Earlier this month, the United Nations (UN) held the 10th annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in João Pessa, Brazil, and I was there representing the University of Washington and civil society. The IGF is gathering of people from all over the world to discuss the rules that govern the Internet and all sorts of digitally related topics, from digital literacy, privacy and big data to security, access and the digital divide. It includes not only representatives of governments, corporations and academia, but also techies, NGO people and all sorts of representatives from civil society, like me. This is the last one that is authorized by a UN mandate, although there is a good possibility that it will be extended.
The 2015 Internet Governance Forum (IGF)
On the first day of the IGF, the divide between the corporations and governments versus everyone else became readily apparent at the opening ceremony. In an event led by the Brazilian Minister of Communication, a UN Assistant Secretary-General, and the governor of Paraiba (the state where the IGF was held), participants unveiled signs protesting Facebook’s “Free Basics” program, which gives people in developing countries access to Facebook and a number of selected apps. Formerly known as Internet.org, Free Basics is controversial because it funnels the newest, often uneducated and poor users of the Internet onto the blue network’s walled garden without teaching them much about the world beyond it.
UN police and security quickly ordered them to take down their banners, and despite it being a silent protest, the confrontation jibed with the spirit of the open, multistakeholder event. An encryption specialist and activist named Joana Varon Ferraz gave a fiery speech at the opening session that followed, decrying the censorship and asking for greater access to closed-door meetings. An “Internet Ungovernance Forum” down the road organized by the Brazilian Pirate Party at the Federal University of Paraiba struck a similar chord. Joana Varon Ferraz voiced a theme I found repeated throughout the conference, namely that multistakeholderism is a questionable proposition when governments and corporations continue to decide the rules of the game.
At the opening session, of twenty representatives speaking, Joana Varon Ferraz was the only one from civil society, and only one of four women. Representatives from China, the International Telecommunications Union, Disney, and the Internet Society gave nice speeches, but reflected the contrast between the promise of open multistakeholder participation and the reality of the system.
Nonetheless, subjects like zero rating (e.g., the practice of mobile carriers giving customers access to particular types of online content/locations at no cost) were central to the IGF agenda throughout, most prominently in discussions of net neutrality, as Free Basics and other similar programs could abrogate newly instated laws such as Brazil’s recently passed Internet Bill of Rights. These laws require governments to regulate the Internet to ensure ISPs treat all traffic equally. Representatives from telecommunications providers pushed back in other sessions, arguing that discrimination in the name of traffic management, for instance to allow for better video or VoIP delivery, is justified.
Facebook continually defends its Free Basics program with the claim that it is not profiting from advertisements, but I challenged their representative by pointing out that a lot of the value comes from the data that new users generate. He re-emphasized his point that over 50% of users go onto to use the broader Internet, repeated throughout the forum, but would not elaborate on how he would share that data.
This is a key point, not only because Facebook is monetizing user data in various ways, not only through advertising, but also because it is impossible to verify its claims, along with many others, without access to the company’s data. Of course, if Facebook shared the data there would be less value in it, so there is an inherent conflict between the company’s stated goal of openness and the reality of its business model. This is one of the reasons why a program like Free Basics is problematic from the outset.
The debate is key to the accessibility question, how to bridge the “digital divide” and get more people online in ways that give them real access to the open Internet with a full understanding of its potential. DiploFoundation, a good Internet governance NGO, provides a nice visualization of the key themes mentioned during the opening session, and access and the digital divide were frequently mentioned, along with cybercrime, freedom of expression, and infrastructure debates.
Free Basics at least provides a model, whether it is an equitable one is up for debate. Another option is to give people access through open, no strings attached methods.
I also took part in the IGF’s Dynamic Coalition on Public Access in Libraries, which represents at least one such more traditional alternative. My participation connects with my work with University of Washington on digital and information literacy in Myanmar. On this project, are collaborating with two NGOs there (Myanmar Book Aid and Preservation Foundation and Enlightened Myanmar Research) to connect with libraries and teach online skills and concepts throughout the country as they are just getting Internet access.
Increasingly integrated into the IGF program are a number of dynamic coalitions on subjects ranging from net neutrality to gender to the Internet of things. The coalition subject groups all submit input documents to the UN as they consider these issues, which in turn can be taken into account by governments as they consider policies. These can be especially important when developing national programs to ensure access and harmonize policies that span borders, as the Internet tends to do.
Completing the transition of the domain name system from US to international control, administered by Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), represents an example of this, and is a key part of these discussions. In particular, the multistakeholder system pioneered by Brazil is becoming a model experts use to describe how they would like the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) to develop.
Brazil as a Global Leader
Brazil is an auspicious and conscientious location for the IGF. It is the second time the event came to Brazil, the first was in Rio in 2007, and it is the only country to host the event twice. This is not a coincidence, the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee (Comitê Gestor da Internet or CGI in Portuguese) organized and funded the event here, and it manages the multistakeholder system of Internet governance that is an example for other countries, the United Nations and the IGF itself.
Last year, CGI hosted a similar multistakeholder meeting known as the NetMundial, where it signed into law the Brazilian Internet Bill of Rights, the Marco Civil da Internet. Like the IGF, and in many ways related to it, CGI and the Brazilian government, along with backers like ICANN, want NetMundial to become an ongoing part of the process to discuss these issues.
Whether creating a multiplicity of forums for debate is a good question, what isn’t in doubt is the strength of the model that the Brazilians have created. Notably, the Italian government has consulted with the authors of the Brazilian law to formulate their own Internet Bill of Rights. At a meeting before the start of the conference, authors of both bills, Ronaldo Lemos from the Institute of Technology (ITS) in Rio, and the former Italian parliamentarian Dr. Stefano Rodotà. sat and discussed their experiences. The inclusion of a member of the EU Parliament on the same panel reflects the Italian goal for their bill to become the model for a broader European project.
At the same event, Ronaldo Lemos introduced a book published by ITS on “Understanding Brazil’s Internet Bill of Rights”, in which I contributed a chapter along with a European colleague, Roxana Radu, with transatlantic perspectives on the Marco Civil. We discuss the Italian project and the potential areas where Americans can learn from the law.
I hope it can contribute in some small way to a better understanding of the law, and how all countries of the world can benefit from the model the Brazilians have produced, at places like IGF and all over the world.