A major failure of internet governance

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) sits at the centre of a complex network of bodies and institutions of different kinds which concern themselves with the still relatively new public discourse on internet governance.

I was involved in making submissions to the WSIS processes that preceded the creation of the IGF. On behalf of eNACSO  I have attended every (annual) meeting of the IGF except the first one, which was held in Athens in 2006. I have attended every meeting of its European regional off shoot, EuroDIG, as well as several of the UK national IGFs where I went on behalf of the UK Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety (CHIS). Nobody can say these children’s groups haven’t invested heavily in the WSIS and IGF sponsored multistakeholder model of internet governance.

The only major internet governance event in recent times that I could have gone to but didn’t, and nor did anyone from eNACSO or CHIS, was the Net Mundial conference held in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 2014. The children’s groups I work with just couldn’t afford to send anyone to another gig that year, especially one so (expensively) far away from home.

Big Mistake

Assuming you accept that there is some actual or potential value in the dialogue around internet governance – which I do unreservedly – it turns out that not going was a mistake. Net Mundial was the IGF on steroids. We had no way of knowing at the time how big a mistake it was going to be, but even if we had, short of robbing a bank I’m not sure what we could have done about it anyway.

Who was there?

I looked at the official list of  representatives who went to NetMundial. Governments seemed to be the largest single bloc. Post-Snowden and the revelations about the NSA tapping the Brazilian President’s phone, privacy activists also seem to have been especially thick on the ground.

Among the named civil society representatives in Sao Paulo I did not see any children’s or young people’s organizations that I knew had a history of or track record in attending IGFs or in pursuing the internet governance agenda from the perspective of children’s and young people’s rights. But then I don’t know everybody. On closer examination of the attendees I found two that appeared at least to have some connection with youth oriented affairs. These were the “Bible Hill Youth Club of India” and the YMCA Computer Training Centre and Digital Studio from The Gambia. There were none that appeared to have a connection to children’s issues.

Hello Lee Hibbard

Lee Hibbard works for the Council of Europe. He is one of the world’s leading authorities on internet governance. Last week in a workshop which I attended at the 2015 EuroDIG meeting he said something along these lines

The Net Mundial Statement (NMS) represents the best available summation and distillation of thinking on internet governance to date. It has a very broad basis of support across the world.

In diplo-speak The Statement represents the formal outcome or results of the entire event and the negotiations leading up to it. Every single word in The Statement will have been carefully weighed and considered, probably fought over.

According to Lee,  it seems before NMS was adopted there were “around 25 different charters, declarations and manifestos” which different actors had drawn up to describe what they thought internet governance is about or ought to be about. Thus a key goal of NMS was to draw a veil over such chaos. The consensus seems to be that in this respect NMS succeeded brilliantly. NMS has become a defining document. A guiding star. A new point of departure. Oh dear.

So what is not in The Statement?

If you read NMS carefully you will note that none of the following four words appear anywhere in the text: “child”, “children”, “youth” or “young”.  Not even once. How can that be when one in three of all internet users across the world are below the age of 18? In some of the developing nations the proportion is higher.

Could it be that as NMS was being drawn up the authors consciously decided not to refer to any specific or particular interest groups? Did they, for whatever reason, want to keep The Statement at a stratospherically high level so as to avoid special pleading and hang on to a universalist framework? No. That cannot be the reason because, for example, at several points explicit references are made to the position of people with disabilities in relation to cyberspace.

More specifically within NMS there is a short recitation of international instruments which are said to be important or noteworthy in the context of a discussion about internet governance. The Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities is listed there. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is not.

The Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities has been open for adoption since 2007. The Convention on the Rights of the Child has been out there since 1989.

In search of enlightenment

I told everyone in the EuroDIG workshop that because I didn’t make it to Net Mundial I did not know exactly how things had panned out there. In search of enlightenment I posed a question

Is the explanation for what happened in Brazil no more complicated than this? The reason people with disabilities gets a mention in the statement  and children don’t is because the disabilities lobby was present in Sao Paulo and the children’s lobby effectively was not?

I was a little shocked by the answer, which came from Markus Kummer. If Lee Hibbard is a Prince in the land of internet governance Markus is the Emperor.

Per Markus

Markus’s reply was instant and clear

Yes that is the explanation. NMS was drawn up on the basis of a rough consensus. To the best of my knowledge the question of children and the internet wasn’t raised by anyone whereas the position of people with disabilities was.

Nobody in the room who had been to Net Mundial sought to qualify or disagree with Marcus’s analysis.

Now I am absolutely delighted that people with disabilities were recognised as having special needs in relation to the internet. I have no complaints at all in that respect. But think about what Marcus Kummer’s  answer reveals.

Who didn’t speak up for children and young people?

Think about how many (and which) national Governments were there in Sao Paulo, and about the level at which the Commission of the European Union was represented. And then there was everyone else.  None of them thought to mention one in three of all internet users in the world?

Even if there was a mention of children and young people that somehow managed to escape Markus Kummer’s hearing it is self-evidently the case that in one way or another the words were not presented persuasively or persistently enough to claim a place in

the best available summation and distillation of thinking on internet governance to date. 

Back in the world of diplo-speak zero words equals zero recognition.

Thus for all the palaver of the Internet Governance Forum since 2005-6 and all the rigmarole of its many national and regional off shoots, for all of the claims made about how the IGF has advanced the terms of the debate, with regard to children and the internet when the rubber hit the road what did we end up with? Zilch. Not even a trace.

Geo-politics and commercial interests rule

People go to events like Net Mundial and the IGF because they have an agenda. I am guessing that nobody in Sao Paulo was positively hostile to children’s interests or rights. They just didn’t think of it as being front and centre of what they were there to do and at one level I get that (although I think  a number of people have some explaining to do).

Occupying themselves with the mega geo-politics of China,  the USA, Russia, the EU, Brazil, Iran, Saudi Arabia, with ICANN, the IANA Transition, the position of rights holders, the post-Snowden agenda and the rest it is not hard to work out why kids got overlooked. But that doesn’t make it right or in any way  acceptable, not least because it happens all the time across the internet governance space.

Enough already with the hindsight

Returning to Net Mundial and continuing to accept at face value that there is some point to all this internet governance stuff, with hindsight it is clear children’s organizations should have been there in greater force and to the extent that they weren’t first and foremost represents a failure of the machinery of internet governance itself.

Truly this is a structural or institutional failing and the powers that be should think of it in that way. Instead of being defensive they should come up with some solutions. Simply apologising (again) for the imperfections or promising to try to do better next time won’t cut it. Alternatively those involved in and proselytizing for internet governance need to dial back the rhetoric of “community”, “inclusiveness” and “multistakeholder”. Travel budgets should not be the key determinant of whether or not your voice is heard and registered, particularly where that voice speaks for one in three of all internet users.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised. http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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