Nyet-Mundial: Taming the ambitions of the WEF/ICANN/CGI alliance

Who will inherit the legacy of the NetMundial meeting? A one-off meeting in April of this year that successfully brought together governments, business, civil society and the technical community to produce a set of principles and a ‘road map’ was lauded as a major success for multistakeholder Internet governance. The question of how to follow up on its accomplishments has become a new source of controversy. For better or worse, efforts to institutionalize its legacy under the leadership of ICANN seem to be faltering. And that may be a good thing.

Despite our mocking of it as the Not-Mundial, ICANN, the Brazilian Internet Governance Steering Committee, and the World Economic Forum insist on calling it the NetMundial Initiative (NMI). They have registered the domain netmundial.org and are attempting to position NMI as the place where any and every non-technical policy issue affecting the Internet can be addressed. The leaders of this initiative are now trying to form a “Coordinating Committee” composed of 25 people “distributed across 4 sectors and five geographies.” This top-down, centralized organization defines its mission as “to energize bottom-up, collaborative solutions in a distributed Internet governance ecosystem.”

“No” from the technical community

A recent statement by the Internet Society, a group not known for its hostility to private business or to ICANN, has sharply distanced itself from the NMI. ISOC flatly refused to occupy the permanent seat on the NMI Coordinating Committee allotted to it. After reading the statement, IGP is very pleased with the nature of their reasoning:

At its heart, the Internet is a decentralized, loosely coupled, distributed system that allows policies to be defined by those who require them for their operations and that ensures that issues can be resolved at a level closest to their origin.

ISOC reiterated its view that there should be no single platform for Internet governance, and also accused the Initiative of not being decentralized, bottom-up, open, transparent, or accountable.

The simple fact is that NMI’s agenda is too ambitious. It comes across as an attempt to establish hegemony over global Internet policy, and to create a structure of privileged access for the small circle of Internet governance directors, government officials, activists and MS devotees who are well-placed within ICANN, CGI and WEF.

Of course there is nothing wrong with private initiatives to organize responses to specific policy problems, or private initiatives to promote specific ideologies or viewpoints. The recent so-called Global Commission on Internet Governance compares favorably to NMI in this regard; it is a bunch of “important people” getting together to promote their views on Internet governance. The Commission, however, makes no bones about the fact that it is a private, rather exclusive group with an ideological bias. (Although it does have an irritating tendency, like NMI, to claim that this is being done on behalf of all of us: witness their domain name “ourinternet.”) NMI, on the other hand, is positioning itself as a public institution, one that holistically addresses all of the non-technical aspects of Internet governance.

“No” from Civil society, too?

Now it is civil society’s turn to decide whether to be swept up in NMI’s embrace. An interesting debate is taking place within the Civil Society Coordination Group, and within Best Bits, another coalition of civil society groups involved in global Internet governance. One would think the decision would be an easy one. But civil society groups with no power except moral suasion are always tempted to attach themselves to powerful institutions in order to provide a more effective vehicle for their normative views. They must also face the perpetual tension between being co-opted by powerful players offering them access, and becoming ineffective or marginalized.

Reviewing the debate in the Best Bits archive, it seems that the people within civil society advocating an accommodation with NMI are precisely the people who would be likely to be selected for privileged access or elevated status in an ICANN/WEF/CGI based regime, and those who oppose it are precisely the ones who would not be so selected. This kind of supplicant/divide and conquer relationship is not healthy for civil society’s role in Internet governance.

The civil society groups became more critical when NMI informed them that the NMI leaders would not allow the CSCG to appoint all of the five Coordinating Committee members allocated to civil society; NMI reserved the right to appoint some of its own selections. This is because the World Economic Forum has longstanding ties with specific NGOs and it wants to reward its friends. So by accepting a position on NMI’s coordinating committee, civil society groups would be lending legitimacy to the structure while endorsing the ability of the NMI organizers to define who or what represents civil society. At the original NetMundial meeting, civil society selected its own representatives on committees and there was no artificial, top-down designation of who represents civil society.

Our recommendation is that the CSCG follow the lead of the Internet Society and refuse to formally appoint anyone to the NMI Coordinating Committee. They should do so not out of hostility or spite, but simply to make it completely clear that NMI is an ICANN- and business-led policy initiative and not an open, public governance institution. It would be acceptable to work with NMI if or when it proposes specific actions or policies that civil society supports, but there is no reason to allow civil society participation in Internet governance to be gate-kept in this way, or to allow itself to be incorporated into a structure defined by and under the control of ICANN, WEF and a Brazilian national agency (CGI).