Smári McCarthy

Building social, political and technical infrastucture

NetMundial

The NetMundial meeting was held in Sa­o Paulo, Brazil, over the last two days. For various reasons I couldn’t be there myself, but I participated via the London remote participation hub. These hubs were probably the single best thing about NetMundial, allowing people as geographically challenged as myself to still weigh in on the discussions.

Outside of that one bit of silver lining (albeit bogged down with proprietary Adobe software), NetMundial went really bad. The opening session went massively over time due to poor timekeeping and the most severe procession of political circlejerking I’ve seen in donkeys. After that it settled down into something that looked fairly productive, albeit with the usual process trolling from the Chinese and Russians, and the usual bullshit from the copyright mafia and the megacorporations.

Despite this, it still seemed like the outcome might be useful, evidenced by the fact that the states were becoming quite annoyed about the remote participation hubs, which consisted almost solely of civil society actors. Not that the governments weren’t invited. I’d have loved to have somebody from the UK ministry of whatever sitting with us in the hub. But of course that didn’t happen.

However good things were looking during yesterday, at the end of the day the final document was butchered, leaving an outcome document that consisted only of pointless vagueness. The event had successfully been coopted by people who didn’t want to say anything important about anything.

In particular, the document did not address the two key topics of the conference at all: blanket state surveillance and network neutrality. It said that net neutrality is a thing that should be discussed further, and that surveillance should only occur in accordance with human rights laws. No condemnation. No strong statements. Nothing. The entire conference was a waste of time.

Get Real

Of course, many predicted this. In particular, there were a few articles that suggested that NetMundial would not be the right venue for a discussion. Milton Mueller suggested that one should not confuse NSA regulation with Internet regulation. I agree to an extent with that sentiment, but where that argument falls down is where he assumes that governance of the Internet has nothing to do with governance of espionage. This is equivalent to thinking that governance of multilateral trade mechanisms under the WTO has nothing to do with confiscation and destruction of goods in transit. It is mistaking the whole for a part. Homomeria, I believe the term is.

Which is to say that an international meeting on Internet governance is no less capable a place than, say, the UN, to discuss how to regulate espionage, and an equally capable place to actually do something about it. And in fact it may be a more apt place for discussion because such a meeting is more likely to have attendees who actually know what they’re talking about, technically, and representatives of the part of society which is actually effected by these activities in reality (the avatar of what in common law is dubbed the “reasonable man”).

The problem is that NetMundial was originally not suggested as a catch-all Internet governance meeting, but that it was deigned to address directly the issue of blanket surveillance. Then it didn’t. In part because people allowed pithy gestures by Fadi Chehadé on the one hand and the US government on the other to shift the direction and attention of the meeting away from fixing the most severe problem at hand to discussing ad nauseam issues which should have been kept separate at least until the next IGF, i.e., the IANA transition. And while I will grant that the control over IANA is certainly part of the problem when it comes to US hegemony over the Internet, it is separate in that it doesn’t contribute in any way, shape or form to the day to day activities of the NSA, GCHQ, or any of the other eyes out there.

The best way to destroy a meeting is to expand its scope.

So yeah. Realism in international relations, absolutely. It would be nice to see more of that. But this particular view is narrow.

What now?

That leaves us with what was actually accomplished during NetMundial. It was an interesting meeting of minds in some regards, with some pretty powerful statements coming from Nnenna Nwakanma, Vint Cerf, Milton Mueller, Roy Singham, Michał Woźniak, Ola Bini, and the Indian government representative whose name I have misplaced. There were some others, but to a large degree it was adults faffing about and a whole host of people being downright misanthropic.

Unlike many, I rather liked the Indian government representative’s observations. Because he was hitting at a pretty core issue, albeit in a fairly ham-handed manner. He kept asking for clarification about what kind of document the outcome would be – whether it would be a chairman’s summary or an actual “consensus” outcome document. The nature of the document is important in how it is represented after the event, but also, if it is going to be presented as a consensus of any kind (which of course it will be), it is quite important that the content of the actual document be somewhat in line with what was being said, which turns out not to be the case at all.

But for me the greatest accomplishment came in the form of us getting pretty concrete evidence that the Brazilian government is just as unlikely to want to actually do anything about mass surveillance as the others, and that post-Snowden diplomacy is in a state where Carl Bildt can still go on stage and talk about Net Freedom Blah without being pelted with rotten vegetables.

All in all, NetMundial was (perhaps predictably) a farce.

We’re going to need to do something better. The people running OurNetMundial were doing a fairly good job of drawing attention to the real issues. Perhaps OurNetMundial should become an event. But where? When? By whom? And how do we avoid cooption?

These questions and many others will remain unanswered for now. But somehting is going to have to happen.