Post-Baku, Pre-WCIT Special Report: Internet Governance On A Shoestring

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The recent UN-led Internet Governance Forum in Baku, Azerbaijan was used as a stage for some very targeted messages on the upcoming World Conference on International Telecommunication, it saw yet another round of exchanges on some of the tough questions of digital society from privacy and security to future copyright, and had the most intensive discussions on human rights in cyberspace so far.

While the 7th IGF concluded with many commitments to its multi-stakeholder model, the Forum continues to act on a shoestring of one millionth of the digital market value, and there was no news on the future leadership for the body. A lingering question is, can the body survive “headless,” or will it fall prey to certain stakeholders or be taken over by competing events?

Never before, not even when the Internet Governance Forum went to then autocratically governed Egypt, has the human rights topic been discussed as loudly as this year. Maybe this was because Azerbaijan’s bad track record with regard to targeting critical journalists was so well-known and reported from the European song contest earlier in the year. Maybe it was the critical journalist associations from Azerbaijan themselves, who prepared their own pre-event at the IGF to publish a study about their situation and the problems for those who report critically.

Internet in Azerbaijan was “partly free,” this report said, and most people – 65 percent are said to be online by the government – “can do what they want to do online.” The study, prepared by the initiative “Expression Online” (Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), Human Rights Club (HRC), Azerbaijan Media Center (AMC)), clearly stated: “Those who cross certain lines in their online postings – such as calling for protests exposing official corruption or criticizing the president and his family – do so at significant risk.”

Human Rights in Azerbaijan and Elsewhere

The problem started “after speech,” as European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes put it in her harsh statement that was attacked by pro-government local journalists during a tense press conference. Kroes announced she would follow up with Azerbaijan President Ilham Alijev and send him a list of journalists in prison. The EC vice president in her press conference reported how an agreed visit to journalists in prison had been blocked by authorities on her second day in Baku.

Countering the attacks of the pro-government journalists at the press conference, Kroes said: “I underline that being aware that your country is a member of the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe), and the Council of Europe, it is clear like crystal, when you sign such an agreement that you are obliged to follow the commitments made and that is meant to include freedom of expression.” OSCE Rapporteur for Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic said a release of some journalists recently “is just not enough”.

Kroes and Johan Hallenborg from the Department of International Law, Human Rights and Treaty Law at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Stockholm, speaking to Intellectual Property Watch, rejected objections to the UN for having chosen Baku as a venue. The IGF should go to places with not-perfect human rights record, they said.

Emin Huseynov, director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, a partner of the Expression Online initiative, wrote to Intellectual Property Watch after the event: “We do not think that was a mistake to organize IGF12 in Baku. It goes without saying that when such a huge international event is organized in the country with authoritarian regimes as Azerbaijan is, this opens up a great opportunity for local civil society to raise the issues of concern within international community. The IGF12 offered us such an opportunity, and thanks to this event, the international organizations, including European Commission, OSCE and Council of Europe had made tough statements on situation in Azerbaijan.”

Representatives from human rights and free speech organisations also were quick to point to problems in other countries. Kirsty Hughes, chief executive of Index on Censorship, was one of those who heavily criticised the United Kingdom Communications Data Bill that is under discussion in the UK Parliament.

“One of the web host companies said to me about the bill, it is a sledge hammer to crack a nut,” she said. “I think we need to see where there is a genuine policy and security issue for collecting that data that is much more targeted and is done with a court order.”

Legislators and regulators should not talk about “balance” when they want to inhibit incitement to violence, but rather just talk about very limited exceptions to the general principle of free speech. The fight for stricter content control – be it for security or intellectual property reasons – in fact is under debate more or less everywhere.

Privacy, Security, Copyright

Hughes, in one of the main sessions, summarised an issue that is becoming common knowledge of the IGF-goers, even if difficult to accept by national legislators: “In some ways,” she said, “we are part of a transnational society, courtesy of the internet.”

Marietje Schaake, one of the members of the European Parliament attending the IGF meeting, underlined that it is the global nature of the internet that “completely changed the dynamic of the impact that laws have when they are made in one country, but can have an impact on the other side of the world. So it is not just about looking at the context of one country but also beyond borders and thinking about how those decision makers can be held accountable.”

Schaake, in one of the workshops that dealt with the “geography of cyberspace,” illustrated the effects by pointing to heavy lobbying from the US government with regard to the EU data protection review, and to her own effort in writing to US Congress asking them to reconsider the later failed draft SOPA/PIPA regulation last year. Regardless of whether it is privacy, security, or the hotly debated copyright issues, the different regimes will undeniably clash in the cloud if not sooner.

For Schaake, increased privatisation of policing and law enforcement or data keeping for security reasons – for some by way of self-regulation a way to deal with the cross-border nature of internet platforms – is a risk. There is a danger, she said, “of pushing law enforcement and policing into the hands of private actors who do not have expertise or a mandate within the rule of law.”

For Jimmy Schultz, member of the German Parliament, a logical consequence of the borderless net is to bring the copyright issue that has been under review for years in Germany to the IGF to start “rethinking copyright” on the global level. National legislators have to accept that some things cannot be controlled locally anymore. At the IGF, stakeholders can try to first agree on the aims, and from there look for solutions. Along with the panel organised by the German MEP, the UK IGF also brought a copyright discussion to the global IGF.

The copyright issue also saw a new dynamic coalition (a dedicated multi-stakeholder group in the IGF), set up at the Baku IGF: the Dynamic Coalition on Public Access to Libraries, which had its first meeting alongside the IGF since being accepted last spring by the IGF secretariat. Goals of the coalition, according to Monika Elbert from the Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL), are to bring libraries into the IGF dialogue, as they were important nodes for many people to hook up to the net.

“We want to build attention to the role of public libraries and we will be going to regional and national IGFs,” she said. The World Intellectual Property Organization, represented at the IGF in Baku by top copyright official Trevor Clarke, also was keen, Clarke said, to have multi-stakeholder discussions on the future of copyright. With no pressure to get to an agreed position, a panel on intellectual property rights and the freedom to share saw what the International Federation of Libraries said was a notable contribution from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

RIAA, “often portrayed as one of the great enemies of the public interest in the global copyright debate,” presented a slightly softer face in Baku, IFLA wrote in its report about the session. It was “agreeing that the library copyright situation needed clarification and that copyright term may even have to be revisited in the near future on account of it being too lengthy.” But library exceptions, which are in line to be discussed at WIPO after potential exceptions for visually impaired people is finished, are still the object of concern for rights holders, the representative of one rights holder association said after one of the panels.

Anti-WCIT: Most Promoted Topic at IGF

None of the topics above got as much promotion and advertisement in Baku as the World Conference on International Communication (WCIT). The WCIT organised by the UN International Telecommunication (ITU), is set to review the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) in December and has become an emblematic battle over policy directions in global telecommunications.

A large US delegation at the IGF presented its concerns about the expansion of the ITRs to internet protocol-based networks, including in a warning by Lawrence Strickling, head of the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration. This was followed by a statement by Richard Beaird, US coordinator for international communications and information policy at the US Department of State, in a dedicated session on the WCIT and a press conference by the head of the US WCIT delegation, Ambassador Terry Kramer.

The US recently circulated a new set of proposals on the WCIT, here.

The US favours limiting the scope to recognised (licensed) operating agencies (to avoid having all kinds of internet providers included) and prefers cutting down the “accounting” chapter of the ITRs, the one part seen as obsolete in times of liberalised markets. The US also took a decisive stand against making ITU technical standards mandatory via the new ITRs. Beaird said the goal is to maintain the standards of the 1988 ITRs, “which consists of nine pages of text, and we wish to come away from Dubai with nine pages of treaty text.”

There seems to be a lot of common ground found already on the hotly debated ITRs, as indicated in a comment by designated WCIT Chair Mohamed Al-Ghanim, director general of the Telecommunication Regulatory Authority of the United Arab Emirates during the WCIT session. Representatives from Kenya and Brazil signalled they also are interested in a limited scope. Franklin Silva Netto, head of the Division for the Information Society at the Brazilian Ministry of External Relations, said Brazil favours a “treaty of principles, not a treaty that will go to specifics” and no mix of telecom and internet policies.

Amb. Kramer acknowledged during his press conference that the main concern is not the final text of the ITR, which any country just could refuse to sign if they are not in agreement. “It is more the norms, the values, and the future philosophy” that the US is concerned about, he said.

Kramer said he does not believe the ITRs could create an immediate crisis, but the environment and climate created for the IT industry is important. “We think the conference is very important, and the dialogue we lead around it.”

The US concerns were backed by representatives from the equally large team of Google, that besides the Internet Society and some local associations sent the largest group to the IGF and also sponsored some civil society representatives to attend a pre-event from civil society groups, called “Best Bits”.

The Best Bits Conference had its own critical declaration on WCIT, but wanted to have net neutrality, fair pricing for consumers (especially in roaming) and universal service be targets for international telecommunications. Cuts in roaming prices – already regulated in Europe – are favoured by the European and African delegations.

From the point of view of those who think the ITR should become a more far reaching instrument, the IGF in Baku must have looked like rather hostile territory. The ITU secretariat, but also Arab states, were not as visible as they had been before at the IGF. India, which had tabled, and in a heavily controversial session, argued for a new UN body on public policy issues pertaining to the internet last year in Nairobi, obviously changed its strategy.

The Indian Minister for Communications and IT, Kapil Sibal, rejected the notion of internet governance as separating those governing and those governed. He recommended talking about a new “cyber-paradigm” in a working group on enhanced cooperation under the UN Committee for Science and Technology. According to observers, the Enhanced Cooperation Working Group was supported by the US in last week’s session of the Second Committee in New York.

The vague formula of “enhanced cooperation” also was discussed at length in Baku. Originally, it had been simply a code word for the uneasiness about the unilateral control of the internet domain name system root zone by the US, Professor Milton Mueller, founder of the Internet Governance Project at Syracuse University, reminded IGF participants.

Yet the participation of governments in the internet governance bodies, cooperation of techies and law enforcement or even the IGF itself were said to be it. Mueller mocked: “When you talk over a cup of coffee, it is said to be enhanced cooperation.” The request for a new enhanced cooperation WG and EC Commissioner Kroes’ acknowledgement that something has to be done about evolving from a one country oversight to include new regions in the game, showed that the frictions have not just gone away by IGF dialogue.

IGF with No Head and Lack of Funding

The IGF was called a success by participants from all sides. UN Under Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs Wu Hongbo, during his short visit to the IGF, said he was “impressed by the success of this initiative,” which had grown both in prominence and numbers of participants each year, “despite extremely scarce resources.”

According to the IGF webpage about its own funding, for 2012 the body has collected around US$315,000 in donor money, with Switzerland, Finland and the EU being the biggest donors so far, and Google stepping up with a $50,000 dollar check recently.

The large conference’s cost are borne completely by the host countries, but still the lack of money is obvious here and there, especially with the reluctance of the UN to fill the post of the executive secretary of the IGF. What is more, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has not made up his mind so far to fill the position of his special advisor on internet governance.

During the earlier times of Special Advisor Nitin Desai and Executive Secretary Markus Kummer, the IGF looked different, if only slightly. Not only does the IGF lack an outside face – not to talk about the abandoning of press conferences during the meeting or at its conclusion – but also missing are the statements from “IGF officials” who tried to summarise the dialogues and measure the steps forward by the amorphous and UN alien body – being themselves converts from the classical UN system. Still, dialogues in the workshop were applauded by many as insightful and progressing in many cases.

Yet the headless IGF certainly invites a takeover from those who will communicate their own messages about it – and keep those away who are not fine with these messages or see the dialogues as unbalanced. Governments like the UK called for a quick decision on the executive secretary post. Civil society representatives warned that the IGF must advance and face competition from other new net conference bodies, including, for example, the London/Budapest top-down internet conference.

Anriette Esterhuysen, executive director for the Association for Progressive Communication said: “We have to establish our credibility, influence and effectiveness or we could in fact end up finding decisions are made elsewhere.”

Monika Ermert may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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  1. [...] “Here in the EU we recognise the values and virtues of openness. And we recognise the benefits are not just economic, but also for freedom of expression and democracy,” she said. “Yet not every country around the world shares those values. That’s something we have seen in international meetings around the world, from the IGF in Baku to the WCIT in Dubai.” Background on the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) and World Conference on International Communication (WCIT) is here (IPW, Information and Communications Technology, 19 November 2012). [...]

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