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Uncivil Society: The NETmund*al *n*t*at*ve’s Missing I’s

When I last wrote about the NETmundial Initiative (NMI) project developed by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in conjunction with ICANN it was noted that its August 28th announcement event “ended with significant dissent from the broad groups comprising “civil society”, and only lukewarm support from the business sector”. Indeed, during the concluding session on that late summer day, “NTIA head Larry Strickling appeared to startle the participants when he intervened to observe that perhaps the event was over-engineered, and that the key issue would be to gain broader support and legitimacy for the NMI. He urged that the next six months should be focused on working with as many interests as possible on the question of what should come after NETmundial—indicating that perhaps the U.S. government was not convinced that the NMI was the best follow-up. He concluded with a warning that “unless we solve the concerns of civil society, which represents the larger community in terms of hesitation, this project is not going to succeed”.

Thus, when it was announced that a webinar marking the “Official Launch of the NETmundial Initiative” was to be held on November 6th, my assumption was that it had been preceded by two months of significant outreach to civil society to discuss and address their concerns, and thereby to announce that support during the webinar.

As for the U.S. government, it seemed to be fully back on board, with Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker issuing a press release on the launch date stating:

“I welcome the NetMundial initiative announced today, which is based on the principles and roadmap developed in Brazil last April by the global Internet multistakeholder community. I hope it will be successful in advancing multistakeholder Internet governance that is open, transparent and allows for the participation of all interested parties.”

However, this positive statement may have been motivated less by renewed NMI enthusiasm than by such objectives as maintaining close ties with Brazil, the only BRIC nation displaying some flexible commonality with the US on Internet policy issues; showing continued support for ICANN during the ongoing IANA functions transition and enhanced ICANN accountability deliberations; and keeping Brazil and other “middle states” in support of the multi-stakeholder model (MSM) in advance of the then-impeding ITU meeting in Busan, South Korea.

New endorsements of the NMI were conspicuously absent during the launch webinar. That silence was shattered ten days later when the oldest and most influential of all Internet-focused civil society groups gave the NMI a very public cold shoulder.

In its November 16th “Internet Society Statement on the NETmundial Initiative”, the Internet Society declared:

“Recently, the “I* Group” was invited to participate in the NETmundial Initiative, which is different from the one-time NETmundial meeting in which we participated in April 2014; we endorsed the outcomes of that meeting. This new and different NETmundial Initiative has been organized by the partnership of the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), and the World Economic Forum (WEF) [2]. This announcement has resulted in considerable discussion and concern amongst various stakeholders regarding the purpose, scope, and nature of the proposed activity or organization.

The Internet Society Board discussed this proposed NETmundial Initiative in depth during its meeting November 15 – 16, 2014. As a result, the Internet Society Board first emphasizes that the main priority facing the Internet community right now is the IANA Functions’ Stewardship Transition and recommends that all organizations in the Internet community should be highly focused on effectuating a successful transition…

With respect to the need for new groups, such as the NETmundial Initiative and its Coordination Council, the Internet Society Board reiterates that the Internet Society’s longstanding position is that there is no single, global platform that can serve to coordinate, organize or govern all the Internet issues that may arise…

Based on the information that we have to date, the Internet Society cannot agree to participate in or endorse the Coordination Council for the NETmundial Initiative. We are concerned that the way in which the NETmundial Initiative is being formed does not appear to be consistent with the Internet Society’s longstanding principles, including:

  • Bottom-up orientation
  • Decentralized
  • Open
  • Transparent
  • Accountable
  • Multi-stakeholder

The Board has asked the Internet Society’s CEO, Kathryn Brown, to convene a dialogue within the Internet Society community. This includes Internet Society Chapters from around the world, Internet Society organization members, the IETF, the IAB, partners from the Internet technical community, and others. The dialogue should consider whether any new initiatives or groups are needed at the current time and, if so, to define the objectives for any such effort.

In addition, Bob Hinden, Chairman of the Internet Society Board of Trustees has initiated a dialogue with the Chairman of the ICANN Board, given ICANN’s leading involvement in the NETmundial Initiative.” (Emphasis added)

The “I-Star Group” referred to in the Statement consists of the Internet Society, Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), Internet Architecture Board (IAB), World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), and the regional Top Level Domain (TLD) organizations—plus ICANN. While the referenced dialogue between ICANN and the Internet Society may eventually lead to some softening of the latter’s refusal to participate in or endorse NMI, it remains to be seen whether a revamped NMI more consistent with the cited “longstanding principles” can pass muster with the WEF, which is more in the habit of taking charge from the top down in conjunction with business and governmental elites.

Absent a change in the Internet Society’s position, it is difficult to imagine any of the other I-Star members breaking with it and endorsing, much less participating, in the NMI unless and until its entire structure is substantially revamped—leaving ICANN quite isolated on an initiative that has been a pet project of CEO Fadi Chehade and that was claimed to be the vehicle for taking pressure off ICANN to expand its remit, as well as for developing “solutions” to Internet-related policy issues. The Internet Society announcement calls into question whether the substantial monetary and staff resources invested by ICANN into NMI have been justified, as well as what efforts were actually taken to respond to Secretary Strickling’s admonition that addressing the concerns of civil society was a fundamental prerequisite for NMI’s success.

Two days after the Internet Society dropped its rejection bomb, NMI responded by posting “NETmundial Initiative: Answers to Common Questions”, in which it makes the curious claim that, “The NETmundial Initiative is an online platform, not a new organization”. It’s hard to think of another “online platform” that requires the type of complex organizational structure revealed for NMI during the launch.

Those “Answers” go on to attempt a refutation all of the inconsistencies with “longstanding principles” cited in the Internet Society’s rationale for non-participation. They also reveal that NMI does not intend to hold any conferences, confining the stakeholders to virtual interactions. As regards NMI’s operational financing, they state that “Estimated costs that cover Secretariat and operational-related expenses for the first year have been calculated, with each of the three partners contributing equally.”—but provides no information regarding the size of those monetary contributions. The pervasively defensive tone of this document indicates that the launch event fell considerably short of expectations.

The other main news from that November 6th launch event was that the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee had aligned itself with the WEF and ICANN, bolstering NMI’s claim that it embodies “the cooperative spirit of São Paulo to solve issues in tangible ways”, as stated by Virgílio Augusto Fernandes Almeida, Brazil’s Secretary for Information Technology Policies and member of CGI, in the launch event press release. That document is replete with multisyllabic buzzwords and, adjective-strewn pronouncements implying profound processes but falling short on precise details—here’s an example:

“The NETmundial Initiative will use crowdsourcing mechanisms to coalesce stakeholders and enable permission-less innovation to build and deliver distributed Internet governance enablers and solutions. The focus is to facilitate global cooperation so that solutions for distributed Internet governance can be broadly diffused and embraced through loosely coupled and coordinative approaches. Solutions built in the Initiative may be adopted by organizations or nations at will.”

ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade’s press release quote took a similarly nebulous path:

“Dialogue is and will remain essential. However, the global community is now ready for action. The NETmundial Initiative channels the global community’s energies to deliver practical Internet governance enablers and solutions to address immediate needs—especially for the growing number of policy issues regarding the use of the Internet in the global space. For example, a solution mapping mechanism is urgently needed to help stakeholders—especially in developing countries—find their way through a distributed Internet governance ecosystem, while polycentric solution formulation will help address the growing number of issues ranging from cyber-security to user privacy.”

In his verbal remarks during the launch event CEO Chehade described NMI as “the mother of all bottom up models”—a pronouncement with which the Internet Society clearly disagrees.

As for the key NMI organizational details in the press release:

“The Initiative will have a diverse multistakeholder Coordination Council that will be formed through a bottom-up process following an approach similar to the one adopted for the NETmundial Meeting in São Paulo in order to ensure that all the activities of the NETmundial Initiative are carried out in the spirit of the NETmundial Principles. The Coordination Council’s inaugural public meeting will take place in January 2015.

The NETmundial Initiative invites Coordination Council nominations until 6 December 2014. With community support, the Coordination Council should be in operation as early as possible in 2015 to start building practical solutions for the global community in 2015. The Initiative also invites submissions of initial proposals and ideas anchored in the NETmundial São Paulo roadmap developed in community consensus.”

At the launch event it was added that CGI, ICANN, and WEF will each name one individual to a Transitional Committee (TC) to facilitate selections to the Coordination Council and direct an administrative Secretariat, with the TC expected to dissolve in early 2015. It was also revealed that the UN-affiliated Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which NMI is supposed to coordinate with and supplement, will have a permanent seat on the Coordination Council. Another permanent seat was reserved for the I-Star group, but that may remain conspicuously empty in the wake of the Internet Society announcement.

Criticism of the NMI’s details came quickly after the launch event, with one writer charging that it aimed to create a “UN Security Council for the Internet”, and continuing:

“If there is a cybersecurity issue, or someone who has figured out how to protect children through a browser,” then they can use the platform to connect with others as well as crowdsource and fund their efforts, ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadé enthused.

Unfortunately, the reality is quite different. There is no platform, not even a message board or chatroom. Instead, the initiative’s website has a simple upload function for contributions (there are none at time of writing) and an application form for the initiative’s “Coordination Council.”

Professor Milton Mueller of the Internet Governance Project dubbed NMI “Nyet-Mundial” (after previously mocking it as “Not-Mundial”), noting the incongruity between its organizational structure and ambitions: “This top-down, centralized organization defines its mission as “to energize bottom-up, collaborative solutions in a distributed Internet governance ecosystem.”

He went on to describe the internal politics affecting the deliberations over NMI participation within civil society:

“Reviewing the debate in the Best Bits archive, it seems that the people within civil society advocating an accommodation with NMI are precisely the people who would be likely to be selected for privileged access or elevated status in an ICANN/WEF/CGI based regime, and those who oppose it are precisely the ones who would not be so selected. This kind of supplicant/divide and conquer relationship is not healthy for civil society’s role in Internet governance.

The civil society groups became more critical when NMI informed them that the NMI leaders would not allow the CSCG [Civil Society Coordination Group] to appoint all of the five Coordinating Committee members allocated to civil society; NMI reserved the right to appoint some of its own selections. This is because the World Economic Forum has longstanding ties with specific NGOs and it wants to reward its friends. So by accepting a position on NMI’s coordinating committee, civil society groups would be lending legitimacy to the structure while endorsing the ability of the NMI organizers to define who or what represents civil society. At the original NetMundial meeting, civil society selected its own representatives on committees and there was no artificial, top-down designation of who represents civil society.”

Professor Mueller concludes his analysis with this cogent observation:

“It would be acceptable to work with NMI if or when it proposes specific actions or policies that civil society supports, but there is no reason to allow civil society participation in Internet governance to be gate-kept in this way, or to allow itself to be incorporated into a structure defined by and under the control of ICANN, WEF and a Brazilian national agency (CGI).”

With a December 6th deadline for submission of Coordination Council nominations, it will soon be clear whether any critical mass of civil society will decide to engage with NMI in the wake of the Internet Society’s rejection. As noted in the final paragraph of the launch event’s press release, “The NETmundial Initiative remains an iterative process and can only evolve through the broad-based involvement of stakeholders from across the world.” History and science both instruct that absent such evolution there is a growing danger of extinction.

By Philip S. Corwin, Senior Director and Policy Counsel at Verisign

He also serves as Of Counsel to the IP-centric law firm of Greenberg & Lieberman. Views expressed in this article are solely his own.

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