#activism2action opening: perspectives on Internet governance

Yesterday’s opening presentation and discussions focused on Internet governance: new challenges, different perspectives, and the lack of public awareness. This will, sadly, only be a very truncated version of the evening’s discussions, as I had to cut down the many pages of notes into a more readable form.

Image of an ICANN panel with words, "ICANN has cheezburger!"
By Brad Templeton. The pinnacle of geeky in-jokes.

John Kampfner‘s keynote gave a broad overview of the issues, which I’m sure was particularly welcomed by those who weren’t already familiar with the ‘acronym soup’ of Internet governance (for a quick briefing, try: WSIS, ITU, ICANN and IGF). The upcoming meeting of the ITU in Baku has led to some panic about an upcoming ‘Internet Armageddon’ (at least on the part of the US and some others in the West) if the ITU, a UN agency, takes a greater role in regulating the Internet. Kampfner (like everyone else on the panel) also sees the ITU as an inappropriate, and possibly dangerous, body for this role, especially given the current push from the ITU towards decreasing anonymity online and strengthening government sovereignty over the Net, and the fact that only governments really have a seat at the table at the ITU. However, the other main players in Internet governance at the international level are also limited: the IGF, while it is most open to civil society engagement, remains a “cumbersome talking shop”.

Kampfner also emphasised that while the original dream of the Internet was for a freer world, the Net is becoming increasingly fettered, in large part by national governments. This is partly a response to the stepping-back of opinion-makers in society from dealing with new questions about boundaries opened up by the vast amount of information shared online. We have yet to draw firm lines around what is and is not appropriate behaviour online, and frequently the response is to send police out rather than engaging in a more nuanced discussion around unacceptable content (which Kampfner should include direct incitement to violence) and offensive but not actionable content (which Kampfner argues should include blasphemous and ‘mean’ content).

Image of the front cover of Vaidhyanathan's book, "The Googlization of Everything (and why we should worry)" Christian Mihr‘s response to the keynote focused on two points: firstly, a defence of the IGF as both the most inclusive process for Internet governance currently available, and currently under threat from the London process; secondly, a reminder that we also need to look critically at the role of corporations. (He, very politely, did not to link this to Kampfner’s role as a consultant to Google and the GNI.) Personally, I think this is crucial: when so many of us access the Internet through Apple’s walled garden and Google is our main way of finding information in the vast mess of online material, the role of private corporations matters very much.

Ben Scott, former policy advisor for innovation to the US state department in the Obama administration, disagreed with Kampfner’s claim that all governments were seeking more control over the Internet. He said that discussions within the Obama administration during his time there had led to the conclusion that, whether or not more control was desirable, it was impossible. They started with the assumption that while the government could control the information system some of the time, they certainly couldn’t do so all of the time, and they needed to adapt accordingly. (Of course, this raises the question about surveillance and censorship provisions in the NDAA, ACTA, and other legislation.)

The discussion then shifted towards the upcoming IGF meeting in Dubai. Moez Chakchouk had a fascinating perspective here, having served as the CEO of the Tunisian Internet Agency (ITA) under the previous Tunisian government and continuing his work today. Previously, he and others in the ITA had not been able to participate in the IGF because it was likely to lead to punishment from the regime. The 2011 Nairobi IGF was the first such forum he was able to attend, and this was a step in the process of learning how to build trust and communicate with civil society. While Tunisia is interested in getting involved in discussions around Internet governance, the issue is complex and the main focus at the moment is on promoting transparent debate around Internet freedoms after years of censorship.

The moderator of the panel, Geraldine de Bastion, encouraged the panellists to reflect on how governments in the West are pushing for more control and asked what Western governments would be pushing for at the next ITU meeting in Baku.

Ben Scott’s reply was simple: nothing at all. Not, however, because Western governments don’t want to control the Internet, but because they don’t want to control it at the UN. Scott argues that the best, and most likely, outcome for international Internet governance is that there will be decades of slow work through multistakeholder institutions, building norms, negotiating, before a international regulation is more thoroughly in place. This is not unprecedented: most international coordination efforts look very similar. Scott also acknowledged that this process will have to involve an internationalisation of current institutions, which remain largely US-centric (because of the origins of the Internet, rather than any conspiracy).

Photo of toy policemen around a wireless modem
Image courtesy of Martin Rischewski

During the question time, I asked the panellists how effective grassroots-level campaigning around these issues had been, including the campaign around SOPA and PIPA. Ben Scott said that Internet-based campaigns are very good at mobilising against things, stopping bad legislation from happening, but not so good at the kind of long-term constructive engagement required to build alternatives: those who opposed SOPA and PIPA aren’t creating alternative legislation (my reply that they are trying was not met with enthusiasm). Similarly, Scott said, the young people who were in Tahrir Square are now not represented in the structures of power, aren’t working to build the new system (of course, not everyone sees that as a problem – see Mohammed Bamyeh’s comments in my previous post, and today’s panels have demonstrated that some young people are involved in the political process).

Another question focused on the perceived balance national security and freedom of speech online, asking how the Tunisian government is planning on dealing with this.

404 used to be the nickname of the Tunisian Internet Agency
Image courtesy of cucchiaio

Chakchouk’s answer was that for years under the Ben Ali regime they had censored large portions of the Internet, but had tried to undermine the censorship regime by demonstrating to the courts that censoring content only increased its popularity as people found other ways to share it. So because censorship is ineffective, and because they have had enough of censorship, they have been refusing all requests to censor information since August 2011. Chakchouk acknowledges that there are times that information-sharing is problematic, such as when rumours are spread or when this feeds into tensions between different Tunisian communities. But the answer is not censorship: it’s countering rumours, and making better information available.

He also, in response to another excellent question from de Bastion, pointed out that the censorship software they had been buying from the West had been costing the country a lot (and those selling the software are making even more money from countries in the region who had more money than Tunisia). The hypocrisy of Western governments condemning censorship and surveillance abroad while allowing companies to sell software used for this, and indeed engaging in their own censorship and surveillance, was not lost on any of the panellists.

This opening formed a good basis for the region- and country-specific sessions that follow. Mixing presentations and panel discussions is also a useful format (even if it harder to summarise!). I wish I could also summarise some of the debates I’ve had over tea breaks – there are so many people with interesting perspectives to share, and I’m really enjoying the post-session debriefings. The posts that follow will look at how activists in South East Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa are using the Internet.

If you want to follow along, you can follow the #activism2action tag on Twitter or look at more of Cucchiaio’s amazing comic-form summaries (which I only just discovered when looking for photos to illustrate this).

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