NETmundial, the Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance, opened Wednesday, April 23 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  Around 800 participants representing governments, private sector, academia, civil society and the technical community filled the room, with at least twice that participating remotely.

The morning session consisted entirely of a parade of speeches from dignitaries, most from government, with a smattering from other stakeholder groups.  A few themes and a few speeches stood out.

After the introductory remarks came perhaps the most stirring speech, from Nnenna Nwakanma. Africa Regional Coordinator of the World Wide Web Foundation.  Dressed in colorful and striking African garb, she began, “My name is Nnenna. I come from the Internet.”  She went on: “I work to establish the open Web as a global public good and a basic right, ensuring that everyone can access and use it freely.  That is what I do for a living.”  She called NETmundial the “World Cup of Internet Governance.”

She cited three key issues for the future of the Internet:  access, social and economic justice, and freedom and human rights.  Turning to Internet governance specifically, she cited three more issues: participation, resources and change.  Her remarks on change constituted fairly outspoken criticism of what she sees as the current state of affairs:

NetMundial is offering us a chance at change.  Let us seize it: From one stakeholder hijacking the process – to an open and inclusive process.  From top officials issuing orders – to a collaboration. From summary reports – to transparency. From power - to  accountability. From  monologues – to dialogues and debates. Change the rhetoric of cyberwar – to the notion of Internet for peace.   Change from  cyber threats – to digital solidarity. And these, I believe, will guide us in  the IANA transition.

The speech by President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil directly cited “mass surveillance” as a motivating factor of NETmundial, stating: “These events are not acceptable, they were not acceptable in the past and remain unacceptable today.”  This emphasis was certainly welcomed by some participants, especially from civil society, who criticized the draft Outcome Document as going soft on mass surveillance.  The treatment of mass surveillance would continue to be an overarching theme of NETmundial.

Neelie Kroes of the European Union gave a blunt call to action: “If we simply do more talking, use more nice words, we will have wasted the opportunity and failed the global community.”  She went on to say that “during the next two days, I will be breathing down everybody’s neck until we have a discussion on concrete actions.”  Judging from the rest of the day’s efforts, she must be out of breath.

Carl Bildt, Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, pushed back somewhat on the mass surveillance issue.  He stated, “The issue of surveillance are in no way related to the issues of the governance of the net.  Irrespective of the way the net is governed, repressive regimes or other types of regimes can violate these principles.  I'm stressing this point since sometimes the debate on surveillance is used as an argument to change the governance of the net.”  He also called for balance: “One of the primary responsibilities of government is to provide security for its citizens against crime and external threat, and this is also, let's not forget, about protecting their human rights.  Law enforcement needs to have some ability to combat criminal activity also online, and government needs to be able to meet external threats also online.”  He went on: “Experience shows that there must be clear rules, firmly based in the values of the societies we seek to build. Sweden believes that surveillance, within or outside national borders, should be subject to basic principles.”  He listed these principles:

First, legality.  Second, legitimate aim.  Third, necessity and adequacy.  Fourth, proportionality.  Fifth, judicial authority.  Sixth, transparency.  Seventh, adequate oversight in a number of different respects.

Finally, Bildt took a position that would be popular with many participants, but not with authoritarian regimes.  As previously noted, the relative roles of governments and all other stakeholders is a hot issue.  The draft Outcome Document included references to stakeholders working “in their respective roles and responsibilities.”  This is just code for “governments are more equal than other stakeholders when it comes to policy.”  When a country doesn’t trust its citizens, this attitude comes naturally.  Sweden, like other countries with greater emphasis on personal rights and a greater trust in its citizenry, doesn’t feel the need to push back against the “multi-equal” multistakeholder model.

Indeed, Bildt gave an impassioned defense of the multistakeholder process, without assigned “roles and responsibilities.”  It’s worth considering his words verbatim:

“Multistakeholder is a difficult concept, is a word that is not easily translated either into Swedish or I think most other languages either. It often scares diplomats and government officials used to the familiar setting of round tables and raised nameplates.  But as a concept, it represents a process of cooperative development where all interested parties are welcome to contribute, with the goal of achieving better policies.  And - of absolutely critical importance - it seeks to guarantee that no single interest should ever be able to capture control of the net.  Not big business. Not big government. Not anyone else.  Everyone has a stake. Everyone should have a voice. But no one should be able to capture control of it.  That is to be the essence of what we call the multi-stakeholder model.”

“In our discussions we need to consider this concept more deeply, and what it means on national, regional and global levels, as well as for issues beyond those of a purely technical nature.  We cannot prejudge which areas are of relevance to specific stakeholder groups, and we should therefore not try to assign strict definitions of roles for these groups, but rather stress openness and flexibility.  We are all stakeholders in the development of the internet, with legitimate interests and points-of-view.”

Nikolai Nikiforov, the Russian Minister of Communication and Mass Media, took the opposite position.  Not surprisingly, Nikiforov called for a multi-governmental structure “aimed at development and introduction of international norms and other standards on internet governance,” and demanded that this take place within “the framework of the UN or ITU.”  In case his intent was not clear enough, he also denigrated both the Internet Governance Forum (IGF – a multistakeholder body put together expressly to discuss internet governance issues) and ICANN.  The IGF, Nikiforov said, is no decision-making body, and ICANN is “not a globally respected international global organization,” which “automatically rules” complying with the principles of the equality of states.

Abdullah Abdulaziz Aldarrab, the Minister of Communications and Information Technology for Saudi Arabia, sounded a similar note, claiming that “international public policy in regard to the Internet is the right of governments and that public policy should be developed by all governments on an equal footing.”

With close to 30 speeches in the morning, it would be impossible to touch on them all.  There were strong contributions from Internet pioneers like Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee, and from the business and technical communities as well.  Perhaps these can be reviewed in a future posting.

If the morning was a parade of speakers, the afternoon was a circus. This was a “working session,” where the various stakeholders could comment on the draft Outcome Document.  There were four microphones and four lines – one each for governments (and IGOs), academia and the technical community, civil society, and the private sector.  While broad generalizations are dangerous, many civil society speakers wanted to strengthen privacy rights, make anti-surveillance language more explicit and bring “net neutrality” back into the document.  The private sector tended to push back on net neutrality, support multistakeholderism and be concerned about cybercrime and intellectual property theft.  Technical types wanted to insure that processes and standards would be able to grow and change in an unimpeded fashion.  Governments varied – access and development were concerns of many underdeveloped countries, repressive regimes wanted more government-centric solutions, and more open nations were comfortable with multistakeholder processes.  Most countries wanted to reserve at least some flexibility to continue to protect their citizens (i.e., to conduct surveillance of some sort); the attitude tended to vary based on whether they governments were more “spied on” or “spying” (at least in their public posture).

NETmundial Day 2 promises to be more of the same – interesting, stultifying, energizing, exhausting, frustrating, productive.  The “tug of war” between different positions will continue, and consensus may be hard to find.  Only time will tell what the end results of NETmundial will be.