Following so shortly on the heels of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s surveillance programs, the United Nations’ 8th Internet Governance Forum (IGF), held October 22nd through 25th in Bali, Indonesia, was dominated by discussion of surveillance, privacy, and human rights online. In the face of international Internet governance community outrage, the meeting also was dominated by discussion of new models of Internet governance that would reduce the power of the United States and formalize more robust mechanisms of multistakeholderism.
The IGF was created by the United Nations in 2006 as a response to the apparent need for a global forum for open multistakeholder discussion of public policy concerns related to the Internet and its regulation. Since then, the IGF meeting has been the premier annual event which brings together members of governments, the private sector, the technical community, and civil society to discuss Internet governance. This year’s meeting attracted a record attendance of over 2000 participants, and included more than 100 workshops and focus sessions. Approximately 25,000 people tweeted using the hashtags #igf13 or #igf2013, reaching an audience of nearly 10 million.
Surveillance, Internet Freedom, and Human Rights
Surveillance and related themes were pervasive across this year’s IGF agenda. Discussion of PRISM and other national mass surveillance programs fueled a general sense of declining Internet freedom. Pointing to new surveillance programs in other countries such as Russia, the UK, and New Zealand, activists indicated concern over a “race to the bottom” in which programs in the US and other democracies would provide justificatory cover for potentially more abusive programs elsewhere.
Increasing Internet filtering, and legal and other restrictions of user rights were also brought into the spotlight, with civil society and technology groups discussing how research and activism can be used to protect Internet rights in countries with increasing levels of restrictions such as the Philippines and Pakistan. The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab released fresh research on Internet filtering and surveillance in Indonesia, comparing Internet restrictions at the IGF venue and elsewhere in the country. Google also attracted attention to the risks faced by online activists, launching several new tools for their benefit during the IGF meeting, including: a realtime DDoS attack map and a secure web hosting service.
Some discussion focused on the roles of Internet Service Providers and other intermediary tech companies in sometimes willingly complying with state demands to participate in filtering or surveillance regimes. On the other hand, representatives of such companies increasingly discussed their desire for transparency – to share openly with users the pressures they are under from states.
While civil society groups praised this year’s conference program for focusing heavily on human rights and free expression, issues of access and development also got significant attention. While discussions of “capacity building” were discounted by some observers as more slogan than roadmap, discussions of increasing Internet infrastructure and access in the developing world delved into such complex issues as ensuring equal access for the handicapped, achieving gender equality in Internet use, and bridging digital divides, both between and within countries. The concern surrounding surveillance was never far from the surface, however, with discussion of the benefits of big data analysis for confronting development problems such as hunger, poverty, and disease, turning, for example, to the risks to user privacy – especially when collecting data concerning the most vulnerable populations.
Multistakeholderism and the Future of Internet Governance
The theme of this year’s IGF meeting was “Building Bridges: Enhanced Multistakeholder Cooperation for Growth and Sustainable Development.” In the post-Snowden climate, with a significant decline in trust of US Internet leadership, this took on new meaning, with a great deal of discussion of alternative models for the future of Internet governance.
In the past, “multistakeholderism” has often been associated with the continuation of the organically developed status quo, in which global dialogue at “talk shop” events such as the IGF is paired with continuing de facto leadership by US-dominated organizations such as ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). This has contrasted with potentially more intergovernmental and state-centric approaches, such as the increased UN control proposed by a Russian led-coalition at last December’s ITU WCIT (World Conference on International Telecommunications) meeting in Dubai – approaches that critics argue will balkanize the Internet by handing control to national governments and excluding the voices of industry, civil society, and other critical non-state interests.
This year the stage was set for a different sort of discussion, however, with dramatic moves by the Brazilian government, ICANN, and other leading Internet regulatory organizations during the month preceding the Bali meeting. On September 24th, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff delivered a fiery speech before the 68th session of the UN General Assembly, blasting US Internet surveillance programs, and calling for the UN to take a leading role in the development of a new global “civilian multilateral framework” for Internet governance that would prevent the militarization of cyberspace, and protect individual rights to freedom of expression and privacy.
Meeting in Uruguay soon after Rousseff’s speech, the major “I* organizations” (ICANN, RIRs, IETF, IAB, W3C, ISOC) issued a declaration, The Montevideo Statement on the Future of Internet Cooperation, on October 7th, expressing the need to substantially strengthen global Internet governance mechanisms through “community-wide efforts towards the evolution of global multistakeholder Internet cooperation” creating “an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing.” The statement explicitly rejected continued US Commerce Department oversight of ICANN, and called for a new globalized model of ICANN oversight. A day later on October 8th, the Brazilian government announced that Brazil would host a major global Internet governance meeting in Rio de Janeiro in April 2014 meant to address some of these concerns, at the request of ICANN President and CEO, Fadi Chehadi.
The Montevideo declaration and planned conference were avid topics of discussion and worried speculation by the time the Internet governance community met together in Bali. Accounts varied as to the Rio meeting’s likely outcome and inclusivity. With the possibility that this non-UN “summit” (as Brazil has called it) could play a foundational role in the development of a new set of core governing principles, decision-making mechanisms, and even a new institutional framework for oversight of ICANN, attention turned to which actors are involved in the planning and the level of inclusivity of the actual event.
Several packed IGF sessions addressed the Rio conference, but the precise goals and design were still up for grabs, leading to intense scrutiny of the potential risks to non-state stakeholder participation, and the potential un-readiness of Brazil to take up the US’s mantle as global leader on “Internet freedom.” And of course, the question of the hour became, what would a better system of ICANN oversight and Internet governance really look like?
As the 8th IGF meeting came to an end and Turkey was announced as the likely host of the next meeting in September 2014, much about the long term future of the IGF itself and the open multistakeholder governance model it has come to represent remained unresolved. With the dual concerns of surveillance and top-down assertion of state authority weighing heavily in the background, 2014 promises to be a momentous year for debates over the future of global Internet governance.