I recently attended the NETmundial conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, along with Alex Fowler and Mitchell Baker, and am sharing my reflections in this post.
To call NETmundial a “conference” understates both the importance of the event and the lasting impact it will have, and doesn’t describe what being at the event was like. Being present felt crazy, interesting, scary, important, and frustrating, all at the same time. I’ve never been at an event like it, and I don’t believe there has ever been an event like it, for global Internet policy.
NETmundial was a global “multistakeholder” workshop on Internet policy. It was designed from the beginning with the intention of including thoughts and contributions from all interest groups on an equal basis: governments, civil society organizations, the private sector, and academics and members of the “technical community” (the Internet Society, ICANN, and global Internet registries and infrastructure bodies).
NETmundial took place in Sao Paulo because one of the two biggest forces pushing for it was the government of Brazil, led by President Dilma Rousseff. Brazil is positioning itself as a leader on global Internet policy, by working alongside Germany to oppose American government surveillance practices and by improving its own legal climate through the historic passage of Marco Civil, sometimes described as a Bill of Rights for the Internet.
ICANN and its CEO Fadi Chehade also helped drive NETmundial, in the belief that the Internet community can make this vision of inclusive governance really work. Although ICANN has its detractors, they’ve been using a model of multistakeholder engagement for many years now, and want to help reinforce that philosophy and forestall those who would prefer to see inter-governmental or “multilateral” control be the norm. ICANN is also organizing a “High-Level Panel” on Internet governance to advance this vision. Our chairwoman Mitchell Baker is a member of that panel, and I have been actively involved as well.
NETmundial started with an open submission process, in which Mozilla participated. Staff working behind the scenes turned those comments into a draft document, and the meeting itself was conducted as a collective exercise in revising that draft to produce a final outcome document. There were few panels, and no parallel sessions. After (a few long hours of) opening high-level remarks, the bulk of the conference took place in two stages. First was a series of “interventions,” 2-minute comments by anyone who wanted to speak, rotating among the four participant groups (governments, civil society, private sector, and technical/academia). After that concluded, the “executive” and “high-level” organizing committees built off of those comments to finalize the outcome document, in a room where attendees could watch and listen, but not participate.
The event felt remarkable inclusive – with plenty of caveats. There were open submissions, but the drafting based on those was closed and hidden. There were open interventions, but they were time limited, and there wasn’t quite enough time for everyone. In comments and interventions, all stakeholders were equal, including governments, who in many ways had no greater role than Brazilian civil society groups, European businesses, or the brave female ophthalmologist from Africa who spoke twice about inclusiveness. But the committee processes to make final edits were closed to input, and their members were selected through a nontransparent, at times controversial process. There were times when all viewpoints were being taken very seriously, but then there were times, including at the very end, when it appeared stakeholders with significant political power held much greater influence and control over the final document text.
In the grand scheme of Internet governance processes, NETmundial made progress, really significant and terrific progress. Many future processes will be better if they can build on the lessons learned at NETmundial, including the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). At this point in history, it’s unlikely that a better outcome could have been produced any other way. The outcome document is, on balance, as good as should have been expected. We’d have liked to see better language around net neutrality and a couple other concepts, ideally, but that might have been impossible while still reaching an informal consensus. And the consensus reached on the outcome document will be valuable for years to come.
Overall I think NETmundial was a big success. It made progress on a few issues in a powerful way (although not as much as some had hoped), and it created some inertia for other short-term objectives, including strengthening the IGF. One of the commenters on the first day described NETmundial as “an attitude,” comparing it to the historical development of human rights, and I think that’s spot on. NETmundial is an attitude, more than just an event. And it’s an attitude that bodes well for the future of Internet governance.