The Fair of Competing Narratives: Civil Society(ies) after NETmundial

This article is part of a series of posts by Stefania Milan, who attended the NETmundial Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance on behalf of CGCS’s Internet Policy Observatory project

In many ways NETmundial provided a forum for a series of competing and intersecting narratives about the internet. Civil society played an active and constructive role in pushing forward a vision of the internet strongly supported by the human rights based framework. There is, however, no such a thing as “a” civil society, but rather a large group of actors with a number of competing views and values. This internal variety should be taken into account in the creation of the new NETmundial Initiative (or GlobalNet, as it might be called) currently being developed under the auspices of the Swiss based World Economic Forum.


In his 2011 article for Foreign Policy Analysis, Daniel McCarthy argued that internet governance (IG) is a “politically contested process of meaning making.” In his view, we ought to look at the narratives, or the “cultural and symbolic understandings surrounding the internet,” if we are to understand the future of internet governance and the multiple levels of contestation that surround internet policymaking. [1] Examples of these narratives involve the distinct perception of the internet as, respectively, a laboratory for civic participation, a war zone for cyber infiltration and surveillance, or a space for innovation and free markets. The Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance, also known as NETmundial (São Paulo, Brazil, April 23-24), offered a privileged observation point to map such competing narratives of the internet.


Initiated by the Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff in collaboration with the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), NETmundial was an invitation-only multistakeholder gathering. It resulted in a final (nonbinding) document detailing principles and a roadmap for the future of internet governance. Following the success of the event, and in response to the need to “advance multistakeholder Internet governance on the basis of the NETmundial principles,” the newly established (and temporarily named) NETmundial Initiative for Internet Governance Cooperation & Development gathered in Geneva, Switzerland, on August 28, 2014 for a first scoping workshop. Though NETmundial brought attention to the existence of a complex ecosystem of civil society groups with different internet narratives, mainly diverging in their support or distrust towards governments, this internal variety has not been reflected thus far in discussions surrounding the set up of the NETmundial Initiative.


This blog post seeks to map the competing narratives of the internet that animated and shaped NETmundial in an effort to understand how these different conceptions of the internet will affect the post-NETmundial civil society engagement with internet governance, including the emergence and development of the NETmundial Initiative. In particular, it reflects on the multiple yet overlapping visions and narratives of the internet developed and put forward by the various stakeholder groups that make up civil society as a whole. Narratives of the internet are both a vehicle for fostering change in internet policymaking and a source of legitimization for the social actors engaged in the process. Questions that arise include: What are the values and meanings put forward by civil society? How are different roles within civil society projected into multistakeholder arenas? To whose benefit are groups operating? Who gets legitimized (or excluded) in the process?


Civil Society Between “Defenders” and “Radicals”

It is well known that the “organized” civil society encompasses a variety of different actors, tactics and values – and internet governance is not exception. Without downplaying the huge diversity within the civil society engaged in IG advocacy, we can identify two main factions, each with a slightly different understanding of the internet. These narratives encompass not only the understanding of what the internet and its governance should look like, but also justify certain tactics, goals, and targeted publics for IG advocacy. The first grouping is represented by civil society organizations well rooted in the global IG game, people who have attended the IGF (and perhaps ICANN meetings) year after year, and are trained in the rules of diplomacy. The second faction identifies those groups who seek more radical solutions in the IG debate. The dividing line is thin but critical: sometimes it is only a strategic one, but more frequently it is a matter of tactics as well as cultural and ideological predispositions. Thus, it generates identities and alliances, which might end up leading to the exclusion of other approaches.[2]


The first faction defends an internet ecosystem based on democratic governance and individual rights. The second emphasizes the freedoms and the independence of the internet and its users. In common, they have the reference to universal human rights, and freedom of expression in particular, and the suspicious towards governments willing to take control of the internet.[3] The second faction, however, is well versed in the so-called hacker ethics and the values of the open source software culture. Issues such as surveillance, repression of dissent, and enclosing of online spaces are very sensitive for this group. For the sake of brevity, in what follows I will refer to the first faction as the “defenders”, and to the second as the “radicals.” This distinction identifies two ideal-types of civil society groups. As it is often the case with ideal-types, they are oversimplifications that serve the purpose of illuminating patterns in the ways social actors mobilize and in the commonalities and differences between groups, narratives and strategies.


The two factions place different weight on process and outcomes: for the first group, guaranteeing a fair, balanced process where civil society is recognized as a stakeholder on equal footing is essential, and an end in itself. For the second group, having the civil society’s more radical (and often marginal) voices heard is more important than the decision-making process itself; multistakeholder participation is a means, rather than a goal. For example, ensuring that a policy document has strong wording as a stepping-stone toward further changes is more important than the way in which the document itself was put together.


Typically, the “defenders” speak directly to the other stakeholders, most notably the government and the industry sectors, and present themselves as reasonable negotiators; in turn, the “radicals” project themselves into the arena with a distinct role, that of the bearer of non-negotiable values. The “defenders” play their game in the control rooms, whereas the “radicals” tend to externalize the struggle, and typically bring the debate closer to lay users and the square. The “defenders” push for incremental amelioration of institutional procedures and outcome documents (including, for example, the NETmundial final document), and play at the level of serious but constructive criticism; the “radicals” seek more fundamental change and engage in a fiercer battle, whatever the outcome. The “defenders” seek primarily to stabilize the stakeholder role of the organized civil society in order to build an enduring political structure, in a manner similar to Machiavelli’s Prince, whereas the “radicals” play the Robin Hood game, trying to shape in the present the internet as they think netizens would like it to be. Paradoxically, both factions gain legitimacy in the IG advocacy game, the “defenders” emerging as a loyal, valuable player in the multistakehoder process, and the “radicals” revitalizing their role of digital rights Robin Hood in the face of users across the globe.


Although the two internet narratives conceal cultural and ideological preferences that are the building blocks of group identities, the boundaries between the two ideal types are permeable, as advocates move across the spectrum in dynamic relation to policy arenas. In addition, there is a sort of division of labor at play, whereby “defenders” and “radicals,” acknowledging their different “roles” in the IG game, regularly cooperate and coordinate their advocacy efforts, to the point that this internal “division” is not apparent from the outside. Although the distinction between “defenders” and “radicals” is a rough classification that does not do justice to the countless energies, ideas and differences on the ground, it is a useful heuristic tool to understand civil society engagement in the contemporary IG debate.


NETmundial as a Space of Convergence

Civil society representatives made up 23 percent of the 900 NETmundial attendees, by far the most numerous group if we add the many academics included in the “technical community” category. Although its preferences were only partially reflected in the final document, civil society played a central and constructive role throughout the NETmundial process. However, disagreement before, during, and after the event pointed to the profound diversity within the sector, exposing the existence of different groups with internet narratives and priorities that were not necessarily aligned with each other. But what happened in São Paulo?


Many civil society groups had converged in Brazil with especially high expectations, as NETmundial organizers sold the meeting on its fully multistakeholder and unusually transparent processes. These expectations were reinforced by the April 22nd approval by the Brazilian Senate of the Marco Civil, a bill of rights for internet users setting rules on privacy protection, net neutrality, and intermediary liability,signed by President Rousseff at the NETmundial opening plenary.


The day before NETmundial began, civil society held its coordination meeting in a cultural center in the heart of São Paulo. Attended by over a hundred representatives, the meeting was organized by BestBits, a global coalition of digital rights organizations including the Association for Progressive Communication and Article 19. Participants collaboratively defined the lines of action civil society would adopt throughout NETmundial. Groups that previously distanced themselves from global internet policymaking joined the debate, spurring some lively controversy on tactics and values.


Despite the diversity of groups attending the BestBits meeting, civil society representatives united around the need to emphasize “people-centered” internet governance, an approach to IG that is mindful of human rights and oriented to promote peace and cooperation. Consensus was reached on key core values, such as the internet as a global common resource, human rights as IG benchmark, the right to development and knowledge sharing, and the need to redefine a “balanced democratic multistakeholder approach” to internet governance.


In addition, civil society representatives agreed to push for the right to privacy as “a fundamental human right (…) central to the maintenance of democratic societies.” The proposed principle, which did not make it into the final document, stated that:


“Mass surveillance is a direct and imminent threat to privacy, therefore societies must not be placed under surveillance. Individuals should be protected against collection, storage, use and disclosure of their personal data.  Similarly, anonymity and encryption should be protected as a prerequisite for privacy and freedom of expression The International Principles of Application of Human Rights to Communication Surveillance (Necessary and Proportionate principles) should be the vantage point of this discussion.”


This was a “new” item in the narrative in internet governance conversations post-Snowden. It is a direct consequence of the involvement of civil society groups that previously did not participate in IG, but got engaged following the revelations of massive data collection by national security agencies as well as businesses. These groups typically overlap with the “radical” narrative described above.


Negotiating Narratives

Civil society participated in NETmundial processes on an equal footing with governments, industry and the technical community. Its representatives contributed to the drafting of the final document, which took place in a separate room open for public viewing and made their voice heard in the ‘open microphone’ sessions addressing the plenary. In fact, NETmundial brought multistakeholder participation to a new level of transparency, and multiplied the occasions of engagement (see, for example, the open call for content contributions that were used to draft the outcome document). Freed from having to negotiate its voice and stakeholder role, civil society was able to push its narrative of the human rights based internet precisely because it was equal with the other sectors (although often in open conflict with them). For example, despite the initial opposition of several governments, civil society was instrumental in inserting strong human rights language into the discussion and promoting the recognition of the internet as a global resource to be managed in the public interest. It also successfully lobbied for linking technical standards to human rights, and for the inclusion of clear language on the right to development, access and knowledge sharing. Additionally, it welcomed the commitment to discuss the future of internet governance with the participation of all stakeholders, particularly focusing on the so-called IANA transition (the release of the control of key internet domain name functions by the US Department of Commerce), and to strengthen the role of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), of which civil society has been a main driver pushing for reform.


NETmundial was not entirely successful for civil society. The final document does not include clear guidelines on network neutrality, and incorporates only weak language about freedom of expression and protection of intermediaries from liability. Most importantly, to the great disappointments of the “radicals,” the document scores poorly in setting boundaries for online surveillance. The reasons are to be found in the unbridgeable differences between the progressive civil society narrative and, for example, the more conservative narratives of governments, hinged on national sovereignty and on the understanding of the internet as an infrastructure of national interest. Most notably, consensus was not reached on the issue of net neutrality, which in fact does not appear in the NETmundial document. Furthermore, some parts of the document were negotiated with only limited civil society representation.


The diverging narratives surfaced again at the very end of NETmundial when the final documents had to be adopted by “rough consensus,” and received pushback from Russia, Cuba and India. The three countries objected to procedural aspects, most notably the understanding and implementation of multistakeholder decision-making – which in turn speaks to an internet narrative rooted in the “classical” understanding of the role of the nation state vis-à-vis the borderless internet. Within the civil society sector, the thin but tenacious diving line between “defenders” and “radicals” emerged once more. While many individuals and groups praised the innovative nature of the NETmundial process and the incremental improvement of the NETmundial final document, in comparison with, for example, the 2005 Tunis Agenda (the outcome document of the United Nations’ World Summit of the Information Society), other groups expressed disappointment in the outcome document for not completely addressing and encompassing civil society’s normative construction of the principles for internet governance. For instance, the digital rights organization La Quadrature du Net dismissed the NETmundial document as a “weak, toothless and disappointing text.” Voicing this discontent, a civil society representative addressed the plenary claiming that the outcome document “fails to adequately reflect a number of our key concerns.”


Beyond NETmundial: Looking forward

NETmundial had the unintended consequence of reshaping the civil society in IG advocacy, expanding the number of groups and individuals as well as the internal diversity of the sector. The co-existence of “defenders” and “radicals” was the consequence of the number of “new” people who have joined the global IG debate following the Snowden revelations and the announcement of the IANA transition.


Both narratives, and the collaboration between the Machiavellian “princes” and the Robin Hoods, are necessary to the continued development of the role of civil society in internet governance. On the one hand, civil society’s role in IG is, and remains, precarious, although NETmundial has contributed to strengthening it. Participation on equal footing, let alone success in complex multistakeholder negotiations, are not a given, and civil society representatives able and willing to play the game are very valuable. At the same time, norm change is a long-term process that needs the energies of many people who do not disdain fighting for non-negotiable values, within and outside policy arenas like NETmundial.


The lack of a unified strategy might not have permeated beyond the boundaries of the civil society itself, however the (mild) disagreement that followed civil society’s strategy and action at NETmundial is worth reflection. Diversity, disagreement, and inclusion are key to a healthy civil society sector, yet they might hinder success if they are projected into the main stage. While celebrating the relatively small but important victories of NETmundial, civil society ought to continue the discussion and the practice of internal disagreement, safeguarding the multiplicity of views and preferences and allowing dissent to emerge. Meanwhile, it should experiment with short- and long-term mechanisms to ensure the emergence of a unified voice from its multiple narratives, if it is to safeguard its role in multistakeholder policymaking.


Finally, these civil society narratives ought to play a role in the way civil society as a whole engages (and is included) in the new, and still mysterious, NETmundial Initiative (at the time of writing, there is uncertainty about how the initiative might be called). This controversial project (which appropriated the heritage of NETmundial without having any formal relation with it) has disappointed civil society from the start. Handpicking only a very limited number of civil society representatives, its organizers have ignored the diversity of the sector, assuming that they could tick “civil society” off the list simply because a few of its representatives from reputable and well-resourced nongovernmental organizations have been invited to the table. If the organizers are not able (or willing) to meet the challenge of incorporating a diverse group to represent civil society, the NETmundial Initiative will remain “far from an ideal model of global Internet governance in action, nor a worthy successor to its Saõ Paulo namesake,” as stated by the digital rights organization Electronic Frontiers Foundation.


[1]McCarthy, D. R., (2011), “Open Networks and the Open Door: American Foreign Policy and the Narration of the Internet”, Foreign Policy Analysis, 7, p. 89-111.

[2] The role of tactical preferences in communications governance is further explored in Milan, S. (2013). Social Movements and Their Technologies: Wiring Social Change (Palgrave Macmillan).

[3] Groups that fell within the “defenders” include the ICANN NonCommercial User Constituency, the Association for Progressive Communications, and the many progressive academics that are familiar with policy negotiations. Controversial groups such as the Just Net coalition, who support a government takeover of the internet, are perhaps to be included in the “defendes”, yet they position themselves at a distance given their pro-government stance. Within the “radicals” we find some elements of the BestBits coalition, and organizations like the Electronic Frontiers Foundation and Article 19.


Featured Photo Credit: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by NETmundial2014

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