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, Netmundial has been part of the visible US effort to embrace Brazil into its political multistakeholder (MS) digital discourse.
As Rousseff 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. 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. 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 and other governmental invités, including the "Twitter-friendly" Turkey.
Still the Netmundial true 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. 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 outcome from Netmundial are the 187 submissions expressing a large diversity of views, sometimes convergent, sometimes in strong opposition. 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 formally published on 14 April. Some critical words that did not find their way to that final lap including: 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..."
Netmundial will not be a place to dialogue, nor a competition between ideas. 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 'everyone' is 'converging' over the value of a multistakeholder model of governance for Internet." 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 implications of this multistakeholder blessing as the outcome of Netmundial.
The first one is simple. Netmundial will bring exactly the opposite of what the Brazilian President really wants: Democracy is losing ground to MSism, 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 or vetoing 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.
The second implication is that Netmundial will reinforce ICANN's 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 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.
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 scientist, is advocating for, and building a proliferation of 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."
Open root is bringing a new life to that virgin part of digital space. Pouzin continues: "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 interoperability of many root zones: 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. By continuing to perpetuate the ICANN single root, Netmundial is failing innovation and fair competition in an interoperable and open space.
Finally, this leads to the third 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.