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Booting Up Brazil

Milton Mueller

The improvised alliance between ICANN and the government of Brazil is now beginning to take shape. The "summit" that President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil announced last month now has a name: the Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance. It's no longer a summit, it's a GMMFIG. (Shall we pronounce it gum-fig?) The meeting will be held in Sao Paulo, Brazil, April 23 and 24. Don't book your tickets yet, though — we are still debating how open this meeting will be.

The purpose of the meeting has been made explicit. According to the news release,

The meeting will aim to produce universal internet principles and an institutional framework for multistakeholder internet governance. The framework will include a roadmap to evolve and globalize current institutions, and new mechanisms to address the emerging internet governance topics.

Principles. An institutional framework. A roadmap. No NSA: the meeting will not "discuss or engage in creating solutions for specific topics such as security, privacy, surveillance, etc."

Sounds like WGIG version 2.0.

Now for the difficult decisions about representation, legitimacy and authority. Who will be able to participate in the meeting? Who will manage its agenda? If committees are set up to make these decisions, who selects the committees? If a committee is set up to create committees, who selects those people? This kind of infinite regress pervades the process of balancing authority and legitimacy in the formation of new institutions.

On November 18, 2013 the Brazilian government released some preliminary details about the organizational structures that will be used to run the meeting. These structures show clearly how the meeting is a negotiated compromise between the Internet technical organizations and Brazil's government. Both sides get to populate half of the four steering committees proposed. The ICANN/Internet side takes care of representation of nongovernmental stakeholders (business, civil society, academia and NGOs). The Brazilian side emphasizes representation of states.

In preparation for the meeting, ICANN and the other I* organizations have created a new structure called /1net, at the web site 1net.org. This will run a mailing list to get input from the Internet community about the principles and issues that will be decided at the meeting. Nominally, /1net is headed by the Director of AFRINIC, the Internet address registry for the African region, but various ICANN staff seem to be involved. ICANN and the other I* organizations seem to have created this structure for the express purpose of mobilizing their communities. Ironically, the Whois record for /1net web site is cloaked and it was not clear who was behind this site.

But the more important question is who will comprise the coordinating committee of /1net. This committee will have a lot of influence over the GMMFIG. It will appoint half of the 4 steering committees, drawing the members from predesignated slots such as "business," "civil society," etc. It seems that Fadi and his new staff aide Theresa Swineheart, in consultation with the other I* organizations, will be deciding who is on this critical committee, but no one knows for sure.

The leading role of the Internet technical community has sparked some criticism from certain civil society actors. As Jeremy Malcolm wrote on the fledgling /1net email list, "Why would a group that was set up a month ago, and which is so far basically just an open mailing list, carry such important and politically delicate responsibilities in the organisation of the Brazil summit?" But of course, /1net is more than just an open mailing list, it is a concerted attempt by the organically evolved Internet institutions (IETF, ICANN, RIRs) to create an umbrella group that can coordinate non-governmental input into the Brazil meeting. But there are legitimate and interesting questions about the long term role of this group in bringing civil society together under a I* umbrella.

In the meantime, Brazil is forming a global multistakeholder steering committee to organize the event. The committee will include representatives from the Brazilian CGI, the Brazilian government, and representatives of /1net.

ICANN threw another FIG (Future of Internet Governance) panel into the salad November 18. It created a "High-Level Committee on the Future of Global Internet Cooperation." The Panel plans to release a high-level report in early 2014 for public comment. The Panel's report will include "principles for global Internet cooperation, proposed frameworks for such cooperation and a roadmap for future Internet governance challenges." Look back at the Brazilians' description of the purpose of the conference, which is to develop principles, institutional frameworks and a roadmap. So this group, hand-picked by ICANN's President, will produce what sounds like a first-draft proposal for the GMMFIG. Will this hand-picked committee's agenda pre-empt that of the broader group that meets in Brazil? The High Level Panel does not really include much of civil society, and complaints about that may produce some modifications of the personnel.

The announcement for the GMMFIG said that "Any party/stakeholder may submit proposals to the conference. Proposed deadline for submittal of proposals is set as March 1, 2014." This blue-ribbon panel will be putting out its proposal for public comment on March 1, as well. Again, it sounds like the High Level Panel's output was pre-planned to correspond to the GMMFIG agenda.

All this positioning does not even begin to solve the problem of who will be allowed to attend the meeting itself, and how big or small it will be. Because the GMMFIG is supposed to come to an agreement on important matters — principles, mechanisms, roadmap — the group needs to be smaller. But it needs to be big and open to capture the best people and the most knowledge.

The next two weeks will be an emergency populating exercise for the steering committees. Civil society groups, known for their diversity, fragmentation and competition among themselves for resources and attention, will have to agree on about 10 people who represent all of them, or else allow a steering committee they did not choose to make selections for them. Oddly arbitrary dividing lines between stakeholder categories, such as "civil society," "NGOs," the "technical community" and "academia," will have to be drawn. Vastly diverse groups, such as "business" will be compressed into a few "representatives" most likely chosen by Western-oriented multinationals in the International Chamber of Commerce. Governments — who are already supposed to aggregate the interests of all the stakeholders in their jurisdiction, will be afforded representation on the same basis as other stakeholders. Ah, the multistakeholder model.

By Milton Mueller, Professor, Syracuse University School of Information Studies. More blog posts from Milton Mueller can also be read here.

Related topics: ICANN, Internet Governance

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