As the Netmundial conference on the future of Internet governance starts, rather than asking "What can we expect from it?", perhaps we might ask instead whether this future might be more promisingly reformed by political, technical and architectural innovations than by a preach to a so-called multistakeholder choir convened in Sao Paulo.
Since Fadi Chehadé, chair and CEO of ICANN, flew to Brazil in October 2013 to soften President Dilma Rousseff's outrage after her famous anti-digital-US-surveillance speech at the United Nations General Assembly, Netmundial has been part of the visible US effort to embrace Brazil into its political multistakeholder (MS) digital discourse. This narrative has provided an effective smoke screen for maintaining the status-quo, which involves, due to historical and economic reasons, asymmetric oversight of Internet Governance by the US government, through the IETF, IANA, ICANN, ISOC, and thanks their digital rubber barons. Over the last 16 years since the establishment of ICANN, a Californian nonprofit under contract with the US Department of Commerce, the MS governance model has done very little on behalf of citizens and netizens in terms of protecting digital freedoms -- from absence of competition for broadband access in the US to global surveillance by the NSA of all netizens of the planet. The MS model's major achievement has been its ability to keep things under subtle but indefeasible control.
As Rousseff, joined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, launched a digital revolt following the NSA scandal, the US government recognized it was facing something more serious than a bunch of UN experts or civil society activists from the South. Rousseff's statements were bold and clear: "In the absence of the right to privacy, there can be no true freedom of expression and opinion, and therefore no effective democracy" and "Tampering in such a manner in the affairs of other countries is a breach of international law and is an affront of the principles that must guide the relations among them, especially among friendly nations. A sovereign nation can never establish itself to the detriment of another sovereign nation. The right to safety of citizens of one country can never be guaranteed by violating fundamental human rights of citizens of another country." Her words still resonate for many.
Rousseff's comments were addressed primarily at the US and supporting countries for the US digital domination (UK, Sweden, Japan, Australia, etc). The ball was shot hard, and the US had no choice than to play it with the most dedicated attention. So, thanks to Chehadé's smooth assistance, Rousseff accepted to organize a conference jointly with ICANN. This proposal seemed a win-win. It provided a victory for Rousseff's external politics, by embedding Brazil in a so-called MS conference, while also giving ICANN another victory, because as co-organizer of such a conference it has been able to influence any kind of decision related to choice of content, committee, secretariat, panelists, speakers and ultimately any critical outcome. Of course, Brazil (through non-profit, CGI.br) would handle the guest list for the Brazilians invités, and help secure the coming of a few other token states to participate, including the "Twitter-friendly" Turkey, where the next Internet Governance Forum is supposed to be held... This setting would satisfy the US because the solutions that suit ICANN naturally suit the US.
With a 800-seat international conference, the co-organizers, ICANN and CGI.br still have had to make choices, even though the cost for traveling to Brazil already provided a natural selection in terms of attendance. To date, corporate delegates are to occupy more than 40 percent of the room. To make it a success a few other countries were needed to plump up the numbers of governments -- being those that were outraged in the first place, and kept at bay for so long by the US government and corporations. As the US has consistently told the world over the last three years, "governments represent a potential danger to Internet. They could seize control and deprive netizens of their rights". In the same breath, the digital jewels of Wall Street and US capitalism are, of course, requiring all the trade and intellectual property protections the world's governments can muster, as well as shying clear of tax in countries where they should. It is not part of the US narrative to speak about the detrimental impact of all of this on human rights and development in places where it would be most needed. So here we are, after six months of intense behind-closed-doors preparation, ready to attend Netmundial, a conference that claims to be 'multistakeholder', but which is really about launching the next stage of US global multistakeholder domination over the Internet, thanks to an ICANN++.
One very positive thing to come from Netmundial has been the 187 submissions expressing a large diversity of views, sometimes convergent, sometimes in strong opposition. This shows that the issues at stake are matters of fundamental importance. Collecting such a vast amount of ideas is the easy part of course; the hard part being what to do with them, especially if they are not all "converging". In a two-day conference, with so many different participants having diverse constituencies, values, roles and interests, it is hard to imagine that a dialogue can really take place. Therefore the two co-organizers began to set out a document based on the 187 submissions - a draft of which was publicized by Wikileaks -- and which was formally published on 14 April. Such a digest is not a gastronomic marvel. Some words that did not find their way to that final lap include: Democracy, social justice, and net neutrality. Some expressions have been mutilated such that we have "surveillance should be conducted..." instead of a "surveillance should only be conducted..." Still it has been suggested to everyone to comment on this document. Like with the rest of Internet governance multistakeholderism, participation is seen as an end rather than a means. Comments always make the people feel happy, even though their view doesn't make a difference on the final document.
MS is considered by its priesthood as the next best form of democracy with outcomes emerging from "convergence" (no voting here). Pick up everything that is "converging" and you get the final result. Add as many '+1' and you claim to have a legitimate conclusion. Indeed, that sounds like what the MS enhanced democracy pretends to be. It has no legitimacy, no vote, no checks and balances, no serious dialogue, no media counter power, and no trust.
Netmundial will not be a place to dialogue, nor a competition between ideas. It will just be another MS show. A jolly feast, with all invited, happily munching on their own courses, but net destruction, rather than creation. And it will come with a final statement by the co-organizers starting with a big thanks to all. Brazil, after happily devouring its Berners-Lee blessed Internet governance model-for-the-world will say "see our Marco civil for digital rights in Brazil just passed by the first Brazilian chamber of representatives and possibly, the senate. You, foreign governments, should do the same." For ICANN, the outcome will sound like: "We are so happy to see that everyone had a chance to participate and that we have a consensus over the value of a multistakeholder model of governance for Internet. Everyone at Netmundial was "converging" on that. We commend the US government for giving ICANN the responsibility to handle the IANA function, and we welcome governmental and civil society advice and support to achieve our new global mission. We have had so many participants in Sao Paulo and remotely contribute to and support the Netmundial initiative and conclusion. Please note that ICANN will fund the Internet Governance Forum in its role as a MS forum." All is well, let's have Caipirinhas.
To come to back to the very beginning of this post, I would say that there are three unseen, but very destructive, implications of this multistakeholder blessing as the outcome of Netmundial. The good news is that they take us to a clearer vision of the political, technical, and architectural possibilities that lie ahead.
The first one is simple. Netmundial will bring exactly the opposite of what the Brazilian President (and other governments and citizens) really wants: Democracy is losing ground to MSism, a Trojan horse for vested interests, especially since MSism enforces a simple idea: "equal footing" means rights for all participants, putting corporations and governments on the same starting and ending line when it comes to defining policies of public concern, in a digital space that is becoming more and more of an enclosed, corporatized version of what should be a public global commons. Even neoliberals never achieved any such a great tour de force. Netmundial is therefore currently failing democracy. It is not enhanced democracy: it is impoverished democracy.
The second implication is even more interesting. Netmundial is allowing ICANN to reinforce its power over its root zone, with little checks and balances and no oversight from anyone. By the same token it will reduce the digital space. ICANN defends a unique Internet, basically because it wants a unique root zone, under its surveillance, control and rulings; a unique space where a few private algorithms serve to dominate and collect the majority of all worldwide digital data, metadata, and revenues whether through advertising or copyrighting, more than half of it into Google's hands. It is completely physically feasible today that digital space can be expanded with very positive consequences for all citizens. However, ICANN, parroting the US government, warns us all against a balkanized Internet (and, again, echoing the "don't trust governments (except us)!" line, it says "don't balkanize (except with US monopolies)!".
Like any monopoly, ICANN argues that, thanks to its position, it preserves the Internet for the use of all, even though it really only serves for the benefit of a few. Reality could be much more refreshing. We know today that technical and architectural innovation can immediately lead to more digital space, more interoperability, more exchange, more safety and security, less spam, and less cyber-crime. And no, we are not talking of erecting national boundaries over interconnected networks. Just as we enjoy the Open Innovation, Open Source, and Open Data revolution, we are on the verge of an Open Root revolution. Among its leaders is Louis Pouzin, one of the founding fathers of the Internet.- Pouzin, an extremely distinguished French engineer, is advocating for, and building a proliferation of possible root zones. For a very reasonable budget, many extensions can be created through the Open Root project. He says: "There is a dire need to put the ICANN house in order and subject it to competition from other actors that are able to prove defend user interests in a way that ICANN has failed. In fact, starting in 1996, before ICANN was set up, there were many independent root registries created. Some were operated for several years, and a few are still in existence, e.g. Name-Space, Cesidianroot-Europe, OpenNic, Slash/dot, Name.coin, etc."
Open root is bringing a new life to that virgin part of digital space. Pouzin continues: "An unknown number of private registries operate outside of conventional institutions and are alive, but mostly invisible. The ICANN dogma is that what is needed is a single global (i.e. US controlled) root. Curiously Google and OpenDNS, which are not registries, use their own root, copies of ICANN's." This Open Root revolution is a great promise and lies in stark contrast to the heavily draped and ultimately highly unsatisfactory likely Netmundial outcome. The Open Root (OR) idea involves the realization of another technical and architectural innovation: interconnection, or interoperability of many root zones. No need to travel to China for your technology here: a Boston-based team (RINA) has already made it a reality. The OR will also allow each root zone to be defined under specific principles (political, societal, international), to which individual users can wittingly and proactively subscribe, such as the ones contained in the Delhi Declaration and edited by the Just Net Coalition. Right now, the ICANN root zone is a rogue in the hands of the US government and corporations. It should be put under the umbrella of a to-be-developed international law of the Internet , or what the Indian government suggests to call an 'Equinet'. By continuing to perpetuate the ICANN single root, Netmundial is failing innovation and fair competition in a so-called decentralized and open space.
Finally, this leads to the third negative implication: if new root zones are not nationally bound, but of global immediate reach, we do still remain with a major vacuum that we do not see being addressed at NetMundial: without a digital international agreement, law or framework, how could Brazil or one of its citizen sue a US, Indian, Russian or South African digital company that would not respect its right to privacy? Many in the civil society, such as the Web We Want initiative, IT for Change and others are understanding what is going wrong with the current state of Internet governance, and its MS approach. Even the European Commissioner, Neelie Kroes complained recently that NetMundial's drafted summary was not addressing in more concrete terms, the huge challenges to reform the current governance of Internet.
NetMundial's entrapping schema question may be, "Do you support (a) preserving the internet under one root or (b) Internet fragmentation? Choose either (a) or (b)." Now obviously all nice meaning, good people of the world would choose "preserving" as opposed to "fragmenting" the Internet.
But what if the above question was constructed correctly as, "Do you support (a) a monolithic, hegemonic centrally-controlled internet or (b) A distributed, open, human rights respectful democratic internet? Choose either (a) or (b)." The survey results would be opposite.
Netmundial should be deemed a failure if it fails to enshrine words like democracy, social justice, innovation, open root, competition as well as human rights. It should be deemed a failure if it simply boosts the international credibility of Brazil and ICANN and the US, but it fails to address the very real deficiencies in how the Internet currently operates. At the moment, we are going backwards, not forwards in terms of democracy, innovation and the Internet. As more and more start to see what is at stake, let us hope that they see the charade of multistakeholderism for the vacuous reality that it is, and that they recognize that to truly advance democracy and the Internet, we need to break open ICANN's monopoly, break open control of the root system, and restore real choice in the hands of citizens and all the world's governments - rather than just one.
For those who understand why to get out of the digital ICANN reservation, there is more Internet, and more Democracy to enjoy.