Reflections from the 2014 Internet Governance Forum

Last month, AMP's Executive Director, Jenny Lee, took part in a delegation of media justice activists to the Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul, Turkey. The delegation was organized by one of AMP’s long-standing supporters, the Media Democracy Fund. We are deeply appreciative of MDF for the opportunity to participate in this global conversation about the future of the Internet. Below, Jenny Lee shares her reflections from the Internet Governance Forum.

Advancing a human rights agenda at the IGF

One of the first things you notice about the Internet Governance Forum is people's’ skepticism around what the "point" of it is. I counted myself among those people. The IGF is essentially a forum for conversation about Internet governance issues like censorship and surveillance, access and affordability, network neutrality and more. It was created through a United Nations mandate about 10 years ago with the goal of bringing together governments, civil society and telecommunications industry to debate these issues on a "level playing field."

No formal decisions are made at the IGF. Critics say that the IGF offers the veneer of engagement with civil society, while the future of the Internet is actually shaped in backroom deals between governments and industry.

As part of the MDF delegation we had the honor of meeting dozens of civil society organizations who have been working hard to maximize the potential of the IGF as a space where human rights concerns are central to conversations about Internet governance. It was especially powerful to meet people from countries in the global South who were using the IGF as a way to hold their own governments accountable to global standards of communications rights or to have face-to-face conversations with government officials that would be difficult if not impossible to arrange in their home countries. As organizers from the U.S. we took whatever opportunities we could to counter the narrative put forth in various panels by American government officials and telecommunications companies about their success at ensuring widespread Internet access and affordability in our country (shout out to Edyael Casaperalta from the Center for Rural Strategies who offered this critical perspective most persistently).

While weighing all the valid skepticism about the ultimate point of the IGF, I found myself thinking about Detroit and the recent water shut-off crisis. When the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department stated its intention to cut off water to 40,000 people, under the direction of the City’s State-appointed Emergency Manager, human rights activists turned to the United Nations to intervene. In that instance, the presence of a global standard of water rights was critical, as it is articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Detroit water access crisis provoked the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to declare the shut-offs a human rights violation, which shamed our local authorities into issuing a temporary halt to shut-offs and garnered significant international attention to the water rights fight. It also injected a moral logic into the conversation which countered the purely economic logic that justified the shutoffs.

The value of something like the IGF lies in its potential to assert similar human rights standards when it comes to the Internet. Activists in various countries need a global standard to which they can point when their governments "turn off" the Internet or otherwise impair our communities’ right to communication.

Online censorship takes many forms: internal, interpersonal, and structural

"Self-censorship is as much a threat as external censorship," "private censorship is as important as government censorship," "freedom of expression includes sexual expression" – these were quotes from Jessica Dheere and Bishaka Datta, who spoke at an evening event at the IGF organized by the Association for Progressive Communications. They and other speakers that night helped expand my understanding of how censorship operates online and offline – from the strictly governmental level, where a government overtly prevents people from communicating with one another – to the less talked-about internal and structural levels.

On an internal level, censorship happens through the process of self-doubt and fear of violence that you may experience as a result of speaking online. Black feminist poet Audre Lorde articulated this kind of censorship when she wrote, "and when we speak, we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed. Still it is better to speak, knowing we were never meant to survive." While at the IGF I met a brilliant LGBTQI organizer from the organization, Sexual Minorities Uganda who explained how queer people in his country were constantly at risk of violence for expressing their identities online and offline due to extreme, state-sanctioned homophobia. This in turn, undermines their ability to use the Internet as a tool for changing anti-gay attitudes and laws. Their experience makes clear the extent to which movements against online censorship must actively resist homophobia, racism, misogyny, trans-misogyny and other forms of hate that fuel self-censorship.

On a structural level, policies of under-investment in rural and poor communities amount to de facto censorship. When whole populations are denied access to reliable, affordable Internet connectivity, the voices of those populations – whether in rural America, in East African countries, or people with disabilities globally – are shut out of online discourse around policies that shape their daily lives. To address this form of structural censorship, the world’s most marginalized populations need a commitment of investment in infrastructure from their countries and from the global community. Unfortunately, companies like Facebook and national ISPs are offering a false solution in the form of "zero rate services" which are little more than a marketing scheme. In this scheme, marginalized populations are offered free mobile broadband for a limited time period, but they can only access Facebook. The right to freedom of expression online should not be confused with the right to use Facebook.

At the IGF panels where zero rate services were being debated, I kept thinking about the Detroit Digital Justice principle that states, "digital justice ensures that all members of our community have equal access to media and technology as producers as well as consumers." The market-driven logic of zero rate services fails to advance human communication rights because it relegates poor communities to the role of consumers. The global Internet also suffers in this paradigm because we miss out on the tools and innovations that would otherwise emerge from those communities if they had unfettered online access.

Anyone is not Everyone

"Multistakeholderism" was a hotly debated term at the IGF. From what I gathered, it refers to a vision of Internet governance in which theoretically anyone can participate, and all perspectives are given equal weight. A tweet from the hashtag #imagineafeministinternet summed up the harsh critiques of how this vision plays out in practice saying, "multistakeholder participation = VIP seats to see our own destruction."

While the ideals of multistakeholderism were espoused from IGF plenaries, I heard critical voices inside and outside of the forum asking how we shift away from token participation of "anyone" to meaningful participation of everyone in Internet governance. During the IGF, a group of technologist-researcher-artists launched an online Mapping Internet Governance tool, a "collaborative map of processes that shape the evolution of the Internet." Making these structures of power and decision-making more visible is one important step towards broader participation in shaping the Internet by providing a map of who to hold accountable in various online rights and access issues.

I attended a session called "Internet Infrastructure: Technology & Terminology" in an effort to demystify for myself some of the language and concepts I was encountering in other sessions. At this session I learned that the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) hands down IP addresses to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICAAN), which then hands down IP addresses to five different Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) divided up roughly by continent.

These RIRs decide how many IP address to give out to an Internet Service Provider like Comcast or AT&T. Panelists described the RIRs as "bottom-up," "community-driven organizations." When I asked them to clarify what those terms meant, the panelists explained that hypothetically a sixteen year old could walk in off the street and participate in decisions about the distribution of IP addresses and global Internet governance policies. In practice, however, that never happens and telecommunications companies are the members which comprise and finance each RIR, so they are the "community" that drives the decisions made there. This made me wonder what would happen if people most marginalized from the Internet were active participants in the RIRs. What potential exists within these "bottom-up" governing bodies to hold governments and Internet Service Providers accountable and advance progressive Internet governance policies?

Whether or not it is worth activists’ time to chase down these limited windows of opportunity to intervene in Internet governance matters was also a subject of much debate throughout IGF. Many people questioned the value of expending scarce resources traveling to International fora just for the chance of sharing one's opinion.

Others insisted that by seizing these windows of opportunity for intervention, civil society organizations could inject human rights and justice frameworks into debates about the future of the Internet. The launch of the African Declaration of Internet Rights at IGF2014 was a powerful example of this. One standard offered by the declaration was that "access and affordability policies and regulations that foster unfettered and non-discriminatory access to the Internet, including fair and transparent market regulation, universal service requirements and licensing agreements, must be adopted." The declaration challenges arguments made by proponents of zero rate services that marginalized populations should have to choose between a Facebook-only version of the Internet or no Internet at all.

Next steps

For our delegation, the greatest value of participating in the IGF was the connections we made with organizers, technologists, and policy-makers in countries all over the world who are doing work that resonates with our work in the U.S. For Allied Media Projects, that meant finding people who were either using or interested in using mesh networks and other community technologies for self-determination. It was eye-opening to see the range of contexts in which these technologies and organizing strategies we’ve been developing in Detroit through our Digital Stewards project were relevant – from election monitoring in Myanmar and Malaysia to LGBTQ safe house networks in Uganda. Over the next year we will be working with the Open Technology Institute to identify communities around the world who want to build mesh networks and supporting them with seed money, curriculum, and instructional tools. Some of the people we met at the IGF have already expressed interest in being part of this project. Our goal is to then convene these new networks with our Detroit networks at the 2015 and 2016 Allied Media Conferences for further skill-sharing around governance, local applications, and more.


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