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From Connecting Computers to Connecting Stakeholders: Stanford Univ. Hosts NetMundial Initiative

1974, Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf checked in the Crown Plaza Hotel in Palo Alto, worked a couple of days and presented to the world the TCP/IP protocol. Stanford hosted one of the four computers connected on equal footing (ARPANET) in 1969. Five years later, the TCP/IP protocol connected networks of computers on equal footing, enabled inter-networking and moved the development of the Internet to the next level. A framed document in the hotel lobby remembers the historic moment.

On March 31, 2015 a crowd of about 30 people from all over the world checked in the same Crown Plaza hotel for the first working meeting of the new Coordination Council (CC) of the NetMundial Initiative (NMI). After a one day meeting they agreed on a document—Terms of Reference (ToR)—which will enable and promote the connection of networks of stakeholders. The document is now open for public comment. Last year in Sao Paulo, the “Global Multistakeholder Conference on the Future of Internet Governance” linked the four most relevant stakeholder groups for the governance of the Internet on equal footing: governments, private sector, technical community and civil society. The Palo Alto CC.NMI meeting on March 31, 2015 did move this multistakeholder Internet Governance inter-networking now to the next level.

The NMI Mission

The ToR document defines the mission and scope of the NMI. The proposed NMI mission is “to provide a platform that helps catalyze practical cooperation between all stakeholders in order to address Internet issues and advance the implementation of the NetMundial principles”. The NMI aims “to further develop the institutional Internet Governance ecosystem” and “to produce operational solutions for current and future Internet issues.” It commits itself “to operate in a multistakeholder, open, transparent and inclusive manner, as an integral part of the Internet governance ecosystem.”

The philosophy behind this ToR document is reflected in key words like “catalyze practical cooperation”, “implementation” and “operational solutions”. NMI is designed as an enabling platform, as a pusher which will help to connect the dots in the global Internet Governance ecosystem.

Many things are already done since the establishment of ICANN (1998) and the adoption of the Tunis Agenda by the UN World Summit on the Information Society (2005). There is no need to duplicate what is already there. However a lot of related activities in the global Internet Governance ecosystem are isolated and not connected. In many areas there is more discussion than action. The weak point is implementation. The difficulty is to find operational solutions for the discussed problems: Cybersecurity, cybereconomy, human rights. There is a lot of talking the talk. There is only little walking the walk.

The Stanford Bechtel Conference Center saw the first face-to-face working meeting of this new coordination council. It was a unique meeting. The CC.NMI brings the four stakeholder groups from five regions with different ideas on a rather high level under one umbrella. The 24 members represent different cultures, different histories and different constituencies. In such a constellation conflicts based on legitimate but different political and material interests are natural. But it is also natural that independent from the controversies, there are many things where all partners have an objective interest to agree and to move forward. The unique experience of the Palo Alto meeting was that the represented stakeholders were able to put the differences to the sideline and concentrated on common interests and shared values as they are laid down in the Sao Paulo Declaration of Principles and its roadmap.

I did participate in many Internet Governance meetings over the last 25 years but I never was involved in a debate where two high level governmental representatives from the US and China exchanged constructive arguments, moderated by a young civil society lady from Brazil (Marillia Maciel from the Getulio Vargas Foundation) with inspiring contributions from an African Internet entrepreneur (Andile Ngcaba from Convergence Partners) observed by the critical eye of a director from Human Rights Watch (Eileen Donahoe).

And this is probably the main news from the Palo Alto meeting: This very exceptional multistakeholder communication on equal footing works. Within one day the rather diverse group was able to agree on common language. The “room temperature” in Palo Alto was so different from the “room temperature” in Dubai where a number of NMI participants experienced two years ago fundamental intergovernmental controversies during ITU´s 2013 WCIT conference.

The NMI Scope

The NMI and its Coordination Council is not a policy setting body. This makes communication and the agreement on common language easier. Nevertheless it is an interesting observation that the dialogue among governments changes in style if non-governmental stakeholders are sitting as equals around the table.

This enabled also an agreement on the scope of future NMI activities which now include the following five areas:

  1. Serve as a neutral clearinghouse for issues, solutions, expertise and resources in Internet governance, and provide a platform on which diverse actors can solicit project partners and establish collaborative relationships.
  2. Enable open, inclusive, balanced and collaborative communities to share knowledge and expertise, leading to best practices, suggestions, innovation and solutions to address challenges identified by the community.
  3. Facilitate participation in the Internet governance ecosystem, particularly in the developing world, and advance multistakeholder processes at the national and regional levels.
  4. Promote the application, evaluation, and implementation of the Principles and encourage community reporting efforts.
  5. Assist developing-country communities, governments and underserved stakeholders by enabling capacity development efforts and in networking with relevant organizations and processes in order to address gaps in policy development.

This is a long list of promises and a lot has to be done to move from declaration to action. But each long march starts with a small step. The NMI-march started in Sao Paulo. Palo Alto was the first small next step, more will come. It will take some time. Many things are still unclear. But uncertainty is not new if somebody enters unknown territory and starts to explore what can be done in still undiscovered spaces. The NMI has a big opportunity by being creative and to come with innovations how existing and emerging Internet Governance issues can be managed to the benefit of the broader public by connecting stakeholders.

Like all initiatives which step into new territory, also the NMI is surrounded by sceptics. ISOC and ICC Basis, the US Chamber of Commerce, some civil society groups and others have expressed concerns and question the need to go beyond the status quo of the existing Internet Governance ecosystem.

This is not new. Let´s remember history. Sceptics dominated the discussion of the so-called “forum function” within the UN Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) in 2005. During the WSIS summit in Tunis, a number of governments, private sector companies and technical groups—including ICANN and ISOC—did not really support the idea of an “Internet Governance Forum (IGF)”. They feared that an IGF will become a “talking shop”, waste resources and produce meaningless or counterproductive outcomes. Ten years later, nearly everybody agrees that the IGF is “a great place to be” for all stakeholders. Today the IGF is seen as needed to discuss existing and identify emerging Internet issues. But the IGF is by design not the place for solving the problems.

To be clear, the NMI will not be the platform to solve the problems. But it can become a “walking shop”, an enabler which will bring the concerned and effected parties around an issue together to find the needed solution. The design for such a “routing function” could get its inspiration from the Internet architecture itself where no central authority exists and all knowledge and power is on the edges of the network. Root servers in the center of the network have just a “routing function”. They take queries from one end of the network and send them to the right place at the other end of the network. In the Domain Name System (DNS), the root servers are important. They are crucial in linking the meanwhile the 1000+ domains and enabling enhanced communication, coordination and collaboration among end users. But they do not have real power.

Removing Misunderstandings

The Palo Alto meeting also helped to remove three misunderstandings which were around the initiative since its pre-launch in Geneva in August 2014, when ICANN, the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Brazilian Internet Council cgi.br announced that they want to move forward with the Sao Paulo principles and its roadmap.

  1. One critical point was that the NMI will duplicate the IGF or compete with it. The Palo Alto meeting made very clear that the NMI is not an alternative to the IGF. NMI is another tree in the Internet Governance rainforest and its fruits will be useful for everybody, including the IGF. The ToR document avoided any language which would have given the CC.NMI a mandate for discussion. Discussion is for the IGF. But as soon as the IGF discussions have identified an issue as “waiting for solution”, the CC.NMI with its mission to implement can step in. IGF and NMI will work hand in hand. A good symbol for this is that the CC.NMI will have one of its next meetings in connection with the forthcoming 10th IGF in João Pessoa in Brazil in November 2015.
  2. Another misleading interpretation was that the NMI will be a policy making body. Some commentators warned that the CC.NMI could become something like the “UN Security Council” for the Internet with veto rights for permanent members. The Palo Alto meeting made crystal clear that this is nonsense. Nobody wants and needs a centralized Internet Security Council. The Internet Governance ecosystem is a decentralized and diversified multilayer multiplayer mechanism. Decision making capacities for Internet issues can be found at the edges of the network where existing governmental or non-governmental institutions have a special legal mandate by its members. The CC.NMI is an enabler which will help that those mandated groups put their policy making processes into the broadening multistakeholder environment of the Internet Governance ecosystem as a whole.
  3. A third fear was that the NMI will be captured by big business and/or big government. It is true, the council includes big business as Jack Ma, CEO from Alibaba, Richard Samans, Managing Director from the World Economic Forum (WEF) and Jim Poisant, Secretary General of the World Information and Technology and Service Alliance (WITSA). And it includes also big government as Penny Pritzker, US Secretary of Commerce, Lu Wei, Minister of Chinas Cyberspace Administration and Andrus Ansip, Vice President of the European Commission. But the Council includes also the Association for Progressive Communication (APC) and its executive director Anriette Esterhuysen, Jean Francois Abramic from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), Ian Peter from Australia, a former chair of the civil society Internet Governance Caucus (IGC), Maemura Akinori, General Manager of Japan´s NIC and Professor Nii Quaynor, the father of the Internet in Africa. All members of the CC.NMI were treated as equals during the Palo Alto meeting. It will be difficult to capture such a diverse group with such high profiled self-confident members.

Small Steps on a Long March

The NMI is not about policy making, it is about project pushing. However, it is still unclear how future projects could be linked to the NMI and its Coordination Council. One thing is clear the CC.NMI will give its helping hands only to projects which are aimed to implement the Sao Paulo principles and its roadmap. Whether this will be done by the development of a NMI Project Trustmark, by public calls for project ideas, by managing an open project list or by something else is still open for discussion. Three CC.NMI working groups (on operational principles, on projects and on outreach) will find out in the coming weeks how the next steps could be designed. Any everything will be open for public comment.

Among the first ideas which were presented in Palo Alto was a mapping project, a jurisdiction project, a polling project, a reporting project and a case study how multistakeholder cooperation is excersized on the national level (Brazil).

One key project could become the proposed Internet Governance Clearinghouse. This idea is not new. First elements for such a clearinghouse were proposed by civil society groups already during the WSIS summit in 2005. The idea came up again in the work of the UNCSTD working groups on IGF improvement and enhanced cooperation (WGEC). The so-called Correspondence Group (CG) of the WGEC had produced a list of more than 500 Internet Governance related issues waiting for “clearance”. But nothing happened so far.

In a new book, presented at the 9th IGF in Istanbul (September 2014), CC.NMI member Bill Drake from the University of Zurich, chair of ICANNs Non-Commercial User Constituency (NCUC) and Lea Kasper from Global Partner Digital (GD) have outlined how such a clearinghouse could be build. Time is ripe to move from talking the talk to walking the walk. The CC.NMI could probably build on the various versions of related clearinghouse proposals and demonstrate what they have in mind when they agreed in the ToR “to catalyze practical cooperation between all stakeholders”.

All this is, as said above, work in progress, a journey into unknown territory. A further encouragement for the initiative came with a recent study published by ISOC, one of the NMI sceptics. ISOC asked more than 800 Internet expert and only 17 percent argued that there is no need for such a new initiative. 27 percent clearly stated that something like NMI is needed. And more than half of the respondents were still undecided. They are watching how the new baby is growing. For a brand new initiative those figures are not bad. However it is also a clear signal that there is a lot to do.

Connecting stakeholders is not easy. As the ten years since the adoption of the Tunis Agenda has demonstrated the envisaged “sharing of principles, programs and decision making” by all stakeholders is not simple to implement, in particular if “sharing” is based not only on the recognition of the “respective roles” of the stakeholders but also on “equal footing”.

Sharing of decision making on “equal footing” was the innovation in Sao Paulo. Palo Alto has moved this innovation further forward. The next small steps will follow soon in Costa Rica (June 2014) and João Pessoa (November 2015). For 2016, Alibaba, the Chinese private corporation, has offered to host one of the next CC.NMI meetings in Bejing.

In this minefield of Internet Governance talking the talk is already complicated. Walking the walk is much more difficult. But to stand still and looking backwards would be a missed opportunity.

By Wolfgang Kleinwächter, Professor Emeritus at the University of Aarhus

He is a member of the Global Commission on Stability in Cyberspace, was a member of the ICANN Board (2013 – 2015) and served as Special Ambassador for the Net Mundial Initiative (2014 – 2016).

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