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A Civil Society Perspective on NETmundial Final Outcome: A Remarkable Achievement Despite Losses

A few ‘big picture’ thoughts on the Netmundial meeting in Brazil this week and its final outcome document, adopted by its high level committee. Overall, there are some truly amazing and forward-looking principles supported in the “Netmundial Multi-Stakeholder Statement” that we as civil society should be proud of, and especially our civil society representatives who worked tirelessly for this achievement.

Specifically, the Internet governance principles of human rights, democracy, equality, openness, transparency, accountability, decentralization, rights to access, share, distribute information on the Internet, and the Internet as a global resource to be managed in the public interest are all supported in the final outcome document. These principles are all wonderful achievements for social justice and an important pivot point in the evolution of global governance principles and mechanisms.

Civil society lost ground in the final moments on the specific wording over the most contentious issues, such as surveillance, copyright, permissionless innovation, intermediary protections, net neutrality, and separation of policy and operations in IANA, but the fact that these controversial issues were mentioned at all in the statement is a significant advancement (except for the ode to copyright). So on some key substantive policy issues, the statement reflects a remarkable positive achievement, despite critical losses on the specific wording where civil society got out-lobbied, out-muscled, and out-manuevered in the last minute, in less transparent, and less organized processes. Civil society gained great experience from engaging in the process and learned a number of places were improvements can be made in future discussions and processes. Perhaps the losses over specific wording on the most contentious issues was the price to pay to obtain the larger and more numerous high-level principles supporting social justice goals and the positive development of the Internet.

Let’s not be too hard on ourselves for losing these narrow, more contentious, specific wording battles. Recognition of the numerous high level social justice and Internet freedom goals is a significant advancement. The simple fact the governments and business had to negotiate with civil society over final text language (and governments wait in line at the microphone to speak like other stakeholders) is another step-forward in the evolution of Internet governance. Even with short comings, there was more transparency over the drafting and final high level committee’s weakening and adoption of the document than there is in other global governance regimes, where the public can’t see the text drafting at all (like the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement), since a few of us could observe (those who could walk into the room) in the NETmundial final high level committee and drafting sessions. There is demonstrated need for improved transparency in these critical decision-making moments in the process going forward. And the inability to anticipate the process also impeded civil society, who tends to be significantly under-represented in decision-making positions and among insiders and organizers.

I don’t want us to lose sight of the big picture, and fail to see the really encouraging parts of this document, and that in many ways, this was a positive advancement in the evolution of Internet governance, social justice, and Internet freedom. We are setting small precedents today that we can build upon later in an ongoing process and we have significantly improved some rigidity in the WSIS Tunis Agenda over Internet governance processes to the benefit of civil society.

Without question, civil society was under-represented on panels, in committees, and key decision-making positions—everyone knows that—and we need to keep pushing on that critical point; this statement supports “equality”, so we’ve got our hook for that key civil society goal in here too. The last minute (significantly weakening or) insertion of new text, for which there was no consensus or even previous discussion, by powerful interests (generally Hollywood, Government, ICANN) on the document’s most controversial issues was one of the process’ biggest break down points.

Even with some serious process issues and painful losses over the specific language in the text on the most controversial points, on balance, this final statement is a pretty good starting point for further discussions on Internet governance and its positive evolution.

By Robin Gross, Founder and Executive Director of IP Justice

I am also former Chair of ICANN’s Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group (NCSG).

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