Reflections on IGF 2014

stephborgpsaila's picture
Dr Stephanie Borg Psaila, a lawyer by profession, is a tutor on Internet governance, and works on various IG projects and activities with DiploFoundation. Her areas of interest include legal issues in IG, human rights, and e-diplomacy. (Disclaimer: The views expressed by the article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the project.)

The IGF mandate is up for renewal this month, having served its initial five-year term, and entering into the final year of its five-year extension.

I won’t attempt to summarise the main discussions of the 9th IGF. My colleagues at DiploFoundation have done that at the end of each day during the IGF. Instead, this is my take on the main three IGF 2014 developments that resonated with me the most.


1. The Internet Ungovernance Forum

It is not uncommon for civil society groups and activists in an IGF host country to take advantage of the increased media visibility and draw attention to digital rights violations, censorship, and other injustices taking place in the host country.

This year, Turkish civil society groups went a step further:  deeply concerned with these injustices and questioning the effectiveness of the IGF to tackle urgent problems of the Internet, they boycotted the IGF and organised a parallel Internet Ungovernance Forum. Surprisingly enough, therefore, this important development took place outside of the formal IGF structure (and venue).

Although the aims of the IUF may not have been fully understood in time by the global IG community (many continued to ask what it was even after the meeting ended), it actually complemented the discussions taking place within the main IGF, and included the participation of Julian Assange (replacing Edward Snowden) and IGF MAG chair Amb. Janis Karklins.

While some doubted the effectiveness of boycotting the main IGF, the Turkish activists showed resolve in acting on issues of concern and in quickly garnering support - a move which serves to empower other grassroots groups to speak up and take action.


2. From Brazil to Brazil?

In addition to protesting against digital rights violations by the Turkish government, the IUF organisers conveyed another message: ‘At the IGF, the most urgent problems of the Internet do not get the right attention.’

Discontent and disappointment with the IGF not being able to produce tangible outcomes has grown. Every year, calls for a multistakeholder initiative in which non-state actors can sit next to governments at the policy-making table are met with new initiatives that often lack the important ingredients of transparency and openness. Towards the end of 2014, the result is a cacophony of initiatives: widely supported forums with the inability to produce tangible outcomes, and policy-shaping initiatives working in parallel, creating more policy silos in the process.

One wonders whether the new catch-phrase ‘From Brazil to Brazil’ represents a coming full circle, or going around in circles. While we ponder this, the stark reality is that oppressed civilians are still being incarcerated for expressing their views online; governments continue to interpret ‘public interest’ as their own interest; naïve users continue to feed big companies huge amounts of personal data in return for a ‘free’ service. The list goes on.

Admittedly, the IGF continues to fulfil a central role in the IG process, making it the best imperfect knowledge-sharing initiative so far. Meanwhile, the community awaits news about the renewal of the IGF, possibly an open-ended mandate.


3. Net neutrality

Net neutrality tops the list of the most contentious issue debated at this IGF. This was to be expected, following the recommendation made during NETmundial that this IGF would be the appropriate venue to address this issue.

Net neutrality has received plenty of attention this year, first with the US Court of Appeals’ ruling in Verizon vs FCC, and then with the European Parliament’s vote in its favour . In Brazil, the Marco Civil was codified, while a few days ago, Internet Slowdown – a day of action in which many companies, big and small, added the ‘loading’ icon to their websites – took place.

The main issue during the IGF’s three-hour-long main session and the feeder sessions was the zero-rating concept – Internet packages through which companies, in agreement with operators, can offer a basic version of their service for free. Other issues related to human rights, network enhancement, and an optimal net neutrality framework. The work of the Dynamic Coalition on Net Neutrality, which has published its second report, was also noted.

It is expected that next year’s IGF will include a more developed discussion on net neutrality. Meanwhile, several developments from the USA, Europe, and other parts of the world are predicted to take place in the next few months.