Global Governance of the Internet must be Democratised

May 10 2012

Joint statement

Following the announcement by Other News about commitment to the campaign on urgent action required for Democratising the global governance of the Internet, we send this additional documentation, asking for your support before 16 May. Best regards, the editor.

Call for Support and Endorsement

Global Governance of the Internet must be Democratised!

A joint statement by civil society organisations for the UN CSTD meeting on ‘Enhanced Cooperation on Public Policy Issues Pertaining to the Internet’ to take place in Geneva on May 18th, 2012

proposed by

Focus on the Global South (Thailand), Instituto Nupef (Brazil), IT for Change (India),

Knowledge Commons (India), Other News (Italy), Third World Network (Malaysia)

and endorsed by

organisations and individuals listed at the end of the statement

The Internet is a major force today, restructuring our economic, social, political and cultural systems. Most people implicitly assume that it is basically a beneficent force, needing, if at all, some caution only at the user-end. This may have been true in the early stages when the Internet was created and sustained by benevolent actors, including academics, technologists, and start-up enterprises that challenged big businesses. However, we are getting past that stage now. What used to be a public network of millions of digital spaces, is now largely a conglomeration of a few proprietary spaces. (A few websites like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon together make much of what is considered the Internet by most people today.) We are also moving away from a browser-centric architecture of the ‘open’ Internet to an applications-driven mobile Internet, that is even more closed and ruled by proprietary spaces (like App Store and Android Market). In fact, some Internet plans for mobiles come only with a few big websites and applications, without the open ‘public’ Internet, which is an ominous pointer to what the future Internet may look like. What started off as a global public resource is well on its way to becoming a set of monopoly private enclosures, and a means for entrenching dominant power. At this stage, it is crucial to actively defend and promote the Internet’s immense potential as a democratic and egalitarian force, including through appropriate principles and policies at the global level.

Who governs the Internet

It is a myth that ‘the Internet is not governed by anyone’. It is also not a coincidence nor a natural order of things that the Internet, and through it, our future societies, are headed in the way of unprecedented private gate-keeping and rentier-ing. The architecture of the Internet is being actively shaped today by the most powerful forces, both economic and political. A few US based companies increasingly have monopoly control over most of the Internet. The US government itself controls some of the most crucial nodes of the global digital network. Together, these two forces, in increasing conjunction, are determining the techo-social structure of a new unipolar world. It is important for progressive actors to urgently address this situation, through seeking globally democratic forms of governance of the Internet.

While the US government and US based monopoly Internet companies already have a close working relationship to support and further each other’s power, this relationship is now being formalised through new power compacts; whether in the area of extra-territorial IP enforcement (read, global economic extraction) through legislations like SOPA , or in the area of security (read, global extension of coercive power) through cyber-security legislations like CIPSA.

The US government has stubbornly refused to democratise the oversight of the Internet’s root server and domain name system, which it controls. While the US pooh-poohs the security concerns expressed by other countries vis-a-vis such unacceptable unilateralism, rather hypocritically, it seeks to contractually obligate the non-profit managing these key infrastructures to appoint its security officials only on US government advice. (The chief security officer of this non-profit body is already, in fact, a sworn member of the ‘Homeland Security Advisory Council’ of the US!)

Apart from the direct application of US law and whims (think Wikileaks) over the global Internet, and Internet-based social activity (increasingly a large part of our social existence), default global law is also being written by the clubs of powerful countries that routinely draft Internet policies and policy frameworks today. The OECD and Council of Europe are two active sites of such policy making, covering areas like cyber-security, Internet intermediary liability, search engines, social networking sites etc. Last year, OECD came out with its ‘Principles for Internet Policy-Making’. These Principles, heavy on IP enforcement and private policing through large North-based Internet companies, are to guide Internet policies in all OECD countries. Recently, OECD decided to ‘invite’ other, non-OECD, countries to accede to these Principles. This is the new paradigm of global governance, where the powerful countries make the laws and the rest of the world must accept and implement them.

Who is not allowed at the governance table

While Northern countries are very active at Internet related policy- and law-making, which have extra-territorial ambition and reach, they strongly resist any UN based initiative for development of global Internet principles and policies. This is in keeping with the increasingly common Northern efforts at undermining UN/ multi-lateral frameworks in other global governance arenas like trade, IP etc. For instance; trying to keep global financial systems out of UNCTAD’s purview at the recent Doha UNCTAD meeting, and bringing in Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) as a new instrument of extra-territorial IP enforcement by the OECD, bypassing WIPO.

The mandate of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) for building a globally democratic space for developing Internet related global policies is quite clear. The WSIS outcome document states that, ?the process towards enhanced cooperation (on Internet-related international public policies), (is) to be started by the UN Secretary-General … by the end of the first quarter of 2006?. However, six years down the line, developed countries do not seem to be willing to even formally discuss how to operationalise this very important WSIS mandate of ‘enhanced cooperation’, much less do something concrete about it.

OUR DEMAND – Internet Governance must be democratised

We, the undersigned civil society organisations, affirm that the Internet must be governed democratically, with the equal involvement of all people, groups and countries. Its governance systems must be open, transparent and inclusive, with civil society given adequate avenues of meaningful substantive participation. While we denounce statist control over the Internet sought by many governments at national levels, we believe that the struggle at the global level also has significant dynamics of a different kind. Our demands with respect to ‘global’ Internet Governance espouse a simple and obvious democratic logic. On the technical governance side, the oversight of the Internet’s critical technical and logical infrastructure, at present with the US government, should be transferred to an appropriate, democratic and participative, multi-lateral body, without disturbing the existing distributed architecture of technical governance of the Internet in any significant way. (However, improvements in the technical governance systems are certainly needed.) On the side of larger Internet related public policy-making on global social, economic, cultural and political issues, the OECD-based model of global policy making, as well as the default application of US laws, should be replaced by a new UN-based democratic mechanism. Any such new arrangement should be based on the principle of subsidiarity, and be innovative in terms of its mandate, structure, and functions, to be adequate to the unique requirements of global Internet governance. It must be fully participative of all stakeholders, promoting the democratic and innovative potential of the Internet.

The Internet should be governed on the principles of human liberty, equality and fraternity. It should be based on the accepted principle of the indivisibility of human rights; civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, and also people’s collective right to development. A rights-based agenda should be developed as an alternative to the current neo-liberal model driving the development of the Internet, and the evolution of an information society. The UN is the appropriate place for developing and implementing such an alternative agenda. Expedient labelling by the most powerful forces in the Internet arena, of the UN, and of developing countries, as being interested only in ‘controlling the Internet’, and under this cover, continually shaping the architecture of the Internet and its social paradigm to further their narrow interests, is a bluff that must be called.

We demand that a Working Group of the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) be instituted to explore possible ways of implementing ‘enhanced cooperation’ for global Internet-related policies. (Such a CSTD Working Group is also being sought by some developing countries.) ‘Enhanced cooperation’ must be implemented through innovative multi-lateral mechanisms, that are participatory. Internet policy-making cannot be allowed to remain the preserve of one country or clubs of rich countries. If the Internet is to promote democracy in the world, which incidentally is the much touted agenda of the US and other Northern countries, the Internet itself has, first, to be governed democratically.

Click here to endorse the statement

Click here for the current list of signatories to the joint civil society statement


Call to endorse a joint statement by civil society organisations for the UN CSTD meeting on ‘Enhanced Cooperation on Public Policy Issues Pertaining to the Internet’

Background Information

As per the UN General Assembly resolution in December 2011, the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development is holding a one day meeting on ‘Enhanced Cooperation on Public Policy Issues Pertaining to the Internet’ on 18th May in Geneva. This can have critical implications for democratising the global governance of the Internet, currently being driven by dominant political and economic interests. It is vital that progressive civil society actors speak up for preserving the egalitarian potential of the Internet, and seek appropriate institutional arrangements for this purpose. (See our campaign for ‘Defending the publicness and egalitarian nature of the Internet’, in 2008, which was supported by over 110 NGOs and individuals, globally.)

As we all realise, while the real action and impact may be at the micro-level, in the everyday lives of people, increasingly, much of the structural causes of our social challenges and opportunities lie at the global level. One deep structural phenomenon strongly impacting our societies is the Internet and the related larger digital ecology. However, progressive actors have mostly looked only at the opportunities and goodies that the Internet provides, and not so much at it as a larger techno-social construct and at the key question of ‘who and what shapes the Internet today’. The issue of governance of the global Internet is most significant in this regard.

Developed countries, chiefly the US, using the power of its monopoly Internet companies and other kinds of strategic advantages, are eagerly shaping the Internet as per their narrow interests ? economic, political, security and cultural. At the same time, the North has managed to keep developing countries away from the seats of governance of the Internet. For this purpose, they use many different strategies. To many developing countries, they sell the proposition that poorer countries should focus on the immense developmental potential of the Internet, rather than the ‘esoteric’ question of its global governance. To global civil society, the North has somewhat successfully been able to sell an image of themselves as the protector of freedoms and liberties on the Internet, chiefly the freedom of expression, and that of developing countries as anti-democratic and retrograde, thus arguing that the latter should not be allowed anywhere near the levers of Internet governance. To the technical experts, a powerful constituency in the early days of the Internet, the global North touts the illusion of a bottom-up, user-driven and built Internet, while the fact is that it is the policies and practices of the North, as for example through their active complacency concerning ‘net neutrality’ (a key egalitarian architectural principle of the Internet), and non-enforcement of competition law vis-a-vis the unprecedented monopolization in the Internet business, that are rapidly eroding the bottom-up nature of the Internet.

Overall, a well orchestrated game is on to keep the control of the Internet in the hands of the Northern political and economic powers (very lopsidedly, US based). Progressive civil society actors, who have otherwise been very active in demanding democratization of global governance, be it in areas of trade, IP, climate change or health, must develop appropriate strategies and responses for the area of global Internet governance as well, which of course is intimately and ever-increasingly linked with all these other global governance arenas. It is important that progressive actors intervene at this early stage of institutional development in this crucial area.

We recognise the manner in which most governments, at the national level, have sought statist controls over the Internet, and the need for active civil society resistance to such moves. However, the dynamics at the global stage of Internet governance also have other significant dimensions, which are important to understand, and which this joint civil society statement primarily addresses.

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005 expressly sought democratisation of global Internet governance and mandated the Secretary General to commence a process in 2006 itself towards ‘enhanced cooperation’ (a place-holder term for new institutional arrangements) on international public policy issues pertaining to the Internet. Over the last six years, the Northern powers however have not been ready even to formally discuss the issue of how to move ahead on this important mandate, much less do something concrete about it. They bluntly refused the demand by many developing countries for a Working Group of the Commission of Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) to discuss the ‘enhanced cooperation’ issue during negotiations for drafting the ICT and Development resolution by the Second Committee of the UN in November 2012. CSTD is the institution mandated with WSIS follow-up.

However, as a compromise, the 2012 UN General Assembly resolution mandated a one day meeting to be called by the CSTD on ‘Enhanced Cooperation on Public Policy Issues Pertaining to The Internet’ which will be held in Geneva on the 18th of May. An impression is actively being created by the dominant interests (as self-professed champions of freedoms on the Internet) that civil society is fully supportive of the positions of Northern powers, for more or less maintaining the status quo. The unfortunate fact is that only a very narrow segment of civil society is engaged with global Internet Governance issues at present. It is important that progressive civil society actors committed to global justice and engaged with the discourse of democratization of global governance stand up and assert that;

(1) not only civil and political rights, but also economic, social, cultural rights and the right to development, have to be claimed vis-a-vis the governance of the Internet, and

(2) the North-centric global governance of the Internet is not acceptable and it should involve all people, groups and countries, and the UN, in an appropriate manner, and with open and inclusive participation of civil society.

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