NETmundial: Is there a new guard of civil society coming to the internet governance fore?

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The Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance, also known as NETmundial, is taking place in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The meeting, called for by Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff in collaboration with the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), is a two-day gathering of governments and representatives from industry and civil society. NETmundial is expected to produce a document detailing a series of principles and a roadmap for the future of internet governance [1]. For more information on the issues at stake at NETmundial, please see the Internet Policy Observatory‘s workbook Stakes are High: Essays on Brazil and the Future of the Global Internet.

The NETmundial meeting is somewhat of a disruptive event in the course of internet governance fora, as the idea of the meeting emerged as a Brazilian reaction to the US espionage case revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. In September 2013, President Rousseff addressed the UN general assembly, accusing the US of violating international law by indiscriminately collecting users personal information. “In the absence of the right to privacy, there can be no true freedom of expression and opinion, and therefore no effective democracy. In the absence of the respect for sovereignty, there is no basis for the relationship among nations,” Rousseff said [2]. Since then, the agenda of the meeting has broadened. As ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadé said on April 22 while addressing civil society representatives, NETmundial is not exclusively about surveillance, but intends to figure out the mechanisms to ensure effective and multistakeholder internet governance processes.

NETmundial’s fully multistakeholder and unusually transparent process and the “virgin” territory it represents, coupled with a projected focus on surveillance issues, have provided groups previously at the margins of internet governance with an opportunity to make their voices heard. While the NETmundial meeting itself is invitation-only, a number of initiatives, such as a call for public comments regarding principles and a roadmap for the internet, a public consultation for its Executive Committee’s Output Document, and remote conference participation, enable outsider groups to participate. Known equilibriums in the civil society realm are being reshaped as new actors mingle with the usual suspects.

The civil society which until recently have been the most engaged in internet governance is a rather exclusive group. It is a sub-sector of what some have negatively labeled the ‘professionalized civil society:’ a handful of thematic, well-resourced non-governmental organizations, and their well-traveled cosmopolitan experts. It is not a matter of deliberate closure, as the sector scores high in terms of openness to individuals and groups. However, the expertise and resources required to engage in sustained and meaningful participation are not available to all. Still, this professional civil society is doing the hard job of standing up for human rights and privacy protection in the internet governance arena. Many organizations involved in the process can claim legitimacy on the basis of their “grassrootedness” [3], as opposed to an underspecified moral authority. For example, the Association for Progressive Communication engages in both grassroots projects and high-profile lobbying activities.

On April 22nd, the day before NETmundial began, a mix of professional civil society members and new players held their pre-NETmundial coordination meeting. Over a hundred people came together to collaboratively define the civil society position in a number of areas of concern and decide the lines of action to be adopted throughout the event. The meeting was organized by BestBits, a global coalition of digital rights organizations such as the Association for Progressive Communication, Article 19, Global Partners Digital (UK), and Derechos Digitales (Chile). Various groups participated, including representatives from the ICANN NonCommercial Users Constituency.

Groups previously absent from internet governance debates forcefully joined in, and a new generation of individuals and groups aligned with the hacker and open source culture is taking the floor. At the BestBits meeting, Jacob Applebaum (Tor Project) and Jérémie Zimmermann (La Quadrature du Net), among others, contributed a critical voice to the civil society coordination meeting. These actors not only called for strengthening the language of civil society, especially in opposition to ongoing surveillance plans, but also advocated for the adoption of disruptive tactics which are at odds with current multistakeholder processes.

Is there a new guard in charge of civil society in internet governance? Hackers and radical digital rights groups have long looked at internet governance processes with suspicion [4], however, the Snowden revelations and global surveillance emergency have changed the cards on the table. The 2013 edition of the Chaos Communication Congress, the biggest hacker congress in the world, was monopolized by cybersurveillance and security talks. While most people in the hacker community would privilege hands-on technical fixes over advocacy efforts, some well-respected hackers and radical digital rights activists are increasingly looking with interest to meetings like NETmundial.

Many have long regretted the absence of tech activism in internet governance process [5], and now look with interest at the inclusion of these critical voices into the debate. The inclusion of new voices inevitably increases the level of (healthy) disagreement in global internet meetings, especially in the areas of tactics and content priorities. This can potentially result in a tweaking and radicalization of civil society narratives, but, most importantly, the participation of tech activists can contribute to increase the grassrootedness, legitimacy, and even accountability of civil society representatives in the eyes of the public they speak on behalf of. This, however, will only be possible if the engagement of tech activists is not simply a one-time, disruptive intervention, but instead a sustained engagement within existing policy fora. The multistakeholder model can only benefit from critical voices pointing at the fact that multistakeholderism should not be an end in itself, and consensus may not be the only way to go.


[1] The last version of the document shared for public comments can be found here:

[2] Borger, J. (2013), “Brazilian president: US surveillance a ‘breach of international law’”, The Guardian, 24 September.

[3] Van Rooy, A. (2004) The Global Legitimacy Game. Civil Society, Globalization, and Protest (New York: Palgrave Macmillan).

[4] Hintz, A. and S. Milan (2009), “At the Margins of Internet Governance: Grassroots Tech Groups and Communication Policy”, co-authored with Arne Hintz, International Journal of Media and Culture Policy, 5 (1&2), pp. 23-38.

[5] Milan, S. and A. Hintz (2013) Networked Collective Action and the Institutionalized Policy Debate: Bringing Cyberactivism to the Policy Arena?”, Policy & Internet, 5, pp. 7–26.