Stewart M. Patrick

The Internationalist

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Brazil’s Internet Summit: Building Bridges to Avoid “Splinternet”

by Stewart M. Patrick
April 22, 2014

In this photo illustration, a man holds an iPad with a Facebook application in an office building at the Pudong financial district in Shanghai, September 25, 2013 (Carlos Barria/Courtesy Reuters). In this photo illustration, a man holds an iPad with a Facebook application in an office building at the Pudong financial district in Shanghai, September 25, 2013 (Carlos Barria/Courtesy Reuters).

Coauthored with Claire Schachter, research associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance program.

Netizens of the world are in Sao Paulo this week for the Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance (April 23-24). The Brazilian Internet Steering Committee (CGI.br), which organized the gathering in partnership with ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), have high hopes for “NETmundial,” where they hope universal principles for Internet governance will be negotiated. The good news for the United States is that participants seem committed to establishing consensus-based public policies to safeguard the web’s open architecture—as well as to rebooting rather than replacing a multistakeholder governance model that gives equal weight to governments, the private sector, and civil society.

This optimistic scenario was hardly assured six months ago, when Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, incensed by the Snowden revelations of massive U.S. government surveillance of global digital communications, announced the summit. Her furious response crystallized global concerns about violations of national sovereignty and user privacy.  Exposure of the NSA’s cyber-spying PRISM program seemed destined to leave the United States on the defensive in Brazil, only six months before the critical October meeting of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

But a funny thing happened on the way to Sao Paulo. The Obama administration made conciliatory moves to dampen tensions; most notably, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced that it was seeking proposals to transition its Domain Name System role to the global multistakeholder community. The NETmundial organizing committees then sought to quietly sideline the surveillance issue in the summit agenda. Despite subsequent exposure by Wikileaks, the organizers appear determined to keep the focus on principles rather than PRISM. Indeed, the final draft of the NETmundial Secretariat’s “Outcome Document” suggests that concerns about net neutrality, cyber weapon development, and user privacy will be given short shrift at the meeting.

That decision has raised hackles among Internet activists. But a focus on privacy issues would distract participants from the major task at hand: developing the shared principles required to preserve an open, interoperable Internet and strengthen the fragile multistakeholder governance model that so far has kept it humming smoothly.  No other governance model can deter the fragmentation of the Internet into jealously guarded, national telecom-run fortresses, where access to social networks such as Youtube—even the Internet itself—can be denied instantaneously.

As summits go, the meeting in Sao Paulo will be modest in size, with approximately 800 attendees drawn from twelve governments (Argentina, Brazil, France, Ghana, Germany, India, Indonesia, South Africa, South Korea, Tunisia, Turkey, and the United States), as well as civil society organizations, the private sector, academia, and the technical community. The two critical players—and the ones with the most to lose if the meeting dissolves into acrimony—are Brazil and the United States.

Brazil. The Rousseff government’s decision to work with ICANN was a bold move that shifted the country’s policy stance away from the sovereigntist, inter-governmental approach favored by many emerging powers (not least China). Brazil’s shift positions it to play a critical leadership role in developing cyber governance norms, particularly in bridging divides between developed and developing countries. In organizing this summit, Brazil bet heavily that emerging powers will follow its lead. It stands to lose credibility if those countries leave Sao Paulo feeling their participation has only served to support the U.S.-dominated status quo.  To avoid this, Brazil is dependent on the participants to produce a meaningful Outcome Document that incorporates many of the 187 contributions submitted prior to the meeting. It also needs participants to agree upon “concrete and actionable” steps to ensure that these principles actually shape how the Internet runs—no easy task. If they do not, Brazil’s leadership, the legitimacy of Netmundial, and the future of multistakeholderism will all take serious hits.

The United States. Washington’s overriding interest in Sao Paulo is to slow momentum toward an intergovernmental model for global internet governance, particularly with the ITU summit looming on the horizon. Fallout from the Snowden affair could still provide cover for governments—particularly authoritarian regimes—to insist on sovereign control over national internet traffic, with disastrous implications for global commerce and human rights. To forestall this possibility, the United States has made clear that it wants participants in Sao Paulo to desist from discussing surveillance matters, as well as “the reach or limitations of state sovereignty in Internet policy.” On the other hand, some modest airing of grievances might be useful, provided they do not overwhelm the event, otherwise they might entirely dominate ITU’s October agenda. The United States will be back on the defensive if the summit avoids the controversial issues but nevertheless fails to produce a clear roadmap for the future. 

While some are decrying the relative sidelining of the surveillance controversy to appease the United States, doing so has given the Sao Paulo meeting better prospects for generating a broad consensus on the future of multistakeholder Internet governance. There are plenty of pre- and post Snowden principles to draw from, and promising new initiatives to help make this vision a reality. Whatever Brazil’s initial motivation, it has created space for the trust that multistakeholder governance requires to start being rebuilt.

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