Last week in Brazil thousands of interested parties met to thrash out the future development of Internet governance. Brazil hosted the NETmundial congress in response to the revelations that the U.S. government has been carrying out mass surveillance not only of its own citizens but also of foreign government leaders, which incensed Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
The meeting's success shows how the Internet enables new partnerships to grapple with difficult issues facing the world.
One of the most advanced examples is the ecosystem that governs the Internet itself -- a diverse and global collection of individuals, non-governmental organizations, companies, interest groups, academics and governmental organizations. No one government, corporation or state-based institution controls the Internet, yet it has achieved stunning growth and reliability.
The Brazil meeting had a daunting list of objectives. The prime goal was to adopt a set of Internet Governance Principles and develop a Roadmap for the Future Evolution of the Internet Governance Ecosystem. Despite contentious issues such as the Human Rights language and Net Neutrality, the meeting achieved broad consensus. A reading of the final document was met with an emotional standing ovation from the audience, particularly after the Principles and Human Rights section.
So far the Internet community has focused largely on the technical standards required for this unprecedented communications medium to work. This success was reflected in last month's announcement that the U.S. government was going to hand over key technical elements of the Internet to a "global multi-stakeholder community."
By indicating that it is willing to relinquish the few remaining vestiges of American control over the Internet, the Obama administration is showing confidence in the global community and in its ability to shield the Internet from repressive governments or excessive governmental control.
Some U.S. Republicans, including former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, denounced the move, saying it was the Obama administration's equivalent of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's decision to give away the Panama Canal. But such criticism is misguided. The multi-stakeholder Internet governance ecosystem has been enormously effective in supporting the Internet's rapid development, and has demonstrated great agility and determination to protect the Net as a truly global open resource.
But as the Brazil conference showed, Internet governance is entering a new phase. As this digital tool penetrates and alters every aspect of economic, social and political life, there are more profound and broad non-technical questions that must be addressed. These include thorny policy issues ranging from privacy, security, and neutrality of the Net, to spam, pornography and intellectual property.
To respond to these issues, the Internet's stewards wanted to articulate clearly the principles upon which their decisions are based. In the run-up to Brazil, the meeting's organizers experimented with an innovative process. The meeting was preceded by an online public consultation of a draft outcome document prepared by the "Executive multi-stakeholder committee" comprising representatives from across key sectors, such as civil society, the private sector, the technical community, academia, and governments. The review of the document continued during the meeting itself through a quite lengthy series of interventions all commenting on the draft document.
The primary basis for the document was a statement on Human Rights and Shared Values and this was widely, but not universally, supported. The final document states: "Human rights are universal as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that should underpin Internet governance principles. Rights that people have offline must also be protected online."
Mass surveillance was the hottest single issue, and the final document included a clause saying the right to privacy means freedom from arbitrary and unlawful surveillance. The group could not agree on a second hot issue -- Net Neutrality -- the idea that Internet Service Providers should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging different fees because of the nature of the data or its source.
The second part of the agreement was the Roadmap for the Future Evolution of Internet Governance. This will be enormously helpful, as the road ahead will surely be bumpy. It's one thing for this community to agree on global standards for an effective and smooth running Internet. It's another for everyone to agree on the tougher policy issues where players have differing cultural and economic interests. Storm warnings came from Russia, India and Cuba who insisted on having reservations read into the record of the meeting. The final document can be found here.
Unlike the UN or other government-based bodies, these are less formal communities. They come together to govern over this global public resource and function more on collaboration, merit, and consensus. In this spirit, the NETmundial results were a statement of consensus, and while non-binding one can safely expect governments, companies and NGOs around the world to take heed.
As NETmundial says, this meeting "represents the beginning of a process for the construction of such policies in the global context, following a model of participatory plurality."
Every country needs to consider a Bill of Rights for the Digital Age and the meeting has already catalyzed a wave of global activity to ensure that governments, corporations and others do the right thing.
This piece appeared originally in TheGlobeandMail.com.