The Internet Social Forum and “The Global Internet Community”

Posted on April 2, 2015

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An initiative towards an Internet Social Forum (ISF) with a close association to the World Social Forum (WSF) was recently launched by a number of Civil Society (CS) organization at the WSF in Tunis. This specific initiative comes out of a continuing history of discussions and initiatives in the area of Global Internet Governance as flowing from the World Summit of the Information Society. This World Summit had two major outcomes—one a continuing if rather ineffectual set of processes concerned overall with the use of Information and Communications Technologies in support of Economic and Social Development. This which will reach some sort of culmination at a global summit (WSIS + 10) later in 2015.

A second outcome and a rather more consequential set of activities concerns the way in which the global Internet would or would not be subject to some form of global “governance” intervention and particularly in support of the broad public interest.

I won’t go into the extremely lengthy and somewhat convoluted history of the “governance” outcome of the WSIS except to say that the formal element of this outcome by means of what is known as the Internet Governance Forum has adopted as its (effectively) compulsory mode of operation and as its anchor framing and normative concept the notion of “Multistakeholderism” (MSism). MSism is understood by its proponents as being the necessary mode for the on-going “governance” of the Internet in all of its various aspects including technical areas (where the notion has very considerable validity) but also including public policy areas where there is a clear attempt to substitute MSism and the highly determining role of the corporate sector as partner “stakeholders” as a substitute for democratic governance.

There is also clear evidence to suggest the intention by global elites to build on the “success” of MSism in the Internet area as a pilot and model for imposing this as the preferred institutional mode in broader areas of global governance. There has been very considerable discussion and critique of this approach most particularly pointing to its fundamental basis in introducing a neo-liberal governance model into the very core of the Internet and more particularly the only partially disguised attempt to substitute “multistakeholder” governance for democratic governance as the fundamental approach to governance in the Internet age.

A notable and somewhat bizarre feature of the Internet Governance stream of activities is the degree to which many self-described Civil Society individuals and organizations are active supporters of the multistakeholder governance models and the current Internet Governance status quo with its dominance by the US and its national and corporate allies. This has been partially explained (and justified) by pointing to the successes that have been achieved using the MS model in the inclusion of Human Rights and particularly rights of free expression and association as elements in broader Internet Governance activities and norm setting. While to a degree this is correct it should also be noted that there is strong support for these “Rights” from such well known global defenders of Civil Society values as the US State Department for whom support for “Internet Freedom” (understood as “Freedom of speech on the Internet”) is both a strategic and a tactical tool in its quest for geo-political, economic and security/surveillance global dominance.

Equally while there has been considerable success in implanting strong support for Rights of free expression and association in various Internet Governance normative documents it is worth pointing out that among the strongest supporters of these have been various Internet giants such as Google and Facebook for whom these rights are central elements of their business model. Notably there has been no similar CS successes resulting from “Multistakeholder collaboration” in areas such as making Intellectual Property rights or draconian Copyright rules to be more reflective of a broad public interest.

What is equally notable is that these Civil Society supporters of the MS governance model have chosen to ignore or even actively suppress other areas of Human Rights concerns notably those supportive of Social Equity and Social Justice which of course, and again purely coincidentally are not of any particular interest to the other partners in the various Multistakeholder collaborative structures which are being actively pursued. The overall consequence of the above is that those from Civil Society who have a concern for democracy and social justice as constituent elements of Internet Governance and an Internet Governance global system have had to struggle initially and directly with those elements of Civil Society (and their supporters for example in certain otherwise pro-CS governments) who have chosen to align themselves with the Multistakeholder governance model and its corporate and governmental proponents among the currently dominant actors in Global Internet Governance. It is perhaps not again purely coincidental that among those most actively supportive of the current global Internet Governance status quo are those most directly benefiting from ubiquitous Internet based surveillance, the full frontal attack on privacy, the massive schemes for tax avoidance by the Internet giants and the uncontrolled stampede towards zero hour contracting, and the Internet enabled acceleration in the concentration of wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands.

A more recent development in the area of global Internet Governance has been NetMundial (NM) a global multistakeholder event sponsored by the Government of Brazil and ICANN, a major global player in the technical aspects of Internet governance, directly precipitated by the Snowden revelations particularly those concerning surveillance of Pres. Rousseff of Brazil herself. Strangely the NM event completely avoided addressing even indirectly, surveillance issues and perhaps even more notably from a CS (and Brazilian) perspective failed to address or include any issues or matters of concern for Internet and Social Justice or even ICT for Development.

An immediate follow-on from the NM event has been a World Economic Forum (WEF), ICANN and Brazil (CGI.br) sponsored NetMundial Initiative (NMI) which, while still in the process of self-definition, is directed towards carrying on and deepening through practice and research the Multistakeholder governance legacy of the original NM event. Among the active partners in this with the World Economic Forum and ICANN have been the Government of Brazil and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) along with a limited number of other “civil society” organizations.

The Coordination Committee of the NetMundial Initiative recently met; and listening remotely, I was moved to write a blogpost concerning what appears to be the keystone normative concept behind the NMI and ultimately that of Multistakeholderism overall—the notion of a “Global Internet Community”. The blogpost asks the question Is there A Global Internet Community? (and what are the implications of a fundamental belief in the existence of this entity for the development of the democratic governance of the Internet and as a tool supportive of social equity and social justice).