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Beyond NETmundial: Initiative or Inertia?

Philip S. Corwin

The April NETmundial meeting was a seminal event in the history of Internet Governance. Fears that the meeting might fail to reach consensus were not realized. Instead, the participants achieved a high degree of harmony — the "Spirit of NETmundial" — that resulted in issuance of a consensus Statement that, while lacking in precise detail, was effused with positive energy.

Since that meeting there has been considerable discussion within the Internet Governance (IG) community as to what lessons have been learned from NETmundial, and how its work might best be carried into the future. In late August a significant contribution to that discussion was marked by the publication of "Beyond NETmundial: The Roadmap for Institutional Improvements to the Global Internet Governance" — which, in the event's spirit, is available as a free download. That volume, a collaboration between the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School and several non-profits, contains numerous essays by Internet policy and technical experts discussing the best way forward from what transpired in Brazil.

Even as this discussion continues, the World Economic Forum (WEF) held an August 28th meeting in Geneva, Switzerland to unveil a "NETmundial Initiative" (NI) developed in significant conjunction with ICANN. Many of the attendees in Geneva were headed next to the annual UN-sponsored Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Istanbul, Turkey. The IGF has traditionally been a gathering in which IG matters are discussed, but the conversation stopped short of "solutions". NI was conceived as a new entity in which IG solutions could be developed.

However, the WEF's Geneva NI meeting ended with significant dissent from the broad groups comprising "civil society", and only lukewarm support from the business sector. For example, in a response to criticism emanating from the Electronic Frontier Foundation(EFF), Joseph Alhadeff of Oracle posted this response on the 1net discussion list:

Just to be clear, a number of business representatives, including ICC-BASIS, have called into question the lack of transparency, bottom up inclusion and consultation in this process as well as the need to better clarify how this Initiative adds separate value and is supportive rather than duplicative of the IGF. Please also note that placing a number of businesses on a guest list has little to do with actual inclusion of or consultation with even the business community. We hope that these issues in creation will not preclude the ability of Net Mundial Initiative to become something useful to the broader communities and would strongly urge that the ensuing 6 month consultation period be open to both procedural and substantive improvements; nothing should be final until that consultation is completed.

And the Istanbul IGF reportedly displayed an unprecedented degree of partnerships being forged to pursue "solutions". So the question of the best follow-up to NETmundial remains unresolved.

This article explores the history of and reaction to the WEF Initiative to better inform those interested in forging a productive path forward on IG issues.

* * *

The NETmundial meeting held in Sao Paulo, Brazil on April 23-24, 2014 resulted from an invitation extended by ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade to Brazilian President Rousseff in October 2013. Prior to the meeting it was generally regarded by the Internet Governance community as being a one-off event, the results of which would flow into existing Internet forums for further development.

Indeed, the concluding "Way Forward" section of the NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement issued on April 24th reads:

All the organizations, forums and processes of the Internet governance ecosystem are encouraged to take into account the outcomes of NETmundial.

It is expected that the NETmundial findings and outcomes will feed into other processes and forums, such as the post 2015 development agenda process, WSIS+10, IGF, and all Internet governance discussions held in different organizations and bodies at all levels.

The follow up and future discussions of topics listed in this document should inform work convened by existing entities or bodies. They are invited to report on their works in major Internet governance meetings. (Emphasis added)

In an accompanying document issued by the organizers, "NETmundial: the beginning of a process”, the uniqueness of the event was also emphasized:

NETmundial represents the beginning of a process for the construction of such policies in the global context, following a model of participatory plurality. With the goal of bringing together representatives of civil society, private sector, academia and technical community to establish strategic guidelines related to the use and development of the Internet in the world, the meeting was concept into committees format, each one with representatives of the involved stakeholders, distinguished experts, aiming to give guidelines and organize the meeting…

NETmundial meeting took place on April 23rd and 24th, 2014, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, congregated 1,480 stakeholders with active voices (including remote participation), from a diversity of 97 nations. It was the first of its kind. It hopefully contributed to the evolution of the Internet governance ecosystem.

A week after the meeting ended, on May 1st, ICANN CEO Chehade published a blog post, "Turning Talk Into Action After NETmundial”, which began, "NETmundial was an exhilarating and unique experience, with its spirited and passionate discussions about principles for how together we should govern the Internet in the future… we went beyond discussion to produce a bottom-up outcome document with equal participation by all stakeholders." It should be noted that the final outcome document was in reality not entirely bottom-up, having been subjected to multiple last-minute revisions by a select drafting group without further public consultation prior to its adoption and publication.

That blog post then asked, "how do we turn all of those words into action? How do we operationalize the hard-fought roadmap and principles we collaboratively developed?" It continued:

With the publication of the historic Multistakeholder Statement of São Paulo, we must now breathe life into these words. I understand that not everyone agrees with every word or concept in the statement. Consensus building and the NETmundial collaborative approach are processes that require enormous effort. But I urge everyone to continue with us on this journey and help us build an Internet for everyone. Let us work in the spirit of the African proverb: "If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together."…

I am personally ready to work tirelessly on coalescing governments, private sector and civil society to operationalize the NETmundial roadmap. An alliance or a coalition, fueled by the unforgettable spirit of NETmundial, and united by its principles, should without delay focus on the practical implementation of the NETmundial roadmap elements, specifically:

  • Enable innovative and practical mechanisms to map Internet Governance issues to existing solutions. Where no solution is available, the mechanisms should dynamically fuse institutions and experts to address the issue effectively with participation from all stakeholders.
  • Support the establishment of national Internet governance structures, enabling collaboration between government, private sector, and civil society members to produce local policy models/recommendations and best practices.
  • Empower participants from governments, private sector and civil society — especially in developing regions — to actively engage in the distributed Internet governance ecosystem. The empowerment should come in the form of effective training, tools, and ready access to expertise.

While that article hinted at a new alliance or coalition, no further details were provided. Where there was specificity it was in references to national IG structures and empowerment in developing regions — and to existing forums, including the IGF. There was no suggestion that ICANN might embark on an undisclosed course involving a new player like the WEF, as opposed to a broad coalition or alliance of existing IG participants.

But three months later CEO Chehade unveiled a much grander vision in a new August 18th blog post, "An Initiative for Action”. In it he announced that, "ICANN will soon join several countries and multistakeholder organizations to begin to build a global initiative for Internet cooperation and governance with an emphasis on action." There has to date been no clear explanation of how taking a lead role in this area squares with ICANN's limited remit, other than pursuing a goal of taking IG pressure off ICANN at some future point in time, Nor have any details been forthcoming of how much of CEO Chehade's time and ICANN financial resources have been invested in this NETmundial follow-up.

This new initiative was being undertaken by the World Economic Forum, most famous for its annual winter gathering of CEOs, politicians, and celebrities in Davos, Switzerland. The post went on to elaborate on the claimed benefits of the Initiative for ICANN as well as its its relationship to the IGF:

As stated in the WEF's invitation letter to ICANN: "The initiative will seek through multistakeholder dialogue and action to apply the NETmundial Principles in ways that enhance trust in the capacity of the Internet's distributed governance ecosystem to respond to a range of emerging policy challenges."

This will bring several benefits to ICANN. First, it will directly help us shift ICANN's role to a broader initiative, relieving our organization of the pressure to enlarge our remit and mission. Second, it will enable the multistakeholder Internet governance ecosystem to operate on a much broader scale and to tackle a wider array of issues.

This initiative will be built to strengthen and support the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). It will not in any way replace it. It will promote dialogue and facilitate progress on the global, regional and national IGF structures as active platforms to identify Internet governance issues. The Initiative's work will not serve as a substitute for the IGF, but rather complement its efforts by formulating solutions, engaging in capacity development and broadening participation in Internet cooperation. ICANN's commitment and contributions to the IGF shall remain a priority.

Just as it was critical for ICANN to energize global discussions about Internet governance, it is now crucial that we meet the world's growing need to address IG issues within an action-oriented initiative. These efforts, along with others, will help turn the NETmundial Principles into action.

It will not have any authority over governance organizations like ICANN, nor will it have any role in the oversight of ICANN or the IANA functions. What it will do is explore in a very practical way the decentralized operationalization of a 21st century collaborative and distributed Internet cooperation ecosystem… I see this as a way for me to shift ICANN's posture from a leader to a participant in Internet governance. It will also allow me more time in the future to focus on my core responsibilities at ICANN — ensuring our operational excellence as well as preparing ICANN and enhancing its accountability as we contemplate the transition from U.S. government stewardship of IANA.

As can be seen, the WEF Initiative was portrayed as a means of taking the pressure off ICANN to expand beyond its domain name system (DNS) technical remit, and as a new process that would supplement but not replace the IGF. But, while not in the lead, ICANN may still expend substantial future personnel and monetary resources on this venture. And, while making clear that the Initiative would have no authority over ICANN, there was no clarification of what organizations or processes it would control — that is, of how any of its recommended solutions would actually be carried forward to implementation.

As that August 28th Geneva event proceeded, it became clear through the course of the day that many attendees remained questioning and uncertain about the goals of the NI, or had even more serious reservations about it. Those feelings were given free expression in the final event, the "Debrief with Founding Partners”, when civil society attendees stated that WEF equated for them with the perceived exclusion and elitism of the Davos gathering, and urged that the process slow down.

Forty-nine minutes into that session, 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 NI. 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 NI 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".

About eight minutes later CEO Chehade made an impassioned nine-minute speech urging support for the NI, concluding with the exhortation that "all of us need to work, and fast". That exhortation seems at some odds with the African proverb quoted in his May 1st blog, which equated going fast to going alone.

But subsequent statements from civil society representatives and other key parties indicate that the future of the WEF effort is very much up in the air. They include the following:

  • In an August 29th posting on the 1Net e-mail list, Internet Society (ISOC) head Kathy Brown shared her views on the Geneva event — "I applaud the leadership of the World Economic Forum for highlighting and recognizing the enormity of the effect of the Internet on the global economy and the benefits and challenges inherent in its adoption in much of the world. It is, of course, entirely legitimate that it seeks to understand and participate in the debate on internet governance… I was disturbed, however, as others have expressed, with the opaque way the meeting came about; about what seemed to be established agendas; talk of some new single entity and top down models that purport to represent organic community processes that could be hobbled by definitions and artificial role expectations. I frankly do not know enough to know whether my concerns are justified. I look forward to hearing more from WEF, and perhaps, from the ICANN leadership, this week, about the initiative. I hope, too, that the folks at WEF who are coming to the IGF soak up the energy, creativity, work and sweat of the community that will gather this week."
  • On the very day of the event, Jeremy Malcolm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) published this critique — "[W]e certainly hope that today's meeting doesn't set a standard for the nascent initiative to follow, because it wasn't a promising start… The question raised today was, will these NETmundial principles turn out to be "just talk", like the IGF's meetings often are, or could they have a real (and hopefully positive) impact on people's rights and freedoms in the real world? The purpose of the NETmundial Initiative was to make sure that it would be the latter, the hope being expressed that the Initiative could "apply the NETmundial Principles to solve issues in concrete ways", through a series of activities building upon those principles.

    So far, so good. But the execution of the event was a significant departure from the earlier NETmundial meeting in Saõ Paulo with which it shares both its name and a parent in the form of ICANN CEO, Fadi Chehadé (but little else). The Saõ Paulo event was relatively transparent and open to all, from the agenda setting phase through to the drafting, and was executed by a structure of multi-stakeholder committees to which stakeholder groups nominated their own representatives.

    The Geneva NETmundial Initiative on the other hand was hosted by the World Economic Forum (WEF), a think-tank of the world's largest companies. The participants and, from amongst those, the proposed steering committee members, were hand-picked by the organizers rather than being nominated by their own stakeholder groups (as, ironically, the NETmundial Principles set out as a best practice). The agenda was pre-written and released less than two weeks ahead of the meeting, but only after it had already been leaked. As for the meeting itself, much of the time allotted was taken up with closed-door bilateral meetings. In what scant few hours remained for discussion of the WEF's proposals, little receptivity was shown to those being reopened for discussion, or alternative proposals being entertained…

    Too often there is a division between Internet governance processes that are truly open, inclusive and transparent on the one hand, and on the other hand those with the potential to actually produce tangible results that make a difference to real people's lives. Unfortunately the NETmundial Initiative scoping meeting maintains that distinction, in proposing a laudably action-focused agenda to take forward the NETmundial Principles, but by means of a rather closed, top-down and opaque process.

    We don't think that the NETmundial Initiative will do any harm, but initial indications suggest it is far from an ideal model of global Internet governance in action, nor a worthy successor to its Saõ Paulo namesake."
  • Professor Milton Mueller published a withering review on the website of the Internet Governance Project (IGP) — "The NMI is an attempt by ICANN's CEO, Fadi Chehade, to enlist the resources and interpersonal networks of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in finding "solutions" to Internet governance problems. Framed as an "initiative for action" that would implement the principles of the April Netmundial meeting in Brazil, the unveiling of NMI has generated a flurry of critical commentary… It is not difficult to understand why the NMI is controversial. There are four distinct causes. First, it appropriated the name of the Brazilian Netmundial meeting and its respected outcome document, even though there is no formal relationship and very little continuity between the WEF crowd (other than Fadi himself) and the actors and institutional methods of the Brazilian Netmundial meeting. For that reason, I like to refer to NMI as the "Not-Mundial."

    Second, it was formed through a top-down process. Fadi and his allies in WEF hand-picked people from governments, business and civil society to be insiders in the process, instead of forming an open institution. While top-down initiatives are sometimes unavoidable to bootstrap a process, Fadi has relied far too heavily on such methods. The man simply does not understand (or does not like?) open, bottom up processes, perhaps because they cannot be controlled…

    Third, the Not-Mundial's link to the elite WEF, which is built around an annual meeting for a few "world leaders" in Davos, Switzerland, raises the spectre of domination of the "ecosystem" by business and political elites…

    The fourth and most important worries about Not-Mundial relate to its effects on the UN Internet Governance Forum… Most of the real solutions to Internet problems are happening in ways that mirror the Internet's architecture. They are networked, distributed, ad hoc. The most valuable initiatives are not taken by political or business "leaders" selected and blessed by other leaders, but by actors with a real stake in the outcome, real skin in the game, acting on their own initiative."
  • Danny Aerts, CEO of Sweden's .SE ccTLD, published a blog post on the day of the event urging that IG events slow down, not speed up — "First and foremost, "the multi-stakeholder model" is becoming more of a fancy name for meritocracy where few decide without others being involved. To build knowledge takes time. We have already had nearly ten years of IGF discussions. And a little off-topic — If we are going to protect the bottom-up and multi-stakeholder model, how should one interpret ICANN launching a new discussion for internet governance together with the World Economic Forum? It's hard to be more elitistic than that.

    How many people can be involved if we determine a new model for internet governance in just over a year? The risk is that a small group will decide. And the risk is even higher if the meritocracy is not determined by merit, but rather by self-interest.

    The tempo leads to money and resources becoming more important… The tempo excludes participating organizations. It is not possible to discuss in larger groups and form ideas together in time. All energy is needed to run and nothing can be set aside for talking (even though discussions are where the best ideas come from).

    The tempo allows the person who holds the baton to control the process too much. There is a risk that ICANN consciously or unconsciously can affect the process too much… My question is what should be most important; the goal or the time?"
  • Finally, in a post not directly related to NI, AFNIC Directeur General Mathieu Weilln August 28th nonetheless issued an impassioned plea for ICANN to slow down and focus on top priorities — "I know that behind the work there are people who are committed, motivated, intelligent, and want to do well. But all these initiatives lack oversight, overview and a sense of timing! As I said in my contribution on Nomcom, stop everything! Don't move! Let's focus on the two fundamental issues of accountability and IANA, and spare the rest of the effort!"

* * *

In the aftermath of the WEF Geneva event it is clear that insufficient effort was undertaken to explain the purpose of the NI and to obtain "buy in" from civil society. The same holds true for business — all the feedback I have received is that those corporate actors who participate in ICANN and the IGF have significant concerns that the NI will detract from the IGF's further development and limited resources and add yet more global travel and additional unnecessary expenses to an already crowded field of IG-related events.

So, while the message coming out of Geneva was that the Initiative will go forward over the next six months and result in dedicated IG sessions at Davos, there is a major question as to whether it enjoys the broad enthusiasm and support needed to overcome inertia and establish positive momentum. Also, while the undertaking was presented as freeing up ICANN to focus on its narrow portfolio, there are unanswered questions of how much more time and energy of ICANN senior staff and other IG participants, as well as ICANN financial resources, will need to be devoted to sustaining the NI through the next half year at a time when ICANN is not just continuing the new gTLD rollout but is also engaged in forging historic decisions about the IANA functions transition and enhanced accountability, and when the community has recently demonstrated unprecedented dissatisfaction with the speed and details of the relevant processes.

Nonetheless, NI persists for now and the U.S. government seems to have mustered some enthusiasm for it. In remarks delivered at The Media Institute on September 29th, Assistant Secretary Strickling said this:

Out of NetMundial and the Ilves panel report came various recommendations for how the Internet governance process might be improved. And now the question is, will these recommendations sit on a shelf and collect dust or will the community implement any of them?

There is hope that there will be a process for the multistakeholder community to consider these recommendations and to build consensus to implement some or all of them. Recently, the World Economic Forum (WEF) announced that it would convene stakeholders to work on ways to move the NetMundial principles forward. The WEF initiative hopefully will provide an international platform to bring together government, business and civil society leaders as well as technical experts to discuss how to sustain and strengthen an effective multistakeholder approach to Internet governance. The United States is an early supporter of the effort and will work with the WEF to ensure that the process is open and transparent and complements existing Internet governance organizations such as the Internet Governance Forum (IGF).

Informal reports indicate that the NI is being further developed as a joint project of WEF, ICANN, and CGI.BR, organizer of the Brazilian NETmundial event. The project may be structured as a strategic dialogue supported by WEF, with a second platform established for action initiatives, although details are scarce and new stakeholders are reportedly being sought as supporters. There is a possibility that more information may be forthcoming at the IG session scheduled to take place during the upcoming ICANN 51 meeting in LA.

There is certainly nothing wrong with the world's largest corporations, along with political leaders and celebrated opinion leaders, taking a genuine interest in IG matters. Maintaining a unified, open, and secure Internet is intrinsically related to economic growth, democratization, and global security. However, it remains to be seen whether WEF's NI will win the confidence and backing of the business sector and, most importantly, civil society. Whatever its future support and output, the same nagging and frustrated questions about a hurried, top-down process that have consumed the ICANN community over the past year will accompany the NI for the foreseeable future.

By Philip S. Corwin, Founding Principal of Virtualaw LLC, a Washington, DC Law and Public Policy Firm. He also serves as Of Counsel to the IP-centric law firm of Greenberg & Lieberman. Views expressed in this article are solely his own.

Related topics: ICANN, Internet Governance, Policy & Regulation

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Thanks for a well thought-through article that Joly MacFie  –  Nov 16, 2014 4:12 PM PDT

Thanks for a well thought-through article that clarifies the issues. Earlier, For convenience, I ported the webcasts of the Aug 28 meeting over to YouTube.  http://bit.ly/wefnmi1 I don't believe a transcript has ever been published.

Who is in charge of ICANN, the board of directors or the President (CEO)? Karl Auerbach  –  Nov 17, 2014 11:24 AM PDT

The word "accountability" is often used when discussing ICANN.

"Accountability" is not a vague concept - at the hard, concrete floor accountability is the question of who sets ICANN's direction and who is responsible to those for whose benefit ICANN was created: the community of internet users.

ICANN seems to be sufferring from a great deal of uncertaintly about who is in charge.  Is it the board of directors or ICANN's President?

The law designates that ICANN's Board bears the ultimate power and ultimate responsibility.  The President is a mere employee of the board and is merely the vehicle through which the policies and choices set by the board are exercised.

Was this major policy initiative the result of a reasoned decision of ICANN's board of directors?  If so, then where are the records of this decision?

If not, then ICANN's Board of Directors really ought to convene a special meeting to consider, and perhaps, repudiate, revise, or endorse this action by its hired President.

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