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DEEPLINKS BLOG

Towards an Internet Nation?

September 9, 2014

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

These are the opening words of the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, written by EFF co-founder and board member, John Perry Barlow almost two decades ago. The document is more of a visionary dream than a political program, and doesn't shape EFF's policy on a day to day level (indeed, Barlow himself has said that he would write it differently today). Yet it continues to resonate strongly for many.

The Declaration featured in a closing address by Professor Milton Mueller of Syracuse University delivered at this year's Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which wound up last week in Istanbul, Turkey. "Clearly," Mueller asserted, "the Internet provides the basis for a community with its own interests, an incipient identity, its own norms and modes of living together. And it is only a small step from community to nation." Addressing an assemblage of government ministers, industry heads and users from around the world, Mueller suggested, "maybe John Perry Barlow's Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace is worth a second look."

Across the world, others are also thoroughly dissatisfied with the current state of Internet governance—yes, even with the IGF itself. Although often praised by insiders as being a useful discussion forum where public and private stakeholders can broaden their knowledge of Internet policy issues and their appreciation of other points of view, the tangible results of this knowledge exchange have been thin on the ground.

The result has been a recent flourishing of independent Internet governance initiatives, all presented with the earnest disclaimer that they do not intend to duplicate the IGF—but which nevertheless address areas well within the scope of the IGF's original mandate. These include an independent global meeting called NETmundial this April, not one but two global expert panels, an initiative of the World Economic Forum, and alongside the IGF meeting in Istanbul the Internet Ungovernance Forum (IUF), which EFF supported.

One of the motivations behind the organization of this inaugural IUF is that the policy of the United Nations—with which the IGF remains linked—has been interpreted as preventing Forum participants from "naming and shaming" particular countries over human rights abuses, and proposals for workshops at this year's IGF that would focus on the host country, Turkey, were refused by organizers on this basis. With no other space to voice their concerns about pervasive censorship and curtailment of freedom of expression in Turkey, participants were essentially forced into holding an independent event.

Speaking at the IUF, Web activist Harry Halpin explained the need for an alternative event with the claim that "discussions at the IGF are exclusionary". None other than Julian Assange, appearing by video link at the event, went still further, claiming that the IGF, in its support of the powerful, was really functioning as an "Internet Censorship Forum". Whilst this might sound like hyperbole, the IGF's structure has shown a low tolerance for dissent, with a record of removing posters on Chinese censorship at the 2009 meeting in Egypt and excluding host country activists as at the 2012 meeting in Azerbaijan.

Others find the IGF's most serious deficits not in the discussions that it excludes, but in the fact that the discussions it does facilitate do not go anywhere. The IGF has yet to develop the capacity to issue any non-binding principles or recommendations that could guide other actors and institutions, in the same way that governmental bodies such as the United Nations Human Rights Council do.

Mueller's thesis —not so far from Barlow's—is that we ought not to have to rely on such government-led bodies to lay down principles for the global Internet, but that the future lies in the Internet developing its own capacity for self-governance, through a loose network of bodies in which all stakeholders, whether public and private, participate on an equal footing. For some, the appeal of the IGF lies in its potential, currently unrealized, to act as a hub of such a network.

These are subversive ideas, to be sure—and we need to think about them carefully, whilst also thinking through the implications of their alternatives. EFF generally focus less of our time and attention on the evolution of institutional Internet governance, and more on fighting for substantive rights and freedoms through the structures that we already have. But this is not the same as to accept that existing governance structures are perfect, or that rights and freedoms on the global Internet might yet be best safeguarded by new models which did not directly proceed from the affairs and interests of nation states. As John Perry Barlow presciently wrote:

We are forming our own Social Contract. This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours. Our world is different.

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