Why NETmundial meet in Sao Paulo offers hope for a more open Internet

Internet now forms an essential part of the world’s social, cultural and economic infrastructure, there is an urgent need to formulate a binding global framework to delineate rights

People hold a banner in support of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff as she addresses the opening ceremony of NETmundial, a major conference on the future of Internet governance in Sao Paulo, Brazil on Wednesday. Photo: AP
People hold a banner in support of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff as she addresses the opening ceremony of NETmundial, a major conference on the future of Internet governance in Sao Paulo, Brazil on Wednesday. Photo: AP

No one controls the Internet and it has no borders. At least that is what most Netizens think.

Governments and online advocacy groups who know better battled for more say in developing a road map to govern cyberspace during their two-day meeting that ended on 24 April in Brazil, especially on the back of numerous reports of cybersnooping by US government agencies and the US government’s decision to finally cede control of key Internet domain name functions.

Over the last 40 years ago, the Internet has evolved into an immense network that is indispensable for governments, companies and individuals but it is coordinated by a private sector non-profit organization—the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) which was set up by the US in 1998 to take over the activities performed for three decades by a professor in California, Jonathan Bruce Postel.

ICANN oversees technical matters and coordination of the domain-name system (such as .com and .net), national addresses (such as China’s .cn or India’s .in) and routing numbers that identify traffic on the Internet. The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) is a department of ICANN and is broadly responsible for the allocation of globally unique names and numbers that are used in Internet protocols.

Many governments have long argued that the Internet should be administered by a multilateral treaty and not unilaterally by the US since many governments perceive ICANN to be an instrument of American hegemony over cyberspace.

Efforts to rectify matters were initiated in December 2003 in Geneva, and during the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia in November 2005. In between, in November 2004 UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed a 40-person working group to address questions of Internet governance.

But nothing much came out of these discussions.

However, on 14 March this year, the US government’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which contracts ICANN to carry out the IANA functions, announced plans to transfer its responsibilities to “global stakeholders” when the contract expires on 30 September, 2015.

It has asked ICANN (that handles the administration of IANA functions) to work jointly with other bodies including the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), the Internet Society (ISOC), the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), top-level domain name operators and VeriSign, in its bid to “support and enhance the multistakeholder model...and maintain the openness of the Internet”.

Depending on the progress of this process and flow of community consultation, ICANN and the community could be ready to complete the transition before the renewal of ICANN’s contract with the US government in September 2015, says the ICANN website.

However, the move also envisages a shift from multilateralism to one with multistakeholders—an approach backed by the US, most Western democracies, the private sector and NGOs. On the other hand, multilateralism is supported by countries like China and Russia. Multilateralism recognises a nation state as the representative of its citizens, making decisions on their behalf.

However, given that the Internet now forms an essential part of the world’s social, cultural and economic infrastructure, there is an urgent need to formulate a binding international framework to delineate rights and obligations between states as well as between states and individuals, according to advocacy group, The Society for Knowledge Commons, which believes that certain public policy functions in the context of the Internet governance can only be dealt with with the help of a multilateral framework.

Given this backdrop, the two-day session of multistakeholders that ended on 24 April in Rio assumes a lot of significance—not least for India—despite the fact that it is non-binding.

The first day of the meeting, which was attended by 1,229 participants from 97 countries, had representatives from the government, civil society, private sector, academia and global technical community, according to a statement by NETmundial as the ‘Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance’ is called.

NETmundial said it received 188 documents from 46 different countries based on which it prepared a draft ‘Outcome Document’ and submitted it for consultation on 3 April.

It will present a final version of the outcome document, as a suggestion for the global community in order to guide the development of Internet governance.

NETmundial has identified a set of common principles and important values “that may contribute for an inclusive, multistakeholder, effective, legitimate, and evolving Internet governance framework”. These include rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of association, accessibility for persons with disabilities, freedom of information and access to information, and development—use of the Internet as a vital tool for giving people living in poverty the means to participate in the development processes.

A multistakeholder approach, according to the NETmundial framework, would involve full participation of governments, the private sector, civil society, the technical community, academia and the users in their respective roles and responsibilities.

Last, but not the least, NETmundial advocates that Internet governance should promote open standards, “informed by individual and collective expertise and practical experience and decisions made by open consensus... consistent with human rights and allow development and innovation”.

The BRIC countries — Russia, China, India and Brazil — have been very vocal about their positions.

While representatives from Russia and Saudi Arabia pointed out some shortcomings in the prepared draft document, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff termed surveillance as “an affront against the very nature of the internet as a democratic, free and pluralistic platform”.

A spying scandal allegedly involving the US National Security Agency (NSA) has estranged relations between Brazil and the US.

According to an 8 June report by The Guardian newspaper, the US has been monitoring communications between US and foreign nationals over the Internet for years under a project called PRISM. The Guardian said it has acquired top-secret documents about an NSA data-mining tool, called Boundless Informant, that details and even maps by country the voluminous amount of information it collects from computer and telephone networks.

Around 6.3 billion reports were collected from India alone, the report added.

In its document to NETmundia, India’s ministry of external affairs said governance of the Internet is a complex affair involving a range of issues such as technical, legal, public policy, equitable access, privacy and security of the infrastructure and information. “Given that the core infrastructure of the Internet is not protected by any international legal regime, it is important to shape a globally-acceptable legal regime to maintain the openness, security and international trust in the Internet,” the documents said.

The meeting will definitely be an important milestone for multilateral and multi-stakeholder mechanisms in the ecosystem, according to Sunil Abraham, executive director of online advocacy group, the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS)—a representative at the NETmundial meeting.

Abraham believes that an appropriate global governance system “will be decentralized, diverse or plural in nature yet interoperable, will have both multilateral and multistakeholder institutions and mechanisms and will be as interested in deregulation for the public interest as it is in regulation for the public interest”.

Brazil, meanwhile, signed a new privacy law on Wednesday limiting the data that online companies can collect on Internet users from the nation of 200 million. Violators, according to the new law, are subject to penalties including fines and suspension.

India, though, is yet to have a privacy law.

Meanwhile, in an equally significant development, parts of the US media reported on 23 April that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considered draft “Open Internet” or Net Neutrality rules at an agency meeting 15 May.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler was quick to issue a rebuttal, stating that “...reports that the FCC is gutting the Open Internet rule...are flat out wrong”. He insisted there is no “turnaround in policy” which advocates ‘Open Internet’ rules that do not harm consumers.

If the FCC implements the new rules, content providers could pay Internet service providers (ISPs) for faster bandwidth so that they can send video and other content faster to their customers. This, argue online advocacy groups, would defeat the very idea of a transparent and open Internet since those users who may not be able to pay the extra amount, could be denied special content.

The fact remains that around 40 countries filter the Internet in varying degrees, including democratic and non-democratic governments.

YouTube and Gmail (both from Google), WikiLeaks, Twitter and Facebook have all been censored, at different times, in China, Iran, Egypt and other countries, including India.

The Indian government’s own Central Monitoring System or CMS has been described by Human Rights Watch as “chilling, given its reckless and irresponsible use of the sedition and Internet laws.” In April 2013, the Indian government began rolling out the CMS, which will enable it to monitor all phone and Internet communications in the country.

Numerous instances of cyber snooping, cyberwars and blocking of Internet sites and online snooping of user information by government agencies, including those from the US, China, Egypt, Syria and India, have further raised privacy and geopolitical concerns, forcing governments across the world to rethink governance issues on the Internet.

Such pressure by governments across the world will hopefully make the Internet a better and safer place to surf.

More From Livemint