A blog on why norms matter online

Thursday, November 10, 2011

IGF 2012 - The Internet as a catalyst for change

Presenting a paper at the Internet Governance Forum 2012

The Sixth Annual IGF Meeting was held in Nairobi, Kenya, on 27-30 September 2011 (with academic and high-level programmes on 26 September) and dedicated to the  topic “Internet as a catalyst for change: access, development, freedoms and innovation”. In the following, I will provide a brief overview of some of the main issues discussed in Nairobi.

Global Internet Governance Academic Network (GigaNet) 2011 Annual Symposion

In an introductory panel on Internet Governance institutions and dynamics, Jeremy Malcolm decried the decline of multi-stakeholderism in Internet Governance and argued that the IGF itself needed to be the place where principles for Internet Governance needed to be decided. Gitte Stald presented the results of an in-depth study of the opportunities and risks of the Internet for children (www.eukidsonline.net). An interesting result of the study was that Austrian children use the Internet comparatively infrequently, with children from Scandinavia and the Baltic states being the most intensive users.

One panel was dedicated to challenges to Internet Governance in Africa. The panellist noted that there remained real bottlenecks in data, and particular mobile data, transmission. One panellist quoted a study by Roger Cottrell who had concluded that “[the] whole continent combined has less than a third as much international capacity as Austria alone … Africa is still burdened with the highest cost and worst cost-to-earnings ratio for Internet connectivity.”

Another panel was dedicated to human rights on the Internet. I presented my paper on the legality of Internet shutdowns.

Freedom House analyst Sanja Kelly presented a recent 400-page study on threats to Internet freedom grouped into obstacles to access, limits on content, violations of users’ rights. Among the “freest” country were Estonia, USA, Germany, Australia; the most violations were committed in Iran, Burma, Cuba, China, Tunisia, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and Ethopia. The researchers found that there was deliberate government-led censorship of political and social issues, including in South Korea and Turkey. Additionally, sites critical of governments in states such as Belarus, China and Iran have experienced substantial cyberattacks, including slowing down of Internet speeds, originating from the government. Freedom House identified 18 countries where Internet infrastructure is centralized to a point where it could be exploited; in 12 countries it was during the last two years.

Robert Bodle presented a paper on the ethical aspects of anonymity online which has met with increasingly hostile reactions, including defamation lawsuits, states claiming national security wanting to monitor their citizens. He called for a reappraisal of anonymity in light of its human rights dimension. Anonymity, he argues, is an enabler of other human rights, including the freedom of expression. It minimizes accountability (good for criminals, but also empowering as it masks failure), leads to disinhibition (hateful speech vs. robust political speech) and leads to deindividuation effects (antinormative behaviour vs. adherence to group norm standards). Bodle applied his research to “4chan” and concluded that the same attributes that have beneficial outcome also have antisocial ones. Neither utilitarianism nor a Kantian approach are sufficient or practical; he argues that an ethical pluralist framework would be best. Anonymity should stay standard and non-anonymity only opt-in.

At a meeting of the Association of Progressive Communication on Internet Rights panelist Lee Hibbard of the Council of Europe noted that human rights are the real drivers of Internet Governance. He highlighted the four documents adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 21 September 2011.

Wolfgang Kleinwächter criticized that Internet Governance principles just recognized “multi-stakeholder governance” as one principle among others. But too often, these commitments did not go beyond lip service, which would become problematic in light of the formalization of Internet Governance principles. The big, open question was what legal framework can be used that includes all stakeholders. A solution to this essential aspect of Internet Governance was not found in the course of this IGF.

A constitutional moment for Internet Governance?

On numerous occasions, the Council of Europe, represented among others by Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, its Deputy Secretary General, presented its two recommendations and two declarations on Internet Governance that had been adopted on 21 September 2011.

In one workshop, the Council of Europe asked whether a “constitutional moment” had come for Internet Governance? Bertrand de La Chapelle underlined that the need for High Level Principles was clear, but that the question remained who would pass such a “constitution”. Dimitri Ypsilanti of the OECD explained that a Ministerial Recommendation for their Internet Governance Principles would be sought. Nicolas Seidler of the Internet Society underlined the importance of the Internet model of development. I explained in my intervention that human rights were intersecting with all other principles and were needed to frame the debate. Additionally, I added that a constitutive moment is premised upon the existence of a “pouvoir constituant”, which must include all stakeholders. The ideal platform for stakeholders to interact on an equal footing had not yet been found.

In another Council of Europe workshop on “Consensus Building on Internet’s universality, integrity and openness” the discussion focused on the potential of state commitments as by the CoE recommendations. While CoE member states have committed to the principles, including the “do no harm” rule, the UK government has called for another meeting, on 1-2 November 2011, to discuss norms of behaviour and mechanisms to give these norms diplomatic and legal weight. As panellist, I argued that the soft law approach makes much practical sense and will become legalized through the European human rights protection bodies, including notably the European Court of Human Rights.

At the meeting of the Internet Rights and Principles coalition Dixie Hawtin presented the basic tenets of the coalition and the work conducted in the past on the Charter of Internet Rights and Principles which was developed by a team including Wolfgang Benedek, Rikki Jörgensen and Meryem Marzouki. The workshop was dedicated to comparative aspects of copyright law. With regard to the OECD principles Katiza Rodriguez explained that the treatment of intermediaries was the reason why the social society caucus was not able to join the compromise. Jeremy Malcolm explained how his organization, Consumers International, was successful in reframing access to knowledge not as a copyright issue, but as a consumer protection issue.

The Internet – a catalyst for change?

At the High-Level Panel in the afternoon of the first day a number of high-level speakers from organizations ranging from UNDESA, UNESCO, the US Department of Commerce, the Council of Europe, the European Commission, governments and ICANN, highlighted development as the most crucial aspect of the Internet for the following years. ICANN’s CEO Ron Beckstrom underlined that the multi-stakeholderism, just as the Internet itself, was an important catalyst for change. In discussions among participants that evening and throughout the IGF, however, the main question seemed to be the future of the multitude of Internet Governance Principles and their operationalization.

Reaction to the China/Russia letter on a Code of Conduct for the Internet

The Internet Governance Caucus decided to react swiftly to a four-nation letter to the UN General Assembly (including from China and Russia) that, again, provided certain principles for Internet Governance which were considered problematic for various reasons. I added language problematizing the letter’s overly broad exception regime that endangered freedom of expression as guaranteed by Article 19 of the UDHR.

Internet Governance Mapping

In light of the multitude of actors of Internet Governance Norbert Bollow, an IT consultant from Switzerland, developed the idea to start mapping the topics, actors and forums. He created the Dynamic Working Coalition on Internet Governance Mapping and, supported by Consumers International, organized a workshop at the IGF bringing together the views of different actors on the mapping effort. All panelists agreed that a systematic mapping effort was essential for furthering the understanding of Internet Governance and, notably, how Internet Governance institutions provide for public interest representation. The European Commission showed special interest in the initiative highlighting that the act of mapping was also an exercise of power and thus had to be conducted through multi-stakeholder participation.

Human rights: a unifying approach for development, freedom, access and diversity?

Just as the participants intensively discussed the question of which set of principles for Internet Governance to push, coalitions also looked at the specific role of human rights as instruments to ensure accountability. The main problem that was identified, inter alia in a workshop where I was panelist, was that there were multiple, competing and conflicting avenues for remedy or accountability in any given Internet rights violation. What is important therefore is to find principled ways to respond and ensure remedies and accountability across the Internet ecosystem. I also pointed out that the principles strategically left out an implementation section as it was be too early to find consensus on this.

Future of the IGF

A couple of workshops were dedicated to topics related to improving the IGF. Particular attention was paid to an Indian proposal that included the following points: the MAG should identify key policy questions and establish Working Groups around these to develop background materials. At the IGF, Feeder Workshops would prepare topics for round-table discussions. In order to ensure continuity, inter-sessional thematic meetings would take place. India also suggested IGF reports on specific questions to be transmitted to CSTD and a feedback loop to be established to ensure increased cooperation with relevant bodies. The US government proved rather reluctant to any changes in the make-up and work method of the IGF, while civil society representatives argued for attempting to streamline the process in light of the Indian proposal.  

The next IGF will most likely take place in Baku, Azerbaijan. This announcement was met with some criticism from a number of stakeholders because of the mixed human rights record of the Azeri government.


Summing up my presence at the IGF was of tremendous importance for networking with essential stakeholders, publicizing our research, and positioning the Institute of International Law, the University of Graz, Austrian Internet Governance research more generally, and nic.at as an important supporter of academia globally. I am convinced that the continued cooperation between the Institute of International Law of the University of Graz and nic.at will be highly profitable to both parties and beneficial to the future of Internet Governance research.

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