NetMundial Initiative, The World Economic Forum talks internet governance. Who listens?

By Monika Ermert on policyreview.info

The internet has become an inevitable topic of discussion at the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos – a global encounter of business and state leaders. Cyberwar has popped up two times in the top five list (2012 and 2014) of the Forum’s Global Risk Report. In the just published 2015 edition, the Risk Report for the first time dedicates a chapter to internet governance, albeit small. Internet governance has obviously become just too sexy to be neglected by the political, economic and societal upper class gathered Davos. Yet, many “stakeholder“ in the debate eye the WEF co-sponsored NetMundial Initiative, set up to look into internet governance next year, with suspicion.

The question of internet governance has become more and more important, the WEF Risk Report stated, as it underlined “the need for mechanisms to maintain a unified and resilient network“.

Warning against data nationalism

While the existing technical issues were tackled by expert bodies, the report notes, bowing to the standardisation bodies (Internet Engineering Task Force, World Wide Web Consortium and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), “no such systems exist for developing and implementing solutions to the overarching issues“. The issues according to the WEF includes “cyber crime, net neutrality, privacy and freedom of expression“.

Due to the lack of organised global governance for these, governments were “feeling pressure to enact national measures to deal with their citizens’ data and privacy concerns.“ The risk of “data nationalism” arose with governments turning to “force ‘localization’ of infrastructure”.

Internet politics locus lacking?

Richard Samans, Managing Director of the WEF’s Centre for the Global Agenda said there was a “growing fear that the internet which is now an interoperable system might balkanize, may fragment because declining trust about privacy considerations and security, surveillance and the like.“ There was a need to ensure the future coherence of the net while allowing for a “space for countries to be able to manifest their own preferences,“ he said. This is where the WEF sees a new role for itself.

In a press conference held on 15 January, Samans announced the launch of “a new institutional effort to make our cross disciplinary, multistakeholder platform available to advance progress and in particular build trust on some of the very difficult and challenging aspects of internet governance“.

Interestingly, Samans neither mentioned whistleblower Edward Snowden whose revelations about mass surveillance were a major source of “lost trust“ over the last two years, nor did he mention the new WEF initiative’s name – it is the “NetMundial Initiative“.

Troubled start for the NetMundial Initiative

The reason for Samans’ caution might be the rather bumpy start the NMI, which emanated from talks between ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadi and the WEF. The regular internet governance crowd last summer had called foul play when the WEF in their view “pirated“ ICANN and the Brazilian government led NetMundial Conference. The conference had managed to pass a resolution of a set of basic internet principles accepted by all stakeholders except a grumbling Russia, India and Cuba.

The continuation of the NetMundial Initiative under the roof of the WEF, despite NetMundial Champion Brazil chiming in, still is eyed with suspicion. Anja Kovacs from the Indian NGO The Internet Democracy Project explains the reservations:

“The NMI has been founded by a small group of actors: ICANN, and in particular Fadi Chehade; the WEF; and the Brazilian government. While some other actors have also decided to support it, many do not. Until and unless the NMI shows clear added value to a wide range of supporters, the top-down way in which it was conceived and constituted will continue to haunt it.”

Kovacs therefore thinks the Internet Governance Forum, which had in fact been established with a very similar mandate as the NMI ten years ago, under the auspices of the UN, will not be brushed aside.

NMI complementing, not competing with the IGF

The NMI organisers stumble over their feet in ensuring that there is no intention to take over.

“NMI does not compete with IGF. IGF is the right place for the multi-stakeholder process to focus on principles for Internet governance,“ says Virgilio Almeida, Secretary of Information Technology in Brazil.

“It complements the IGF and will pick some of the problems raised by the IGF and work on solutions.“ As “clearinghouse“ that will allow to match problems with solution spaces, NMI is explained by Wolfgang Kleinwaechter, longstanding internet governance expert and by some dubbed the chief optimist for the multistakeholder model. Kleinwaechter hoped the NMI would bring new resources, expertise and authority to the IG debate after years of stalemate over how much of a solution provider the IGF should be.

It was high time that promises to ‘strengthen the IGF’ were finally made real, said Kovacs, “as a growing group of people from various stakeholder groups start to find it irrelevant in its current avatar. The IGF might have wider support, but it’s true that the absence of action is despairing a growing group of people. They’re in large part not people who would turn to the NMI instead, though.“

Internet governance @ WEF

What role the WEF and the NetMundial Initiative will play in the internet governance arena therefore remains open. The Davos meeting starting on Wednesday might deliver a first taste, as the dozen or so internet related sessions addressing internet governance, technology and the economy will be rolled out. From a “rethinking of copyright“ or “governing in the digital age“ to “fighting (cyberthreat) shadows“ to the fundamental question of how the stakeholders could be “keep “Worldwide” in the web“, many angles will be on offer.