding resolutions, it was really about deciding the principles and showing the way forward. The conversation will continue in other events specifically IGF and ITU events.

The key achievement of NETmundial is to provide a forum for all stakeholders to meet and to provide a platform where all stakeholders are equal.

A final personal note on ICANN president Fadi Chehadé

Having met Fadi a few times now in Washington, Barcelona and Sao Paolo and observed the process of Netmundial I am impressed with his sincerity and leadership in bringing together a global group of people on such an important issue. This is not an easy task – and in his blog post after NETmundial – he personally commits to working tirelessly to move things forward Turning Talk Into Action After NETmundial

A cause, which I watch with interest and support.

As the Zen proverb says: The journey is the destination i.e. the process itself is important.

Picture source http://netmundial.org/

by Ajit Jaokar



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