Local access and community networks at the 2019 Internet Governance Forum (Part 1)

It has become clear that commercial connectivity models alone are not sufficient to connect the billions of people in different parts of the world who still lack meaningful and affordable access to information and communications technologies (ICTs). Alternative local access models like community networks, managed by the communities themselves, are offering the potential for connectivity in areas whose needs are not being met by governments, big companies and other traditional actors. Highlighting the work of these community-led initiatives was one of APC’s priorities at this year’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF), held in Berlin on 25-29 November.

Community networks and the internet as a common good

“The big operators are not the only ones who can provide connectivity. Community networks are offering access in many areas that have been historically left behind and need all of the support – economic, regulatory, etc. – that they can get,” stressed Carlos Rey-Moreno, the local access policy and regulation coordinator for the “Connecting the Unconnected: Supporting community networks and other community-based connectivity initiatives” project, speaking at the IGF pre-event on “Electricity, Community Networks and Digital Inclusion”.

Issues around “connecting the unconnected” were addressed in depth at the Internet Commons Forum, a pre-event jointly organised by Fundação Getulio Vargas, Internet Society, APC and Centrum Cyfrowe. Moderated by Anriette Esterhuysen, APC’s senior advisor on internet governance, policy advocacy and strategic planning and the newly designated chair of the IGF’s Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG), the forum explored the concept of access to the internet as a common good, through the experiences of organisations like qaul.net, Creative Commons, Commons Network, IT for Change, free2air, PersonalData.IO, Digitale Gesellscaft, Rhizomatica and the various community network initiatives supported by APC, among others.

With the arrival of the internet “we can see a revival of the commons,” explained Sophie Bloemen of the Commons Network, although this concept of the commons is constantly under threat. The various panellists at the Internet Commons Forum concurred with the idea that “we’re increasingly used to being clients of the internet, instead of users or participants, and that should change. Community networks allow us to reconfigure this.”

For his part, Adam Burns of London-based free2air, the longest existing open wireless commons in Europe, emphasised, “Technology is not neutral and it’s not equally distributed, and yet it defines who or what is important, who or what is ignored.”

“Many people, many communities have been left out of the internet as we know it,” said Nico Pace, the movement building coordinator for APC’s “Connecting the Unconnected” project. “Half of the planet is completely disconnected. Some communities have taken this matter into their own hands, doing what governments and corporations have not done,” added. Resources in these communities are often scarce, however, and they cannot do all of this alone. This points to the need for initiatives like LibreRouter, which helps communities build their own mesh networks.

“Technology should not be the centre of the process”

The panellists noted the importance of recognising not only the benefits but also the risks that technology can represent for currently underserved communities. “Technology should not be the centre of the process, it’s a tool and not a goal,” said Carlos Baca of Rhizomatica, an APC member organisation that supports communities to build and maintain self-governed and owned communication infrastructure, with a particular emphasis on rural and indigenous communities. Baca recommended applying a “technology choice matrix” to link the technology used to the needs of each individual context.

After exploring infrastructure-related aspects, the forum moved on to address issues around platforms, content and data. One of the speakers during this section was Mariana Valente from the Brazilian chapter of Creative Commons, who commented, “Creative Commons became the face of a new optimism, but soon the internet became an elite ruling culture for the elites.”

Anita Gurumurthy of IT for Change described the current situation in even more chilling terms in her presentation on “Commons in the age of capitilism”: “Farms without farmers, technology used to squeeze out small producers, as Alibaba has done in China; from connecting farmers with consumers to eliminating the farmers. Welcome to the world of data networks.”

Gurumurthy questioned whether a commons model is even possible in the platform-based digital economy. “We would need public infrastructures,” she stressed. “Our institutional frameworks reflect these conceptual models of capital-intensive production, market-based, proprietary, but they need not be.”

For his part, Paul-Olivier Dehaye, the founder of PersonalData.IO, focused on the particular example of platform-based companies like Uber and the dehumanisation of their workers, who are not even considered their workers. “Uber destroys the capability of drivers to connect and trust each other,” he said. “This is achieved through threats and disinformation spread by Uber,” he added, calling for the company to be held accountable for circumventing basic workers’ rights.

As is always the case at large gatherings like the IGF, the discussions around community networks and other local access initiatives were not limited to scheduled events, sessions and panels. Community network practitioners, regulators, media representatives and others interested in the subject continued to exchange views at side meetings, informal gatherings at the stands hosted by different organisations and projects, and post-IGF events like the one organised by Deutsche Welle Akademie

In an upcoming article we will share highlights from the meeting, which brought together local access initiatives from Africa, Asia and Latin America. In the meantime, if you want to learn more about the subject, we recommend that you:

« Go back