Whither a just and equitable Internet?

The NETmundial Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance, which was held in April in Sao Paulo, Brazil, raised hopes that a progressive roadmap for Internet governance would emerge. Urvashi Sarkar assesses its outcome.

IN 2013, the world was shaken by the Snowden revelations - information that the National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States had been spying on its own citizens and those of other countries. The revelations also showed that the NSA was monitoring personal communications including emails, phone calls and text messages of the presidents of Brazil and Mexico (Winter, 2013).

Following the revelations, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff issued a sharp condemnation of the NSA's spying activities during the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly. Rousseff called for the United Nations to play a leading role in regulating the conduct of states in relation to Internet technologies. She reiterated the need for multilateral mechanisms for the worldwide network that could ensure principles such as freedom of expression, privacy of the individual, respect for human rights, democratic governance, participation of society, government and the private sector, universality, cultural diversity and neutrality. Her speech articulated people's outrage over the 'grave violation of human rights and civil liberties', the threat of using cyberspace as a weapon of war, and violation of sovereign rights of countries.

This formed the backdrop of the NETmundial Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance which was held in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on 23-24 April. The meeting, it was hoped, would emerge with a progressive roadmap for Internet governance.

The preamble of the NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement adopted by the meeting states that the document is a non-binding outcome of a bottom-up, open and participatory process involving thousands of people from governments, private sector, civil society, technical community and academia from around the world. Billing the NETmundial conference as the first of its kind, the preamble said the meeting aimed at contributing to the evolution of the Internet governance ecosystem.The Multistakeholder Statement consists of two broad elements: Internet governance principles and roadmap for the future evolution of the Internet governance ecosystem.

Issues surrounding NETmundial

ICANN involvement

Despite initial hopes regarding NETmundial, doubts began to emerge when it was learnt that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was part of the core organising team of NETmundial. ICANN controls the governance of the Internet by allocating domain names and Internet Protocol (IP) addresses which are akin to telephone numbers and help identify all computers on the Internet. A non-profit corporation based in the United States, ICANN is under a contract from the US Department of Commerce known as the IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) functions contract.

ICANN is controlled by the United States in three ways. Firstly, it is a contractor to the US government. Secondly, it exercises influence over Internet organisations through backdoor manoeuvres - this is how the NSA managed to undermine encryption standards and placed the global financial system at risk. Thirdly, being located in the US, it is under the purview of US laws (Purkayastha, 2014). As a co-organiser of NETmundial, it was in a position to influence any decision related to choice of content, committee, secretariat, panellists, speakers and ultimately any critical outcome (Nothias, 2014).

The US has offered to surrender its supervision of ICANN by 2015, provided the world agrees to have a 'multistakeholder model' without governmental control of Internet governance. In other words, the US is paving the ground for the Internet to be handed over to ICANN and US corporations. Even after formal control is relinquished, ICANN would continue to be under the legal jurisdiction of the United States (Purkayastha, 2014).


The issue of multistakeholderism has been a key concern, given that it implies rights for all participants and places corporations and governments on the same footing, in relation to defining or vetoing policies of public concern (Nothias, 2014). This would imply that big business would rule the Internet, without regulatory oversight by the states.

NETmundial's 27-member High Level Committee - set up by Brazil and consisting of representation from governments, business, civil society, the technical community, academia and international organisations - had come up with a draft virtually endorsing 'the equal footing multi-stakeholder model'. The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) declaration of 2005, known as the Tunis Agenda, and its stipulation of 'stakeholders in their respective roles and responsibilities' was missing from the draft.

In the final outcome document, the Tunis Agenda with roles and responsibilities of respective stake-holders was incorporated, though with the rider of evolving roles and responsibilities. The states are now accepted as being responsible for protecting citizens' rights (Purkayastha, 2014).

Reactions and concerns 

The reaction to NETmundial has been varied. Some have hailed it as a first positive step towards a multistakeholder process. The US labelled it a 'huge success' while the European Commission felt NETmundial 'put us on the right track'.  Big businesses released statements indicating their satisfaction with the outcome. However, the civil society group at NETmundial expressed 'deep disappointment' that the outcome statement did not address key concerns like surveillance and net neutrality (Kaul, 2014).

A critique of the outcome document has also been advanced by the Just Net Coalition (JNC), a coalition of civil society groups from different regions globally concerned with Internet governance, human rights and social justice and which also framed the Delhi Declaration on the future of the Internet (Just Net Coalition, 2014). The JNC welcomed the emphasis in the NETmundial outcome document on managing the Internet in the public interest.

On the negative side, the JNC has noted the insufficient denouncing of mass surveillance, lack of reference to cyber-weapons and cyber-peace, as well as relegation of the issue of net neutrality to the section on future plans. 

The provisions on copyright rights and copyright enforcement in the outcome document - which were introduced at a very late stage - place curbs on the right to access, share, create and distribute information by privileging 'the rights of authors and creators'. This has been interpreted as an attempt to expand copyright by adding a category of 'creators', when only authors are recognised in international copyright law. 

Also in relation to copyright, the topic of Internet intermediary liability limitations, having been introduced to protect the freedom of speech of Internet users, has now been clubbed with 'private policing' for enforcing intellectual property. Specific text encouraging 'cooperation among all stakeholders' to 'address and deter illegal activity' is only coded language for private policing by Internet service providers and other intermediaries.

The JNC noted that it was worrisome that vested interests could unduly influence the NETmundial meeting by exercising control over a few key committees. Further, processes used at NETmundial could also easily result in outcomes determined by the core interests of the most privileged parties - these often being the United States and big business - causing the sidelining of other voices (Nothias, 2014).

Another area of dissatisfaction was that the outcome document did not factor in many of the concerns on Internet governance raised by President Rousseff in her UN address. The original draft document did not mention mass surveillance, omitted reference to the issue of cyber-war and did not state anything in relation to net neutrality. Brazil recently passed its own Internet Bill of Rights for its citizens - known as Marco Civil - of which net neutrality is an important part. In the final document, the issue of mass surveillance is mentioned, but in a manner which falls short of outright condemnation of mass surveillance. Neither does it mention the 'necessary and proportionate' principle with regard to the conduct of surveillance by governments. Despite Rousseff's call, cyber-weapons and cyber-peace are not mentioned in the outcome document (Purkayastha, 2014).


A discordant South

Contrary to hopes that the developing countries would coordinate their positions to provide a Southern perspective to the NETmundial discussions and outcome, there appeared to be no cohesion (Purkayastha, 2014). The Third World countries failed to rally together or articulate a viewpoint that could have served as a counterpoint to a neoliberal Internet agenda. However, India did propose an 'Equinet' model of the Internet which entails treating the Internet as a global commons and how it can be used for social and economic justice.  

'Third World countries should not just view the Internet from the point of view of freedom of speech and expression but also as an economic space,' said Prabir Purkayastha, who is with Knowledge Commons, a member of the JNC. The economic space is currently dominated by a handful of corporations of US origin which pose a threat to the space of local companies and regional initiatives.

According to Purkayastha, Third World countries had not articulated such concerns. Noting the lack of coordination between India and Brazil, Purkayastha added: 'If India and Brazil had coordinated their positions through diplomacy, they could have rallied the Third World countries behind them. India felt that Brazil was catering to US concerns while Brazil did not agree with Indian apprehensions on the multistakeholder model. Yet the US could manage to influence both sides and create a rift, but the Indian and Brazilian sides did not speak to one another and the two countries failed in their leadership role to rally the G77 [grouping of developing countries]. IBSA [the dialogue forum comprising India, Brazil and South Africa] too should have consulted and emerged with a coordinated position.'                                            

Urvashi Sarkar is with the South Solidarity Initiative, a project of ActionAid, and is based in New Delhi, India. She can be reached at


Just Net Coalition, 'The JNC Response to the NetMundial Outcome Document'. 5 May 2014.

Kaul, Mahima, 'Indian stand at NETmundial surprises many'. 3 May 2014.

Nothias, Jean-Christophe, 'For More Internet, and More Democracy, Forget NetMundial and ICANN'. 23 April 2014.

Purkayastha, Prabir, 'NETmundial or the Internet Governance World Cup?'. 2 May 2014.

Winter, Brian, 'Dilma Rousseff Demands Apology for US Spying After Report that NSA Tracked Brazil's President'. Reuters. 4 September 2013.

*Third World Resurgence No. 287/288, July/August 2014, pp 46-48