I attended an extremely interesting briefing in Brussels recently. It was organized by the European Internet Foundation (EIF) and featured Fadi Chehade, CEO of ICANN. He is an impressive communicator. Fadi delivered a wonderfully clear and concise account of the current state of play with the IANA Transition. Fingers crossed that it all goes smoothly and, above all, to time. If the whole business of the transition gets mixed up in the forthcoming US Presidential campaigns the risk of failure increases substantially and that could have dire consequences for the future of the internet. Apparently.
Anyway, that’s kind of a preamble. As usual at these sorts of events there was more than a small sprinkling of professional lobbyists and corporate employees whose primary job is to track developments in and around the public policy making and regulatory arenas insofar as they affect the internet space.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining about lobbyists and employees of that sort. They do an extremely important job. As long as there is a high degree of transparency about their contacts with governments and regulators I am absolutely certain they can help improve the quality of decision-making all round. If anything my remarks are tinged with great envy. Here’s why.
I have been writing recently about what I think is a potential disaster for the UK approach to online child protection coming down the track courtesy of the EU. At the EIF meeting I made a casual remark along these lines to one of the lobbyist types in the room adding that the enormity of what was going on had dawned on me only comparatively recently.
I was met by a sneering rebuke to the effect “You can’t complain when you come to the party so late.” I’m not going to name and embarrass the guy who said this. Maybe he was just having a bad day but actually what he was raising is an important dimension of what passes for internet governance.
If you are not a professional lobbyist, or you don’t have professional lobbyists working for you, it is simply impossible to keep track of everything that’s happening in the online world and therefore it is impossible to know how best and when to intervene and on what. Certainly the way the Commission and the Parliament work does not make it easy for non-professionals to engage with them. It is partly a question of complexity and partly a matter of scale. You drown in a deluge of emails, newsletters and updates. And here is where the current lobbying system can break down and put the democratic process at risk.
It may asking for too much to say there ought to be a completely level playing field for everyone who wishes to represent their views to EU institutions – I wish – but if that famous field doesn’t get a lot more level than it seems to be right now the risk of European citizens feeling even more isolated from the EU project will continue unabated and probably it will increase.
My work in Europe is channelled principally through eNACSO. We exist and do the best we can on a fifth of a shoe string. But even that slender thread may be plucked from us as the funding is not promised beyond September, 2016. If eNACSO goes there will be no pan-European children’s organization that is tasked with trying to cover the online waterfront from the perspective of children’s rights. In my next blog I will show why that is absolutely guaranteed to produce undesirable outcomes for kids.