Dr Catherine Easton (@EastonCatherine) reflects on the Internet Governance Forum 2013, an event which occurred in the shadow of the Snowden leaks, saw China lecturing the United States about its surveillance policies, but which also demonstrated the passion and commitment of many delegates and groups in the face of increasing corporate and State control of the Internet.
The 8th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) (http://igf2013.or.id/about-igf-2013/ ) was held in Bali, Indonesia in October. The IGF is an annual event established by the United Nations Secretary-General in 2006 following a mandate initiated at the World Summit on the Information Society (http://www.itu.int/wsis/index.html) OK, so what does this mean? It is a multi-stakeholder forum bringing together representatives from government, businesses, academia and civil society to engage in open dialogue on the rules and principles governing the Internet. As a novice IGF attendee I was keen to learn how this initiative worked in practice and to try to gauge its relevance in shaping the Internet’s development.
Initially I made three general observations, the first being the sheer size of the delegation. Approximately 1,500 people from 111 countries attended the forum, participating in the, often confusing, programme of 135 workshops and numerous “pre-event” events. A post-IGF comment identified it as a meeting at which there was a good point that history was being made but it was difficult to determine in which room.
The next observation relates to level of introspection apparent in the discussions. A significant number of the sessions, such as “Multi-stakeholderism and the dynamic Internet”, focused upon the nature of this multi-stakeholder forum, often with an aim of trying to pinpoint its relevance. This raised difficulties due to an inability to agree even upon a definition of the concept at the heart of the meeting itself. During the opening ceremony, dominated by politicians, a popular tweet observed that those talking most about multi-stakeholderism were the ones who did not believe in it. This was followed later in the week by a delegate noting that if he heard the word multi-stakeholderism again he would jump into the Bali Sea.
This search for meaning appeared to be strongly linked to the final observation: the pervasive fallout of the Snowden revelations and the extent of State-sponsored invasions of privacy. This betrayal of trust expressly undermines the concept of openness and collaboration in the shaping of Internet policy. Indeed, it was identified as the “elephant in the room” in the high-profile environment of the opening ceremony and was constantly raised in workshop and coalition discussions.
Given the size of the event, delegates could tailor the experience by picking a themed route through the hefty schedule. With my background in access to technology and inclusion I oriented towards the human rights sessions and participated in the panel “Rights Issues for Disadvantaged Groups” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0YzH_hz-Ts ). The discussions focused on strategies to increase safe and effective online participation for women, people in developing countries, those living in rural communities and disabled people.
In-keeping with the wide notion of multi-stakeholderism a number of attendees shared research, experiences and ideas for change. This impetus was also found in the presentation of tangible measures to place rights at the centre of Internet policy, with a discussion session surrounding the launch of the Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet (http://internetrightsandprinciples.org/wpcharter/ ). With the wording of the Charter now agreed, work is being put in place to achieve the greatest possible impact by, for example, attaching the text as a schedule to existing and proposed international human rights instruments.
A complementary initiative, the Council of Europe’s Draft Guide on Human Rights for Internet Users (http://www.coe.int/t/informationsociety/ ) was also launched at the forum with a strong focus on educating end users about their rights, duties and level of protection in the online sphere. This is an important text with significant international support that could prove crucial in empowering and informing citizens in the face of commercial and governmental interests.
As a sprawling event that saw heated exchanges, delegates from China lecturing the US on its surveillance policies (http://www.rappler.com/world/regions/asia-pacific/42080-us-china-google-spying ) and the very questionable use of a beauty pageant, Miss Internet Bali, in an attempt to increase female participation (http://geekfeminism.org/2013/10/24/igf2013/ ) it is difficult to determine any tangible measurement of impact. However, an overarching observation after attendance at many sessions was the passion and commitment of many of the delegates and groups such as Privacy International, the Open Rights Group and the Association for Progressive Communications, in the face of increasing corporate and State control. I was left with a sense that, while the last year has thrown a stark light on the realities of the power balance in Internet governance, a way forward could be found with a renewed focus on the rights of end users and the grassroots principles of openness, collaboration, citizen empowerment and the protection of fundamental freedoms.
Catherine Easton is a Lecturer in Law at The Law School, Lancaster University. Catherine’s research interests focus upon Internet governance, domain name regulation, intellectual property, access to technology and human/computer interaction.
You can find out more about Catherine’s research by clicking http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/law/profiles/catherine-easton