No, Democracy is Not Excess Baggage 11/03/2015 by Intellectual Property Watch 9 Comments Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window) The views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and are not associated with Intellectual Property Watch. IP-Watch expressly disclaims and refuses any responsibility or liability for the content, style or form of any posts made to this forum, which remain solely the responsibility of their authors. By Richard Hill There was quite some controversy at the 3-4 March 2015 UNESCO Connecting the Dots Conference regarding whether or not the term “democracy” should be included in the conference’s outcome statement to make it clear that internet governance must be democratic. [UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation] One representative of civil society, and two Western states that pride themselves on being democratic, opposed the addition, on the grounds that the term democracy is ill-defined and that it would add baggage. As a result of that refusal to include democracy in the outcome statement, the Just Net Coalition formally opposed the adoption of the document, and submitted a written statement of objection. It is worth noting that those who opposed the inclusion of the term “democracy” in the UNESCO document supported its inclusion in the Netmundial outcome document, and have a tendency to strongly praise and support what happened at Netmundial. At first sight, it may seem hard to understand the inconsistency. But in fact the inconsistency can be explained by understanding what underlies democracy and what underlies internet governance at present. The term democracy is used in various ways, but there is no fundamental doubt about what it means. As Robert McChesney puts it in his book Digital Disconnect, citing Aristotle: “Democracy [is] when the indigent, and not the men of property are the rulers. If liberty and equality … are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.” McChesney also cites US President Lincoln’s 1861 warning against despotism: “the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government.” According to McChesney, it was imperative for Lincoln that the wealthy not be permitted to have undue influence over the government. That is, democracy is not compatible with an internet governance model in which private companies have equal rights in decision-making processes regarding public policy matters. In such a model, private companies can in effect veto any measures that would reduce their power or profitability. For example, network neutrality regulations could not be enacted. And this is what is the discussion at UNESCO was all about. Should UNESCO endorse the proposition that private companies should have equal decision-making rights? Or should UNESCO reaffirm, once again, that public policy decisions, and in particular national and international laws, must be made by the people, either directly, or through their freely elected representative? Opponents of democratic internet governance like to state that the current internet governance arrangements are very successful. But this is not the case. As McChesney puts the matter: “As of 2013, it seems obvious that if the Internet is really reviving American democracy, it’s taking a roundabout route. The hand of capital seems heavier and heavier on the steering wheel, taking us to places way off the democratic grid, and nowhere is the Internet’s failure clearer or the stakes higher than in journalism”. And, as Dan Schiller shows in his book Digital Depression, the current policies favor US geo-economic and geo-political goals, that is, US imperialism its power over the internet, and its consequent power over the world, as explained by Shawn Powers in his recently published book The Real Cyber-war. Denial of democracy as a guiding principle of internet governance is either a naïve belief in some superior system that nobody has yet explained, or a deliberate intent to favor the commercial forces that are perverting the Internet and democracy, as documented in detail in McChesney’s cited Digital Disconnect. A comment by one of the opponents of the inclusion of democracy in the UNESCO document is revealing: “[The position] that there is such a thing as ‘public policy decisions’ that should be reserved to governments sets up a further false binary, given that in the post-Westphalian era, government edicts such as laws and treaties no longer necessarily have effects that have any more practical force and impact than non-governmental decisions, such as those that ICANN makes over domain names and IP addresses, or those that private-sector arbitrators make in cross-border trade disputes. It is imperative that we do not close these non-governmental processes to being improved through multi-stakeholder participation of various forms. This must be broad enough to include forms that do not place governments in a position of authority over other affected stakeholders, many of whom, such as trans-national networks of citizens, governments alone do not adequately represent.” If the world really were post-Wesphalian, then offline law would not apply online, since it is states that apply laws. And it is states that violate human rights, whether free speech, or privacy, or others. It is true that non-governmental (that is, non-democratic) decisions regarding the internet have more practical impact than governmental decisions. But that is precisely the problem, not the solution. The denial of democratic processes for internet governance is in effect defending the current system where powerful dominant companies unilaterally decide on policies and impose them around the world. How has so-called multi-stakeholder participation resulted in policies that benefit users and that don’t result in ever increasing concentration, corporate profits, censorship and surveillance, monetization and commercialization of user data and other threats to the free an open internet? And what are the mechanisms by which “trans-national networks of citizens” are represented? By the elite professional crowd of insiders and lobbyists that travels from one internet governance event to another? So no, democracy is not baggage. It is a fundamental principle that must be applied to internet governance, at both the national and international levels. Richard Hill is President, Association for Proper Internet Governance, http://www.apig.ch. 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