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Occupy IG - Internet Social Forum to Torpedo NETmundial Initiative and Disrupt Davos Discussions

As we have previously observed, the efforts undertaken by ICANN, the World Economic Forum (WEF), and CGI.BR to launch a NETmundial Initiative (NMI) to follow up on last spring’s NETmundial meeting in Sao Paulo has encountered heavy skepticism and substantial resistance from the major civil society and technical groups from which endorsement and participation was sought. While things were smoothed over a bit in a December 17, 2014 meeting between some of them and ICANN, the participants “did not resolve all of the outstanding issues” and declared that “More work needs to be done by NMI and with the various communities involved.”

Nonetheless, just one week after that meeting NMI announced formation of its “Inaugural Coordination Council” as well as a “Broad Global Community Consultation Phase”. Apparently the decision was made that the need to flesh out the NMI in advance of the WEF’s annual Davos gathering trumped the hard work of resolving those outstanding issues. Interestingly, despite a Department of Commerce warning at the August 2014 NMI launch event that the effort could fail if civil society did not buy in, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker is a prominent member of that Coordination Council.

Now, in the same week that global political and business leaders as well as prominent glitterati are meeting at the Davos event, a collection of less prominent global civil society groups has announced the launch of The Internet Social Forum (ISF). This social network can best be characterized as Occupy IG, and its apparent agenda is not one of modest reform but of a total reordering of the present arrangements for DNS management and Internet governance as well as of control for related policy development. The ISF is an offshoot of the Just Net Coalition, and it explicitly labels the ISF launch as “A Call to Occupy the Internet”.

Reviewing the press release announcing ISF (provided at the conclusion of this article), their clarion call for the “Internet we want” and their rhetorical chant that “Another Internet is possible’!” make abundantly clear that they are strongly against the status quo—and mean to change it.

The release is replete with ‘Barbarians at the Gate’ rhetoric:

“The Internet Social Forum will reach out to grassroots groups and social movements across the world, catalysing a groundswell that challenges the entrenched elite interests that currently control how the Internet is managed.” (Emphasis added)

This author would wager that ISF thinks that ICANN and anyone presently engaged in its internal structure are part of that entrenched elite, the global “1%” of the virtual world order of current Internet Governance arrangements.

The ISF has consciously positioned itself as the anti-NETmundial initiative, the people against the elites, and the self-proclaimed true representatives of participatory bottom-up policymaking. To the extent that the ISF was specifically organized in reaction to the NMI, its formation is a clear illustration of the law of unintended consequences.

The ISF seems more favorable toward the upcoming December 2015 UN WSIS+10 event, and to view NMI as designed to undermine it, stating,

“However, currently, there seems to be an deliberate attempt to sideline this UN-led initiative on governance issues of the information society and Internet in favour of private, big-business-dominated initiatives like the WEF’s Net Mundial Initiative. The Internet Social Forum, while remaining primarily a people’s forum, will also seek to channel global civil society’s engagement towards the WSIS +10 review.”

Conspicuously, the release makes no mention of the likewise UN-sponsored Internet Governance Forum (IGF) which was an output of the WSIS process - or of ICANN. Perhaps that is because these are forums in which governments do not have a controlling role.

And, like the dog that didn’t bark, there is also no mention of another key WSIS output, that of “Enhanced Cooperation”. That is code for greater IG coordination among governments and will likely be pushed by ISF as a means to counterbalance the private-sector led multistakeholder model (MSM).

The author is not familiar with most of the groups constituting ISF. As always, a good rule for understanding true intent is “follow the money”. We’d find it illuminating to know where they get their funding and whether any state actors are involved (and a colleague more familiar with the global IG scene advises that at least several are indeed closely linked to their national governments, and are unsurprisingly more favorable toward the government-led multilateral approach on IG than the private sector oriented MSM). So there is some question as to whether ISF is a genuine grassroots Netizen movement—or a convergence of government-dominated organizations pairing with “useful idiot” entities to pursue a broader and more pernicious agenda of undermining the MSM and replacing it with a UN-led, government-dominated one.

The ISF launch also illustrates that, whatever ultimately happens with the ongoing work of the ICANN community to develop a consensus proposal for the IANA transition and accompanying enhanced ICANN accountability, the transition cannot be regarded as the “end of history” for ICANN. Post-transition, there will still be powerful forces waiting in the wings desiring to undo the established order of the MSM, and that is why any transition and accountability plan must have near bulletproof protections against governmental takeover down the road.

While this development is not as ominous as the dreaded “fractured root”, it does indicate that a fracturing of civil society has developed in reaction to NMI’s launch. NMI’s ability to counter this ISF initiative is seriously hampered by the continuing reality that it failed to gain the endorsement of more mainstream civil society groups and is now proceeding without them. And those groups may now be even more hesitant to sign on lest they open themselves up to coordinated netroots criticism whipped up by ISF.

It would indeed be ironic if an NMI effort meant to unify all elements of the Internet community had, through mishandling, instead resulted in its further splintering. Yet that appears to be what is occurring.


Just prior to publication the author became aware of this informative article on the background of the ISF. Selected fair use quotes from it flesh out several of the points raised above:

  • “The founding meeting of what became the Just Net Coalition in February 2014 was invitation-only, and invitations were issued, in the first instance, only to those known to by sympathetic to the views of the organisers… Consequently, the content of that meeting’s outcome document, the Delhi Declaration for a Just and Equitable Internet, was largely predetermined.”
  • “The positioning of the Just Net Coalition against multi-stakeholder Internet governance, and in favour of a state-centric model, although now quite overt, became evident gradually. The Delhi Declaration covers this obliquely, stating “The right to make Internet-related public policies lies exclusively with those who legitimately and directly represent people” (ie. states). Another coded phrase the JNC has used to call for the centralisation of Internet governance authority in states is its call for “legitimate political authority”.
  • “Amongst the key individuals who have spoken publicly for JNC and who sit on its steering committee are Parminder Jeet Singh who leads Indian NGO IT for Change… A turning point came at the meeting of the Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation on Public Policy Issues Pertaining to the Internet (WGEC) of the UN Commission for Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) in April 2014. To the surprise of other civil society and technical community delegates at that meeting, Parminder Jeet Singh insisted that support for paragraph 35 of the Tunis Agenda be retained in working group’s report, as the representatives from Saudi Arabia and Iran also forcefully argued…. Paragraph 35 states… Policy authority for Internet-related public policy issues is the sovereign right of States… Civil society has also played an important role on Internet matters, especially at community level… This, translated into JNC policy and the agenda for its Internet Social Forum, marks a profound shift away from the decentralised and horizontal model of Internet governance that civil society had heretofore supported, towards an hierarchical, state-led model.” (Emphasis added)
  • JNC has “become more overt in promoting an intergovernmental model of Internet governance, stating for example in a more recent statement, “We invite all countries to call for a Framework Convention on the Internet and to take up leadership in developing global Internet-related policies,” and averring that “[w]ithout governmental support, it is difficult, perhaps impossible to combat the dominance of global Internet monopolies”“
  • Following the announcement of the Sao Paulo NETmundial meeting, “When the future JNC leaders found themselves unable to influence the drafting of these statements to sufficiently accord with their view that governments should have an outsized role in Internet governance, the next best option became to disrupt the development of those statements by hectoring, intimidating and disparaging participants who expressed pro-multistakeholder views… Although some of JNC’s demands of other civil society groups and networks may have been reasonable in themselves… these demands were delivered with such hubris and entitlement that the effect has been to isolate JNC from other civil society groups and networks and to sow seeds of discord that will have lasting effects. Ironically the result has been exactly the opposite of what JNC intended. Discussions have retreated from public, open lists into private, closed lists—or private cc groups that are not list-managed at all—precisely to avoid unproductive exchanges with JNC members.” (Emphasis added)
  • “JNC does not hold itself to the same standards of transparency and accountability that it demands of others.”
  • What, then, can we expect from JNC’s Internet Social Forum? Sadly, we can expect that any participants who support a distributed, multi-stakeholder model for Internet governance will be required to check those convictions at the door, and to embrace instead a UN-based model that places governments firmly in control of Internet public policy development. We can expect those who deviate from this line to be interrogated mercilessly, and accused of being props for neoliberal hegemony and corporate domination.” (Emphasis added)

From these revelations we can discern that:

  • The JNC’s origins predate the holding of the Sao Paulo NETmundial meeting but appear to have been spurred by its announcement in fall 2013. The ISF is its wholly controlled and self-proclaimed reaction to the NMI, and NMI’s failure to gain endorsement and participation from mainstream civil society provides a wider opening for ISF’s launch and its impact on evolving discussions.
  • JNC and ISF are joined at the hip and largely indistinguishable.
  • ISF favors governmental control over global Internet policy with civil society relegated mainly to the local level.
  • JNC broke with other civil society and technical groups in declaring support for Paragraph 35 of the Tunis Agenda, which says that Internet policy is the sovereign right of states. JNC/ISF can be expected to ferociously hector any civil society group that even thinks about greater engagement with the NMI.

Finally, a key provision of the JNC’s Delhi Declaration referenced above states:

Globally, there is a severe democratic deficit with regard to Internet governance. It is urgently required to establish appropriate platforms and mechanisms for global governance of the Internet that are democratic and participative. These must be anchored to the UN system, and include innovative methods for ongoing and deep participation of non-governmental actors in policy making processes. The right to make Internet-related public policies lies exclusively with those who legitimately and directly represent people. While there is a pressing need to deepen democracy through innovative methods of participatory democracy, these cannot include—in the name of multi-stakeholderism—new forms of formal political power for corporate interests. Participating non-governmental actors must in turn be subject to appropriate transparency requirements, in particular regarding sources of funding as well as membership and decision-making processes. (Emphasis added)

So, it seems clear that JNC/ISF stands in favor of a UN-centric IG model that gives exclusive control over policy matters to those who “directly represent people”—presumably governmental actors. Its call for transparency requirements for non-governmental actors is presumably a prelude to vehemently discrediting any that accept funds from the private sector, and seems conspicuously hypocritical given the its own lack of transparency as described in the referenced article.

Summing up, while the NETmundial meeting and follow-up NMI cannot be held responsible for the views espoused by JNC/ISF, that initiative in favor of the MSM was certainly a catalyst. NMI’s failure to successfully engage with mainstream civil society and technical organizations early on, and decision to move forward without them, has created an environment where ISF’s views may gain more traction and where its existence now makes engagement with NMI by mainstream groups exceedingly more problematic.

The ISF announcement also delivers a clear indication that the advocates of UN-led, government domination of Internet policy are organizing for the post-IANA transition environment—and that there must therefore be ironclad protections against such a takeover built into the accountability mechanisms that accompany it.

Here is the ISF press release:

* * *

Global Civil Society launches the Internet Social Forum
PRESS RELEASE. Geneva, Switzerland, 22nd January, 2015.

A group of civil society organisations from around the world has announced the Internet Social Forum, to bring together and articulate bottom-up perspectives on the ‘Internet we want’. Taking inspiration from the World Social Forum, and its clarion call, ‘Another World is possible’, the group seeks to draw urgent attention to the increasing centralization of the Internet for extraction of monopoly rents and for socio-political control, asserting that ‘Another Internet is possible’!

The Internet Social Forum will inter alia offer an alternative to the recently-launched World Economic Forum’s ‘Net Mundial Initiative’ on global Internet governance. While the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the ‘Net Mundial Initiative’ convene global elites, the Internet Social Forum will be a participatory and bottom-up space for all those who believe that the global Internet must evolve in the public interest; a direct parallel to the launch of the World Social Forum in 2001 as a counter initiative?to the WEF.

The Internet Social Forum will reach out to grassroots groups and social movements across the world, catalysing a groundswell that challenges the entrenched elite interests that currently control how the Internet is managed. The Internet Social Forum’s preparatory process will kick off during the World Social Forum to take place in Tunis, March 24th to 28th, 2015. The Internet Social Forum itself is planned to be held either late 2015 or early 2016.

“While the world’s biggest companies have every right to debate the future of the Internet, we are concerned that their perspectives should not drown out those of ordinary people who have no access to the privileged terrain WEF occupies—in the end it is this wider public interest that must be paramount in governing the Internet. We are organising the Internet Social Forum to make sure their voices can’t be ignored in the corridors of power,” said Norbert Bollow, Co-Convenor of the Just Net Coalition, which is one of the groups involved in the initiative.

The Internet Social Forum, and its preparatory process, is intended as a space to vision and build the ‘Internet we want’. It will be underpinned by values of democracy, human rights and social justice. It will stand for participatory policy making and promote community media. It will seek an Internet that is truly decentralized in its architecture and based on people’s full rights to data, information, knowledge and other ‘commons’ that the Internet has enabled the world community to generate and share.

Somewhat similar to Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee’s call for a ‘Magna Carta for the Internet’, the Internet Social Forum proposes to develop a People’s Internet Manifesto, through a bottom-up process involving all concerned social groups and movements, in different areas, from techies and ICT-for-development actors to media reform groups, democracy movements and social justice activists.

This year will also see the 10 year high-level review of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), to be held in New York in December. As a full-scale review of a major UN summit, this will be a critical global political event. Since the WSIS, held in 2003 and 2005, the Internet, and what it means socially, has undergone a paradigm shift. The WSIS witnessed active engagement of civil society and technical groups as well as of business. However, currently, there seems to be an deliberate attempt to sideline this UN-led initiative on governance issues of the information society and Internet in favour of private, big-business-dominated initiatives like the WEF’s Net Mundial Initiative. The Internet Social Forum, while remaining primarily a people’s forum, will also seek to channel global civil society’s engagement towards the WSIS +10 review.

The following organisations form the initial group that is proposing the Internet Social Forum, and many more are expected to join in the immediate future. This is an open call to progressive groups from all over the world to join this initiative, and participate in developing a People’s Internet Manifesto.

Just Net Coalition, Global
P2P Foundation, Global
Transnational Institute, Global
Forum on Communication for Integration of our America, Regional (Latin America)
Arab NGO Network for Development, Regional
Agencia Latinoamericana de Información, Regional
Alternative Informatics Association, Turkey
Knowledge Commons, India
Open-Root/EUROLINC, France
SLFC.in, India
CODE-IP Trust, Kenya
GodlyGlobal.org, Switzerland
Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training, Canada
IT for Change, India
Association for Proper Internet Governance, Switzerland
Computer Professionals Union, Philippines
Free Press, USA
Advocates of Science and Technology for the People, Philippines
Other News, Italy
Free Software Movement of India
Global_Geneva, Switzerland
Solidarius (Solidarity Economy Network), Italy
All India Peoples Science Network, India
Institute for Local Self-Reliance - Community Broadband Networks, USA
Digital Empowerment Foundation, India
Instituto del Tercer Mundo, Uruguay

Please contact us at [email protected] for further information or clarification.

Or the following regional contacts:

Alex Gakaru
Email: [email protected]

Rishab Bailey
Email: [email protected]

Norbert Bollow
Email: [email protected]

North America
Michael Gurstein
Email: [email protected]

South America
Sally Burch
Email: [email protected]

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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