Late last month, stakeholders from around the world gathered at NETmundial in São Paulo, Brazil to discuss the future of Internet governance. To learn more about this summit’s outcomes, we speak to CIGI Distinguished Fellow Gordon Smith, who is also deputy chair of the Global Commission on Internet Governance (GCIG). Smith also sheds light on the GCIG, in advance of its first meeting this May in Stockholm.

CIGI: Coming out of São Paulo, the final statement from NETmundial read, “due to the successful experiences this [multi-stakeholder] model should be further strengthened, improved and evolved.” Nevertheless, it was reported during the event that due to conflicting views — from China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, for example — it was difficult to reach consensus on the final non-binding statement. What were the key issues and developments at this event?

Gordon Smith: The players you mention are all states, and I think we have to recognize that there are others from industry and civil society that played an important role at NETmundial. There is a perspective among those commenting on the meeting that the private sector — from the information technology industry to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) — did very well and had a good outcome, a result in their favour. Regarding civil society players, there is some unhappiness that things did not work out entirely their way. What I mean is that some key issues, like mass surveillance, were not addressed as directly as the civil society organizations would have liked. But on the other hand, they realize this is an ongoing process.

In terms of the countries that did not like the outcome of NETmundial, China is clearly in a class of its own. Its delegates played a very low-profile role, and that has been the subject of a lot of discussion after the Brazil meeting. The reality is that authoritarian countries, like China, would prefer that Internet governance be on a state-by-state basis, as part of the International Telecommunication Union’s mandate, but are coming to recognize that the future lies in strengthening and adaptating the multi-stakeholder model. There is broad-based consensus — by the various players — that one has to focus on multi-stakeholder governance and the way in which multi-stakeholder governance needs to be developed.

While the NETmundial meeting went pretty well, it was at a fairly high level of generality and shows that there is still a tremendous number of issues that need to be dealt with.

CIGI: Following the meeting in Brazil, what would you say is the current state of Internet governance and appetite for multi-stakeholder governance? What new prospects exist for this model?

Smith: There is definitely a good appetite for multi-stakeholder governance, and organizations, again like the MPAA, that were not sure about this model, like it better following NETmundial. I think the prospects for this model are very good because there is no viable alternative. There is no question, in my mind, that the authoritarian countries are far from convinced, and they will undoubtedly come back to the charge, to get more state- and government-oriented control. But I think what happened in Brazil is very interesting. As you know, this meeting was a direct consequence of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff being very unhappy about the US National Security Agency’s surveillance of her. The interesting thing is that the Brazilians now want to come to an arrangement that included the United States, and my belief is that the United States was deeply involved with Brazil in the lead-up to this meeting and in the drafting of the final statement in particular. They worked together, rather than Brazil trying to poke its finger in America’s eye.

CIGI: Later this month, you’ll be in Stockholm for the first meeting of the GCIG. As co-chair of this initiative, what do you anticipate will be the key issues raised by the group of international commissioners while in Stockholm?

Smith: First of all, I think we are going hear a diversity of priorities; what is unusual about this commission is that the membership was selected precisely on the basis that they are coming from diverse perspectives — each commissioner has different degrees and areas of expertise. Therefore, I think there will be a diversity of views expressed as to where the commission should go.

The number one issue, I think, in terms of timing, is what to do about the decision of the US government to withdraw, under certain conditions, its managing of the contract with the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). The US government realizes now that it is time for it to back out of this function, and for it to be managed in a more global way. The condition that the United States established is that the resulting governance must be multi-stakeholder; otherwise it will not give up the current authority process. So the United States is giving up its authority, but it has a significant, actually a determining, leverage over what will come next. I think the big question, which no one yet has an answer to, is how does the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) need to change,  how does it become more accountable and to whom does it become more accountable, in order to satisfy the US government’s conditions. There are all sorts of governance questions around ICANN and this IANA function, which will inevitably be a high-priority issue for the commission. Stay tuned.

The global commission is engaging with living issues. In fact, there is a whole series of things going on. These developments are in a variety of different bodies; we will try to participate at key Internet governance events. For example, Fen Hampson, the commission’s co-director, was recently at NETmundial and in Estonia for the Freedom Online Coalition event. What the commission is trying to do is not simply to produce just one consolidated report, but instead to be engaged with the processes and various aspects of these huge governance issues, and to influence their outcome. We cannot wait for the final report for us to have influence. 

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.