The future of the internet depends on you

People from the freedom of expression, privacy and media development communities must get engaged, to ensure that one of the most important communications platforms ever invented remains open, pluralistic and democratic.

Andreas Reventlow
15 May 2017



Article 19, 2008. Flickr/Val Kerry. Some rights reserved.In this article Andreas Reventlow writes about the role that new participants can play in human rights advocacy for internet policymaking, now that these processes have become more accessible to non-experts. These reflections also provide a timely introduction to the next public event in the Defending Human Rights in a Digital Age series, taking place on 18th May 2017, at Goldsmiths (University of London) and entitled Activism Behind the Screen. Participants will discuss the implications of incorporating human rights standards for future decisions the day-to-day functioning of the internet. More information, and how to register, is available on Eventbrite here.

Online surveillance, phishing, content blocking, internet shutdowns. Governments around the world are not exactly shy when it comes to controlling what their citizens are doing online. This poses major challenges to our individual rights to freedom of expression and privacy.

But confrontations of a much more fundamental nature – of ensuring the internet stays open, pluralistic and democratic in the long run – are being waged somewhere else entirely: in the world of internet governance.

It is a world that those of us who come from the freedom of expression, privacy and media development communities have an obvious interest in getting involved in – a world where the policies and standards that define the future path of the internet are being developed.

That future path has vast implications for all of us, whether we are in Madrid, Mombasa or Mumbai, including for example our ability to buy a domain name and broadcast our thoughts to the world, to securely transfer money and manage our banking online, and to expect a reasonable level of security from the private Wi-Fi networks in our homes. All of them are fundamentals of our online lives that we have come to take for granted as essential parts of the open internet, but which are not necessarily a given.

Rather, they are the outcomes of lengthy and often very technical discussions inside internet governance bodies which host a variety of critically important discussions; such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

The International Telecommunications Union, for example, is discussing 5G, the next generation of wireless broadband, and the availability of what is called unlicensed spectrum. If telecommunication companies are successful in their bid to limit the availability of unlicensed spectrum, which makes it possible to set up Wi-Fi networks, it could impose new restrictions on how to connect to the internet and on people’s ability to access information and circumvent content restrictions.

Other ongoing debates include the regulation of domain names by ICANN. Here, China and the network infrastructure company Verisign have been working to make it mandatory for anyone registering a domain in the country to go through a government-licensed service provider – one more method by which the Chinese regime would be able to keep tabs on its opposition.

And in the Internet Engineering Task Force, great technical minds are working to apply encryption to what is called the DNS protocol so that internet service providers and ultimately governments and hackers will be unable to access our browsing history – an essential requirement for critical journalists, human rights defenders and others whose lives are put in danger when that kind of information falls into the wrong hands.

You can help shape the future of the internet

Getting involved in this work can seem rather intimidating and overwhelming to an outsider, but a recent report by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and ARTICLE 19 eases the learning curve and provides excellent tips on how to get started, including which communities, research groups and mailing lists to join, how to understand what are sometimes rather arcane institutional structures, and how to find a mentor who can help newcomers get embedded and feel welcome.

Because all the internet governance bodies, with the exception of the ITU, are governed through the multi-stakeholder model, anyone who can devote the time and resources can help shape the future of the internet. While there are certainly very legitimate concerns about the multi-stakeholder model, including that it does not automatically solve the problem of participation on unequal footing between corporate actors with deep pockets and civil society groups from the Global South, it still represents the most advanced effort at giving everyone a seat at the table when it comes to defining the future of the internet. In the same way that democracy is not perfect, multi-stakeholder governance is also far from the perfect solution, but it appears to be the best alternative at the moment.

As CIMA and ARTICLE 19’s report outlines, the open-access nature of a multi-stakeholder participatory model also makes policy-making processes and technology standards development vulnerable to co-optation by actors who do not necessarily prioritise human rights like freedom of expression and privacy in either the online or offline context.

Corporate lobbyists, intellectual property lawyers are welcome to join the discussion alongside civil society and government representatives, whether they come from the US, the UK, Russia or China. Clearly hostile to open news and information environments, some of them will invest significant time and resources into making sure that the internet will work in ways that suit their commercial interests and political needs, whatever part of the world they come from.

Stakeholders who care

Working to make sure that this does not happen are groups like ICANN’s Non-commercial Stakeholders Group and the Non-commercial Users Constituency as well as groups like Global Partners Digital, Association for Progressive Communications and ARTICLE 19 which promote public interest concerns and human rights in the world of internet governance to ensure that journalists, human rights defenders and regular citizens around the world are to be able to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and privacy.

Their work needs the support of more actors in the freedom of expression and media development communities. Not only to make internet governance bodies more legitimate, inclusive and representative of all of us, but also to ensure that one of the most important communications platforms ever invented remains open, pluralistic and democratic. The arenas that internet governance bodies offer is truly where the future of the internet is being decided. Those of us who come from the freedom of expression, privacy and media development communities need to get engaged, or it will be to all of our detriment.

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