Advancing internet governance principles and practice

6 May 2016 09:00h

Event report

[Read more session reports and live updates from the WSIS Forum 2016.]

Session 107 of the WSIS 2016 discussed the development of Internet governance principles, their relevance, and their effectiveness. The session concluded that the process of developing Internet governance principles is a long tedious one which often produces a set of documents that are non-binding. However, these non-binding documents/guidelines are being used to inform internationally binding agreements such as the United Nations Human Rights resolutions and the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).

The moderator Ms Anriette Esterhuysen (APC) introduced the discussion with an overview of the development of the WSIS and NETmundial principles as examples of a bottom-up approach and inclusiveness. The question was also posed as to how representative are these principles and whether principles are actually needed?

Ms Avri Doria (Independent Researcher) indicated that principles are needed but the principles we have are distributed in different areas and end up being broad and nonspecific. The discussion that followed highlighted that principles were needed to promote shared expectations, institutionalise intentions and a mutual sense of obligations, create norms and values that guide actors in ways that a community thinks is right. Mr Jimson Olufuye (AflCTA) noted that the Internet governance principles reinforce the African tradition of consultation and inclusiveness as they seek to involve regulators, government, the private sector, and the general public.

Mr Frederick Donck (ISOC) highlighted that over the years there have been many meetings focusing on principles 2008 OECD, 2010 ITU, 2011 G8, 2014 NETmundial. At the heart of these processes were the notions of multistakeholderism, inclusiveness, and transparency. This process also fosters collective responsibility for implementation of the principles.

Mr Preetam Maloor (ITU) noted that over the years many meetings have been held involving thousands of people and millions of dollars spent to develop WSIS documents. Maloor indicated that principle fatigue may be setting in and further commented that it is time to start looking at evidence to evaluate how many principles have actually been implemented. He posed the question of whether we can agree on a set of key performance indicators to measure the achievements.

Mr Carlos Alfonso (Brazilian Internet Steering Committee) indicated that the process of drafting principles involving different parties is not an easy one. The challenge is to build consensus in a stepwise manner with those parties with competing interests. He noted that in Brazil it took two years of monthly meetings to develop their principles. Without these principles it was much more difficult to respond to violations, etc. With the principles in place it was easier to respond/comment on issues such as the latest case with WhatsApp.

Ms Chinmayi Arun (Research Director, the Centre for Communication Governance, National Law University, India) commented that the existing principles need to be communicated and explained more so that there is better understanding at the local level. She also noted that the actor’s sense of power or powerlessness can also influence how the principles are viewed or the type of principles being developed.

The panellists and remote participants also discussed the need for developing countries to become and remain engaged in the process. If one is not engaged they run the risk of their voice not being heard. This led to a comment that capacity building should be viewed in the context of expertise as well as inclusiveness. Greater use can be made of the regional and national IGFs to engage and include at the local level and that the actual process of developing principles itself is a learning process.

The perception that participating in developing non-binding principles is not a worthwhile effort was also discussed. It was pointed out that key aspects of the non-binding Internet governance principles such as net neutrality, free flow of information, and the openness of the Internet are being picked up and codified in binding international agreements such as the TPPA, and the UN Human Rights resolution. Some of these same issues will also be discussed in the upcoming June 2016 OECD meeting. This mapping of Internet governance principles to actual international outcomes needs to be communicated more widely so that accomplishments of the non-binding principles can be fully appreciated.

The session concluded that the process does not have to start with binding principles or does it necessarily require a new set of principles. The existing principles need to be discussed and understood at regional and national levels and eventually implemented. 

by Trevor A. Phipps