On Wednesday, April 23, 2014, Sao Paulo, Brazil will host NETmundial – the Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance. Approximately 800 people will descend on Sao Paulo to spend two days and nights discussing, debating, arguing, cajoling, pleading, and demanding potential changes in the governance of the Internet. Hundreds more will participate remotely, at "remote hubs" and through the Internet (of course).
NETmundial started out as a reaction to the "Snowden revelations," even though nothing Snowden revealed was directly connected to Internet Governance issues. Dilma Rousseff, the President of Brazil, was personally offended to find out that she was under surveillance. Although ICANN might have been a target of a Snowden-driven NETmundial (simply because it is headquartered in the U.S. and has some level of U.S. oversight), it moved swiftly to become a co-sponsor of sorts (through the newly-created "1net Coalition," which it founded along with several other Internet Governance organizations known as the "I-stars" or "I*" (since the organizations mostly begin with "I")).
NETmundial formed several committees, including the "High Level Multistakeholder Committee," consisting of 12 government representatives and 3 representatives from each of the following four "stakeholder groups" – private sector (i.e., business), civil society (i.e., human rights organizations, other non-governmental organizations, and individuals), academia (professorial types) and the technical community (wonks from all walks of life), and the "Executive Multistakeholder Committee," consisting of 8 Brazilian representatives and 2 representatives from each of the stakeholder groups. The High Level Committee is supposed to be responsible for strategy and "fostering international participation," while the Executive Committee is responsible for the agenda, designing the meeting and inviting a balanced slate of participants.
NETmundial put out a call for submissions discussing "Internet Governance principles or and/or the Roadmap for the Further Evolution of the Internet Governance Ecosystem." 188 submissions were received from organizations, coalitions, countries and individuals around the world, representing a wide spectrum of views. The Executive Committee prepared an "Outcome Document" based on these submissions, which was then reviewed and revised by the High Level Committee and the NETmundial chairs. On April 14, 2014, the Outcome Document was put out for a week of public comment.
The public comment period has revealed a continuation of the ideological "tug of war" that clearly took place during the initial preparation of the Outcome Document by the Stakeholder Committees.
One of the glaring omissions from the Outcome Document, in the list of "Human Rights," was any mention of intellectual property rights of any kind. This was the case, even though intellectual property rights are expressly articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which formed the basis of this list. The section on Human Rights had no fewer than 83 comments, and the vast majority were in favor of adding intellectual property rights, such as the following, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author."
Another contentious area is the relative position of governments to all other stakeholders. This issue has a long and tortured history. At meetings of the ITU (International Telecommunications Union), a UN body, the government role has been defined as one in which governments are more equal than others, and have the final say on public policy. There are two "code phrases" that came out the ITU – "enhanced cooperation" and participation of stakeholders "in their respective roles and responsibilities." These phrases were both in the Outcome Document. While the casual reader would not know that these are "loaded words," well-informed members of non-governmental stakeholder groups picked up on these points right away.
One more point of controversy is worth mentioning. The original Outcome Document demanded adherence by all participants to the principles agreed in NETmundial. As one might expect, this was criticized by many participants – some who thought the Outcome Document went too far, and others who thought the Outcome Document didn’t go far enough. This statement was sufficiently controversial that it was publicly "corrected" shortly after the Outcome Document was posted.
During the NETmundial meeting, the Outcome Document will certainly receive further intense massaging. Positions have been revealed in the processes leading up to NETmundial, and through other means (including WikiLeaks). There are "working sessions" scheduled for Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning, and it’s a fair bet that Wednesday’s session will extend in to the evening, either formally or informally. As befits a gathering with so many public and private dignitaries, Wednesday morning is entirely occupied by an "Opening Ceremony" and "Welcoming Remarks," bracketed by coffee and lunch. Thursday afternoon features two panels under the heading "Beyond NETmundial" – one on "NETmundial and the Internet Governance Ecosystem" and the other claiming to be a "Public consultation session with stakeholders about the transition of stewardship role of USG over the IANA functions."
The entire proceeding should be fascinating – part negotiation, part circus, part theatre, part debate. If you are not one of the lucky few to be in Sao Paulo for NETmundial, you can follow the festivities in a number of ways, detailed at http://netmundial.br/remote-participation/.
While some of this may seem rather obscure or technical, the stakes for users of the Internet have never been higher. While the "private sector" should be well-represented at NETmundial, it is unclear who exactly will be there (for reasons unknown, the published list of attendees excluded the "private sector" participants). If the past is any guide, a majority of private sector participants will be businesses that provide services largely or exclusively over the Internet, domain name registries and registrars (who may also be in the "technical community), content providers and technology companies.
I expect relatively few representatives of the "brick and mortar" non-tech world, and that’s a shame. Consumer products, companies, food and beverage producers, financial services companies and other "brick and mortar" companies that increasingly depend on the Internet to reach their customers and future customers have as much at stake as any other stakeholder. Depending on the changes that result from NETmundial, the IANA transition and other shifts in Internet Governance, the business world could find itself hampered and harmed in diverse ways. Unfortunately, Internet Governance issues have not pierced the boardroom, the executive suites, the sales floor or the shop floor. It’s high time that the general business world focuses on Internet Governance, so that business can help shape the future. If it doesn’t it risks living with an Internet shaped by the visions of others – many of whom do not have the concerns of business first, or even last, on their agendas. We will continue to watch, participate in and report on the (bumpy) road that governance of the Internet is going down, and we hope that you will look to Reed Smith for information and assistance in de-mystifying and dealing with the future as it happens.