Issuance of NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement Concludes Act One of 2014 Internet Governance Trifecta

On April 24th the NETmundial “Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance” concluded with the issuance of an eight-page statement. This non-binding document is hardly the “Magna Carta for the Internet” called for in an opening statement delivered by Tim Berners Lee, but it does set the stage for the other two major 2014 events that will affect the course of Internet Governance (IG) – the IGF meeting in Istanbul, Turkey and the ITU meeting in Busan, Korea.

Before turning to the final outcome document a separate and very important development took place on the meeting’s final day. That was ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade’s statement at the IANA transition session that the transition plan and the broader issue of improved ICANN accountability are “very interrelated” and that ICANN will publish a proposal for a consultation on improved accountability this week — adding that the two processes will develop “hopefully together on the same time line”.

While a welcome clarification, this statement is inevitable recognition that the need for periodic renewal of the IANA functions contract operated as a powerful tool to make ICANN adhere to the Affirmation of Commitments (AOC) signed with the US but providing global benefits in regard to ICANN accountability and transparency. Many parties both within and outside the ICANN community will never sign off on an IANA transition proposal unless it is accompanied by a robust and reliable  ICANN accountability mechanism. Further, it is likely the IANA transition process proposed by ICANN earlier this month will encounter some stiff pushback from many members of its community because it proposes structural details (e.g., Steering Committee guidance and composition) that should be left to the community to determine — and its proposed definition of what is and is not within scope for the discussion is far too narrow and tries to predetermine an outcome in which ICANN receives permanent possession of those IANA functions, with no other options permitted for discussion.


Turing to the final NETmundial document:

  • Its provision on the IANA transition makes clear that it will not be possible to confine the discussion to the ICANN community and the I-star technical organizations. Further, the call for “striving towards a completed transition by September 2015” demonstrates that there will likely be some global outcry if a transition plan is not completed by then, notwithstanding recent NTIA and ICANN statements before the U.S. Congress that September 2015 is just a goal and not a deadline. Nonetheless, this is a matter so crucial that getting it done right is far more important than getting it done fast — and that includes completion of the tandem plan on enhanced and reliable ICANN accountability before any IANA transition plan is considered final and ready for review.
  • Its call for ICANN’s globalization to result in “clearly implementable and verifiable accountability and transparency mechanisms” is welcome and again underlines the crucial role that the accountability plan will play.
  • The Internet Governance Principles contain no big surprises and are pretty much the DNS equivalent of “motherhood and apple pie”. One exception is the sentence, at the Accountable bullet for IG Process Principles, which declares,  “Governments have primary legal and political accountability for the protection of human rights.” While that is true, it is likewise true that the greatest threats to human rights on the Internet come from certain repressive  governmental regimes — and the document clearly ducked an opportunity to address that inconvenient fact. The advancement last week of Russian Internet censorship legislation and China’s actions this week to further remove and censor online content – justified by its Communist party’s declaration that “there can be no Internet freedom without order” – just underline that sorry fact as well as the real dangers of any expanded government role in Internet governance.

In regard to the more important Roadmap for  Future Evolution for IG, which will have bearing on the IGF and ITU events as well as other developments down the road:

  • The declaration that “enhanced cooperation as referred to in the [2005 WSIS] Tunis Agenda…must be implemented on a priority and consensual basis” and a later reference to the “Information Society as defined by the WSIS outcome documents”,  raises some real concerns, especially as that Agenda opined that “[t]he international management of the Internet should be multilateral” and not multistakeholder. We will all need to review that nearly ten year old, 20-page long document to figure out the full implications of its referencing in Sao Paulo – where Russia, China, India, and many other governments made clear that they had not yet evolved to a multistakeholder mindset. While the Tunis Agenda led to the establishment of the IGF, it is also replete with calls for UN leadership.
  • The references to adequate funding for “capacity building and empowerment”, though understandable, stop short of advocating any digital divide “domain tax” levied on registrants as some called for at the Opening Ceremony. In this regard, the keynote remarks of Nnenna Nwakanma, which concluded with a paean to Moscow-dwelling Edward Snowden, are now available. They state that social and economic justice lead to the conclusion that “we need to start considering the Internet as public commons” and continue:

How do we ensure that resources are mobilized and maintained for a viable Internet Governance mechanism? The question is not just at the global level, but also at regional and national levels. Whose resources are we going to commit? My leaning is that the Internet should be able to provide resources for its own governance.  Maybe, part of the domain name fees could be reinvested here. (Emphasis added)

While ICANN may have to expend some resources to participate in relevant meetings and thereby contribute to the Internet governance ecosystem, the fees it collects from domain registrants via registrar and registry Internet intermediaries should be used solely to fund its own role as technical manager of the DNS and for related policy matters. Having ICANN go beyond that narrow remit and redistribute registrant fees to global, regional, or national IG activities would convert it into a multinational tax-and-spend organization. That is not only inappropriate but would be accompanied by a large potential for corrupting digital cronyism. This is a dangerous idea that bears continued close scrutiny.

  • The call for a strengthened IGF is probably both inevitable and welcome, That Forum is a known quantity with established procedures, and it is better to enhance its activities rather than reinvent the wheel with new organizations or meetings. Nonetheless, as demonstrated by the heavy participation of governments at NETmundial, the pending US withdrawal from IANA counterparty status and the likelihood that the IGF will evolve into a decision-making entity will almost surely attract much more active participation by governments in future IGF activities. Whether this works out well or badly remains to be seen.
  • The identification of “Jurisdiction issues and how they relate to IG” as something to be discussed beyond NETmundial bears watching. A separate group exploring that is looking to have national laws “co-exist” in cyberspace – whether that can be accomplished without diluting the fundamental rights and freedoms of Internet users residing in nations with strong protections is uncertain.

The official U.S. statement issued upon NETmundial’s conclusion declared that “hundreds of stakeholders from around the world convened to discuss and agree upon a shared vision for the multistakeholder model of Internet governance that seeks to further develop an increasingly open, transparent, inclusive, and responsive system” and that its Multistakeholder Statement “endorsed the transition of the U.S. Government’s stewardship role of IANA functions to the global multistakeholder community, consistent with our stated principles”. The U.S. surely breathed a sigh of relief that the meeting did not blow up in acrimony — and that the final document makes no direct reference to the NSA data collection program, stating more generally that, “Mass and arbitrary surveillance undermines trust in the Internet and trust in the Internet governance ecosystem. Collection and processing of personal data by state and non-state actors should be conducted in accordance with international human rights law.”

The U.S. statement also recognizes that NETmundial was just the opening event in this year’s IG passion play, stating, “NETmundial marks one of many critical global discussions planned for the multistakeholder community this year. The U.S. Government supports these discussions and looks forward to working collaboratively with the global community to strengthen the Internet governance structure, enabling broad participation from governments, businesses, civil society, technology experts and academia.” The fact that the U.S. delegation was led by White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Michael Daniel just underlines that IG is now seen as a top tier, high-stakes issue by the Obama Administration.

While NETmundial made incremental progress, it failed in one central aim. ICANN claimed that Brazil President Dilma Rousseff had been converted to a multistakeholder model advocate, and that holding this meeting in Brazil could bring the other BRIC nations along. But President Rousseff adopted a half-pregnant position in Sao Paulo, making the politically expedient declaration that there is “no opposition” between the multilateral and the multistakeholder approaches. And Russia, India, and China, along with other developing world nations, all strongly reiterated their support for a UN-led, government centric approach to Internet governance. Those nations collectively comprise about half the planet’s population and the great majority of the next billion Internet users. And a more decisional IGF, along with the UN-affiliated ITU, may provide far more compatible venues for their goals than a one-off NETmundial meeting.

So, while a bullet has been dodged, the real drama lies ahead.

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