Several governments are pushing for proposals that seek to draw borders around the global Internet. With big decisions at stake, it’s critical that Internet users understand the threats and have a meaningful say in the final outcome. At a panel held in Washington, D.C. June 26 to highlight global threats to Internet governance, much of the discussion revolved around multistakeholder processes, or the involvement of all stakeholders in Internet policy making discussions on equal footing.

Hosted by the National Endowment for Democracy and the Center for International Media Assistance, the forum brought together Emma Llansó of the Center for Democracy and Technology; Rebecca MacKinnon of the New America Foundation; Emin Milli of the University of London; and EFF’s own Katitza Rodriguez.

As several panelists pointed out, there’s still a long way to go before millions of Internet users can truly achieve representation in intergovernmental forums. It is at these largely inaccessible conventions that standards affecting the future of the Internet come into play and are ultimately determined. While some intergovernmental bodies, like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), have officially embraced the concept of including a range of stakeholders in the decision-making process, other treaty-writing organizations fail to incorporate the views of anyone outside the exclusive circles of government officials or the powerful corporate players that hold influence at high levels.

One such meeting on the horizon has generated widespread concern among Internet freedom advocates. A United Nations agency known as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is now in the process of hosting regional meetings to prepare for a December forum, the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), where governments will revise the ITU’s underlying treaty establishing global telecommunication standards.

Civil society organizations are worried that at this event, representatives from world governments will endorse flawed proposals that, if approved, would grant the ITU a stronger role over the Internet. The final decisions will be made when the ITU’s 193 member states cast their votes. EFF is concerned that the definitions of the ITRs could be amended to include Internet services or cyber-security as part of international telecommunication. EFF joined civil society groups in taking the ITU to task last month for a lack of transparency surrounding its conference preparations.

“Internet governance is about who gets to participate in the decision-making about Internet policy and technology, and how that participation happens,” noted Llansó, of CDT, during the panel discussion. “It remains clear that the ITU and other intergovernmental efforts lack the transparency and inclusiveness that is characteristic of the multi-stakeholder model.”

EFF’s Katitza Rodriguez pointed out that the current multistakeholder system of Internet governance, even at its best, is not ideal. “Human rights must form the baseline for any multi-stakeholder Internet policy-making, current processes do not guarantee human rights will be respected and maximized,” Rodriguez said. Multi-stakeholder processes are still a “work in progress,” she noted.  In a broader Internet governance context, “still a large part of the world’s population feels excluded from international Internet policy making venues.” The problem worsens when bad Internet policies are imposed upon the world by a handful of powerful governments.

MacKinnon echoed this idea, noting it’s important to be inclusive. “If the multistakeholder model will survive continued challenges, the people who dominate Internet governance processes need to do more work diversifying,” she said. “You have to bring the people who are the most vulnerable and the most affected.” 

Just getting a broad group of stakeholders to the table is only half the battle – the greater challenge lies in ensuring that there are opportunities for meaningful contribution and that a variety of priorities are taken into account and integrated into the final framework.

Moderator Susan Morgan noted that the upcoming WCIT, the ITU’s treaty-writing event, surely isn’t the last international forum where civil society will have to react to attempts to manipulate global Internet governance. “In the broader context, we mustn’t forget that this is about individuals,” she noted, referring to the Internet users whose experience could be impacted if new international standards are approved. The real challenge from here on out, she added, lies in figuring out how to get more people engaged.