[EPW] democratising internet governance

The “NETmundial” conference in Brazil on democratising internet governance was a vacuous exercise.The internet today is ubiquitous the world over as a mode of communication and diffusion of knowledge, and an arena for commercial business, among other things.

Its massive expansion, largely in a free and equitable manner, has much to do with the effort of various communities of people engaged in building a digital commons over and beyond the pioneering efforts of departments of the US government that built the internet in the first place.

Issues of governance have inevitably come to the fore, and much was expected from the conference, “NETmundial”, held last month, which sought to build upon prevailing ideas concerning multilateralisation of internet governance.

At present, it is the agencies of the US government that control the nuts and bolts of internet architecture, primarily the domain name system (DNS) and the root zone server which controls the naming and addressing protocols for domains all over the world.

The US government has over the previous decade and a half resolved to loosen its hold – through the aegis of US commerce department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) – over the DNS and the root zone server.

The work of maintaining the two have been contracted to the not-for-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), headquartered in the US. On 14 March 2014, the US government reiterated its intent to undertake the transition to – what it has called – a “multi-stakeholder model” of internet governance.

Previously, the “multi-stakeholder model” was shorthand for privatisation, basically leading to corporate control over the internet’s key resources, but over time it has intended to include various civil society representatives and organisations.

In its present intended configuration the model is now pitted against what others have argued for – a “multilateral model of governance”. The latter has pitched for a UN-like grouping of nation states having a say in internet governance through a multilateral international organisation.

The US, with support from many of its OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) allies, has steadfastly refused to allow a transition of this kind, fearing loss of inherent control of national law and national government agency regulation of the internet.

This has led to grievances over the US’s retention of the internet’s major governing resources. Since last year, it has been clear that the US government along with large and predominantly monopolist internet corporations have conducted mass surveillance over the internet of people even beyond the US’s borders.

The US government has also declined to curb the anti-competitive practices of the monopolistic corporations command­ing various aspects of the internet. It has pushed the veneer of protection of civil liberties guaranteed in its Constitution and its purported role as the leader of the “free world” in refusing to cede any ground to proposals related to multilateral governance of the internet.

A multilateral approach has been deemed necessary by many as it is well understood that sovereign nations have the best wherewithal to address issues such as cyber warfare/cyber-terrorism or to bring into place restrictions on unfair practices that establish monopolistic control over the internet’s resources.

It is in this regard that Brazil among others has initiated a dialogue between those advocating a “multi-stakeholder approach” and those for a “multilateral approach” to internet governance.

“NETmundial” was intended as a step in this direction. It sought to build upon the ideas for multilateralisation of internet governance as these have evolved from the Tunis agenda for the Information Society conducted by the World Summit on the Information Society in 2005.

The conference was held in the context of Brazil’s move to counteract US domination over internet resources, which had made possible Washington’s “boundless” and intrusive surveillance programmes. It coincided with the signing into law by Brazil’s Parliament of a bill of internet rights that protects the civil liberties of internet users in the country.

This law includes the provision of “net neutrality”, a principle that equalises access to any website for the ordinary user. It is noteworthy that a US federal court had in January this year ruled against “net neutrality” in favour of a communication services corporation. In this context, it is worrying that articulation of the need to preserve “net neutrality” was expressly lacking in the outcome document of the conference’s deliberations.

While the outcome of the conference was a “non-binding” set of principles, efforts to reach a workable consensus that protects the “free-ness and openness” of the internet and permits democratic “multi-stakeholder” control over the internet’s governance system were only partially successful.

With continued scepticism emanating from the US and its allies over the need for other states to participate in the transition to a multi-stakeholder model, the use of language favouring strict copyright laws and inter­mediary liabilities amounting to decentralised policing by intermediaries over users, the outcome document has belied expectations.

The US continues to remain non-committal about how it seeks to implement its intent of bestowing internet governance upon a global community of multiple stakeholders.

Without a discriminating and discerning differentiation of roles and responsibilities between stakeholders such as global corporations, civil society organisations and sovereign nation states, and allowing for a more decentralised structure of internet governance, the proposed transition amounts to a vacuous exercise.

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