By Anriette Esterhuysen Publisher: APCNews Johannesburg,Published on
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By the time most members of civil society active in Internet governance heard of the NETmundial Initiative (or Alliance as it as originally termed) it was already a fait accompli. A few carefully selected civil society invitees were given a choice to get on board, or miss their chance to participate in internet governance’s next “great event”. A further few were invited to the initial scoping meeting.
APC was one of the organisations that received an invitation but as we are not attending the meeting we are sharing these remarks.
The NMI appropriates the name of NETmundial, the multistakeholder event held in Brazil earlier this year. Yet there are few resemblances between the NMI and NETmundial outside of the name. The initiative was conceived of in a top down manner, and efforts to implement it so far – the scoping meeting- have reflected this approach. It has been neither inclusive nor transparent. It is of great concern to APC that information about the event was only released to the public by the organisers after it had been leaked. This is not an appropriate profile for any event that purports to operate in the spirit of the NETmundial principles. And it does not bode well for its future success as a multistakeholder initiative. It is hard to grasp how an initiative that starts off in this manner can become a democratic, transparent and participatory venue for the global community serving human rights and the public good.
Started, it appears, by the Chief Executive of ICANN, and facilitated and hosted by World Economic Forum (WEF), the NMI appears to have good intentions, namely to (quoting from the brief): 1) “Facilitate a distributed environment of effective global cooperation among stakeholders through innovative and legitimate mechanisms to tackle current and future Internet issues; 2) Inform and equip capacity development initiatives to ensure global participation in Internet cooperation, especially from under-represented regions; and 3) Work to build trust in the Internet and its governance ecosystem.”
But is the WEF an appropriate forum for these processes? The WEF has close links to business, and is mostly financed by big business. It has expertise in facilitating engagement between business and governments, and sometimes also with civil society, and its interest in internet governance should be seen as positive. But very few civil society organisations, particularly from the developing world (or Global South) would feel comfortable in WEF spaces. Many identify with the World Social Forum, the alternative forum which was established to challenge approaches to globalisation and development promoted at the WEF. Many developing country governments also do not feel that they have equal voice at the WEF.
Looking at the list of participants at the NMI Scoping Meeting it is clear who is present, and who is not. By far the majority of participants come from Europe and North America. Business representation dramatically outweighs that of civil society.
WEF events are seen as grand events for the rich and powerful that have very little, if anything, to do with civil society and the daily lives and struggles of the general population. This discomfort leads to questions and concerns:
- There is a general lack of diversity among the civil society participants in most WEF events in general, and in this event – the NMI Scoping Meeting – specifically. What will be done to remedy this situation as the process continues?
- Does WEF have the legitimacy among a large enough proportion of the diverse stakeholder groups involved in internet to governance to facilitate the establishment of a sustained, inclusive and bottom up process that can gradually lead the way in building the legitimacy and inclusiveness needed to operationalise the NETmundial outcomes at global, regional, and national levels?
- What experience does WEF have at bridging the gap between those who hold power and influence, and a civil society that has neither power nor, frequently, influence?
- Most the pressing internet governance challenges of the moment involve containing actions by governments and businesses to fragment the internet (intentionally or unintentionally). For example, insufficient data protection, and new challenges to protecting users’ rights, and business models which rely on data mining practices which put these rights at risk? While business and governments need to be part of these solutions, is a forum dominated by them (the case for the WEF and thus far for the NMI) likely to come up with solutions that challenges their interests?
- How can WEF help to integrate what the NETmundial stands for (public interested, multistakeholder, democratic, and human rights oriented internet governance) into the day to day running of the internet in ways that will be felt by existing and future users?
- What is the NMI relationship to the Internet Governance Forum (IGF)? Will it focus on strengthening it? Or will it attempt to be complimentary? How can it guarantee that it will not disrupt the work of thousands that has gone into building the IGF over the last decade?
- Will the NMI stand for human rights and make them a priority in internet governance?
- How will those developing country governments that currently feel excluded and disaffected with multistakeholder internet governance processes (and this includes both the NETmundial and the IGF) be included and how will they be challenged to change their behaviours with regard to, particularly, civil society participation in national internet policy processes?
- Will it approach capacity building as a process needed by the developing world only? Will it look beyond attributing the primary reason for the lack of support for multistakeholder processes among developing country governments to lack of capacity and knowledge? Or will it use capacity building is often used as a band-aid, with rich countries proposing resources/aid for multistakeholder processes as means of securing political support at international processes? If capacity, and its building, is to be defined by the north for the south it will only reinforce existing inequalities in power and will fail to strengthen multistakeholder processes at either national or global levels.
Having pointed to our concerns, we also want to point to our wishes. Since this meeting is happening, we wish it the greatest success. We strongly support its goal of building support for a strong IGF. We would be willing to assist the WEF during the next six months in trying to make this initiative a genuinely multistakeholder effort that pays heed to democratic and bottom-up processes with outreach and accountability to the global stakeholder community. APC also believes that there is value in expanding the conversation to include people who have heretofore been absent from the discussion; we realise that cooperation with the WEF is one way to build awareness of critical issues and processes among those actors they have an established relationship with. Broadening the range of business voices involved in internet governance is needed. But dominance of business voices in the internet governance ecosystem is not only not needed, it will destroy any chance that this distributed, decentralised system has of being regarded as legitimate and focused on the public interest.
APC insists that greater transparency and inclusiveness going forward is vital. WEF has committed to a six-month period of consultations regarding whether and how to establish a dedicated organisational structure to support the NMI going forward, whether or not connected to the Forum.4 The next six months will determine the degree to which this effort can reach the global community in all of its diversity in a manner that is worthy of the brand NETmundial.