Internet Governance for Activists? Reflections on IGF 2014

I attended the Internet Governance Forum 2014 as a civil society delegate on behalf of Tactical Tech. These are personal reflections of the event and current discourse around multistakeholderism and human rights.

In the age of the Internet and global governance, civil society actors and grassroots activists tie their advocacy to the global movements of data, but ground themselves in the unique social and political issues of their geopolitical contexts.

Leading up to this year’s Internet Governance Forum, civil society actors within Turkey and from around the world turned a critical lens on the capacity of Internet governance debates to substantively account for their interests and concerns. Turkish activists worried that choosing Turkey and the city of Istanbul to play host for such a prominent, global event would grant legitimacy to a repressive government. Turkey currently blocks access to approximately 48,000 websites subject to its controversial Internet Law No 5651. For many months of 2013 and 2014, Istanbul has rung with reactive violence to a series of largely peaceful protests, each wave accompanied with increasingly restrictive censorship measures. 29 twitter users are on trial for tweets critical of the government. Some local activists chose to boycott the IGF altogether, while others hoped to participate, submitting a half dozen workshops related to the state of human rights in Turkey. When all of their workshop proposals were rejected, these activists, together with those who’d boycotted the event all along, organized the Internet Ungovernance Forum, which, as Isik Mater of Alternatif Bilişim points out, should be seen as a “supplementary event,” rather than a boycott, of the IGF.

At the Internet Ungovernance Forum, IGF representatives showed up to argue that the activists had “broken all the rules” of the official methodology for the organization of a proper multistakeholder panel: that it include industry, government, as well as civil society representatives, and that its content reflect geographic diversity. Activists in turn argued that these rules reflect an allergy to politics and demonstrate how multistakeholderism’s promise of elevating non-state actors in debate with governments has shown itself to be no more than a closed insiders game.

At the IGF itself, a panel on censorship titled “Internet blocking: When well intentioned measures go too far” also showed cracks in the validity of current conventions around multistakeholderism. When civil society delegate Shahzad Ahmad pointed to the blockage of Youtube in Pakistan for two years as an example of a ‘well-intentioned‘ but nonetheless illegal measure, moderator Paul Vixie, a prominent member of the technical community, found discussion of Pakistan out of scope: “If you ask why was YouTube blocked and why is it still blocked, that I think is not a question for the Internet. That is a question for Pakistan…So I would like to if possible rule that out in our discussion here today.”Vixie may have found discussion of governments a waste of time, but in steering the conversation away from local political realities, he invalidated the perspective of civil society in his panel.

This year’s IGF was certainly not the first show of discontent with the UN-driven multistakeholder process. Scholars Arne Hintz and Stefania Milan wrote of the participation of grassroots media activists, radical tech collectives and alternative Internet Service Providers at the first World Summit on Information Society in 2003, around which multistakeholderism first emerged, that “while some sections of (organised) civil society were included in the process, others remained outside, lacking the resources, the organisational structure or the will to participate.” Leading up to WSIS, activists drew lines between this new forum for discussion and global governance meetings of the 1990′s, arguing that if global governance emerges from new flows of transnational business, it would follow that global internet governance would be heavily influenced by these same interests. The barriers to participation by civil society at WSIS and the responses of the grassroots activists pointed to an inadequacy in the framing of non-state vs. state actors in Internet governance debates: where the non-state grouping of stakeholders also includes commercial interests, history has shown civil society’s interests to get sidelined. To counter WSIS, grassroots groups organized WSIS?WeSeize! In their manifesto, they wrote:“It is not our interest to create a ‘information-society’ which is compatible with the current global system of capitalist society.”

In a rousing speech at the closing ceremony of this year’s IGF, Milton Mueller suggested that non-state actors engaging in Internet Governance debates be seen as an emerging ‘Internet nation,‘ in pursuit of norms and codes beyond the holds of state sovereignty and physical geography. The roots of inspiration for his notion of an ‘Internet nation‘ can be found in recent Internet Freedom discourse and a long history of cyberlibertarian conceits about the governing properties of the Internet: that the structure of the Internet allows for new kinds of connections, that these new kinds of connections create space for a new kind of community, and that this new kind of community can serve to mitigate the power of bad actors such as repressive states, which do their best to meddle in the fundamental technical infrastructure of the internet. Mueller called for an ‘Internet national liberation movement’ to feed off processes such as the globalization of technology and content flows, radical transparency and cryptocurrencies, and rely upon the autonomy of engineers to continue guiding decisions around its core infrastructure.

However, judging by the distrust in globalization processes demonstrated in earlier fora such as WSIS?WeSeize!, Mueller’s suggestion that the globalization of technology can on its own pave the path to a new, influential Internet community may stop short of addressing the concerns of grassroots activists. It’s not clear how a new, emergent community reliant on the same old globalization processes would resolve issues around the unequal weight of private and public interests that we see in current formulations of multistakeholderism.

While Milton Mueller placed faith in the exceptional nature of ‘Internet community,‘ at the IUF, members of the Alternative Informatics Association cast off formulations of rights relying on the exceptional quality of the digital: “It is not sufficient to demand only “digital human rights, we must simply demand fundamental rights and justice,”calling for his audience to move beyond the digital dualism present in much of the discourse around Internet freedom and Internet governance: “The internet” is not separate from the “real” world.”

Though many at the IGF and IUF pointed to the cracks in current formulations of multistakeholderism, important grassroots policy advocates from outside of Turkey maintained that the absence or opposite of multistakeholderism (which one delegate said would be unilateralism) would be a ‘much worse alternative,’ justifying the considerable resources they continue to spend on their participation in forums such as the IGF. Anja Kovaks of the Internet Democracy Project points out that “It is not that multistakeholderism already exists and we are all, together, working to somehow determine what its true nature really is. What all of us involved in these debates and processes are doing, instead, is to proactively build a new system.”

I asked Professor Yaman Akdeniz of Bilgi University, which hosted the IUF, what he thinks Internet governance means to 29 activists who are on trial for tweeting. He me that “it doesn’t mean much, but it should mean something, because they’re internet users, and they need to have their rights protected. They have a right to freedom of expression.” Internet Governance debates appear to make space for substantive discussion of rights, but outsiders often haven’t realized it. At an activist strategy workshop before the IUF officially kicked off, a small group discussed why this is the case. Mueller, in an effort to break through the inaccessible language, did his best to separate out possible entry points for activists from the multitude of standard-setting bodies involved in Internet governance. At the end of the afternoon, the clearest takeaway was just how opaque Internet governance remains beyond a first or second glance.

Mere days after the Internet Governance Forum wrapped up and the hundreds of government officials, commercial representatives, and civil society delegates left town, the Turkish government granted Turkey’s Telecommunications Directorate authority to monitor Turkish users and block websites and content without the need for a court order, a development indicative of a heightened intent by Turkey’s government to censor and surveil its citizens. It remains to be seen if global Internet Governance fora will make space to address concerns around such repressive measures, or if the fight will be left to local activists.