The IGF and the ‘inconvenient’ ungovForum

400px-Ungovinternet-poster-3-trA year after Edward Snowden exposed massive U.S. spying practices and just five months after Turkey blocked Twitter and YouTube which were used to spread voice and video recordings tagging Turkish state officials in acts of corruption, the Turkish government hosted the 9th session of the Internet Government Forum (IGF), an event held under the auspices of the United Nations.

The IGF is the leading proponent and model of the multistakeholder approach participated in by governments, intergovernmental organizations (such as the UN), civil society, the technical community and the private sector in governing the internet. Sadly, the multistakeholder approach failed the people of the host government, insofar as discussing, shedding light or giving attention to their important internet issues and related concerns. Citing UN and IFG rules, the authorities rejected applications for workshops filed by grassroots-based Turkish organizations about the Turkish government’s acts of censorship and surveillance.

It was thus a great thing that Turkish and foreign activists, academics and internet freedom advocates convened an Internet Ungovernance Forum (ungovForum) on Sept. 4-5, at the Istanbul Bilgi University’s Santral Campus.

The ungovForum served as an alternative forum and, more importantly, as an essential counterpoint to the IGF.

While the IGF was dominated by polite and diplomatic language, the supremacist mindset of “free market economics” and their defense courtesy of satisfied and pampered individuals from civil society organizations, the ungovForum was solidly and proudly dubbed as a forum devoted to “free, secure and open internet for the people”.

But the ungovForum organizers were not at all impolite. They opened the forum to participants of the IGF and even to the leading members of the IGF’s Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG).

“Multistakeholder” was weighed but found wanting

After a ranking IGF MAG member who spoke at the ungovForum wondered aloud why there was a “competition” coming from the alternative forum, he was confronted by the fact that the IFG MAG rejected the Turkish organizations’ applications to hold workshops at the IFG hosted by Turkey. Not one of the workshops from Turkish organizations was approved by the IFG MAG.

What was impolite was the suggestion that the ungovForum was “competing” with the IGF and that it seeks to destroy the “multistakeholder” approach. Which was what two IGF participants charged ungovForum organizers during an ungovForum plenary. While the “multistakeholder” approach is arguably better than a multilateral model dominated and held exclusively by state and inter-state parties, or by state-private sector sit-downs, the “multistakeholder” approach is by no means substantively better if truly important matters like the situation in Tukey are set aside, conveniently citing the UN’s pro-state rules of decorum. It is by no means exhaustively democratic if stalwarts of civil society organization become satisfied with hearing only themselves as representatives of the “marginalized” and “underrerepresented” and would not raise a howl and in fact join state and inter-state parties in preventing the “marginalized” and “underrepresented” themselves in applying to join the IGF as workshop proponents.

It was during the Stockholm Internet Forum 2o14 that Sweden and its allies launched a full-throated defense of the “multistakeholder” approach because some parties purportedly want to do away with it and return to the old way of doing it multilaterally or among states alone. But SIF itself was not even as “multistakeholder”  as many have hoped. Internet freedom advocates and activists hounded the Swedish state officials with questions on the SIF’s exclusion of Edward Snowden and other important personalities. Indeed, how could we move forward talking about Internet governance and Internet freedom when some of the new main actors in promoting these causes are excluded from discussions?

Flash forward to the IGF in Istanbul, where Sweden takes center-stage not as an Internet freedom champion, but as an ally or co-conspirator of Turkey, providing the hoodlum state government with the technological means to conduct unwarranted “deep packet inspection” of Turkish people’s Internet activity. If the “multistakeholder” approach cannot be open to discussing the intertwining roles of the Turkish government, the Swedish internet security company supported by the Swedish royal family, and the pro-Turkish government telcos that work with them in implementing surveillance and censorship in Turkey, then the supporters of the “multistakeholder” approach should not just fear state parties but also the “marginalized” and “underrepresented”. In this case, the “mutistakeholder” approach is further marginalizing and underrepresenting/misrepresenting the “marginalized” and “underrrepresented”.

It was not just in turning a blind eye about Turkey’s dismal Internet freedom, press freedom (one of the highest number of imprisoned journalists) and human rights records where the IGF became a party to.

Discussions about surveillance and censorship by other states, such as the U.S. and China, were muted during the IGF. There was practically no mention of any of these issues that affect privacy and free speech rights of other heads of state, entire governments and entire populations. The representative of Brazil, which will host the next IGF and which hosted the historic NetMundial, was the lone person to mention the word “surveillance” during the opening plenary speeches. But even that brave act was done without the proper context, for example, that the Brazilian head of state herself was subjected to surveillance by the U.S.

Instead, much was said about the benevolence of the U.S. government in deciding this year to “give up” its leading, unelected role as “caretaker” of the ICANN. The ICANN CEO praised the U.S. government for unilaterally declaring to “devolve” its role in favor of international and regional self-organized units.

The doors of IGF were likewise shut tight against the likes of Edward Snowden, whose revelations last year exposed the grave perils to the Internet, free speech, and free expression as we know them courtesy of the U.S. government.

Debasing “Internet freedom”  

An international coalition of organizations and individuals have adopted a Declaration of Internet Freedom, grounded on the principles of:

Expression: Don’t censor the Internet.
Access: Promote universal access to fast and affordable networks.
Openness: Keep the Internet an open network where everyone is free to connect, communicate, write, read, watch, speak, listen, learn, create and innovate.
Innovation: Protect the freedom to innovate and create without permission. Don’t block new technologies and don’t punish innovators for their users’ actions.
Privacy: Protect privacy and defend everyone’s ability to control how their data and devices are used.

Many well-meaning participants in IGF came to Istanbul hoping to articulate their concerns about censorship, surveillance, the digital divide, quality of access to those who have it, but the meetings and workshops proved largely dissatisfying due to the dominance of the language and motive of “free market economics” as the sole answer to any and all problems.

For instance, at a workshop on how to bridge the digital divide, a speaker supportive of “free market economics” shut down any and all considerations of non-market approaches to the problems of absence of or limited access to the internet in developing countries. The solution given was to give as much tax and non-tax incentives — or lay the red carpet of tax breaks, tax refunds and state sponsorship — for profit-oriented initiatives of companies if and when they so decide to connect the “last mile”. Speakers sidestepped or glossed over privacy concerns on “walled garden” solutions or “free solutions” that require “logins” — referring to private sector initiatives to roll out “free internet access” which people could only get after submitting personal information or signing up to “cloud” services. These services have generally questionable privacy concerns, as the proprietors have cooperated with states in turning over login and content information in “standard” surveillance practices or allow state and private sector requests for blocking content, without due process or under questionable circumstances.

Discussions about Internet security revolved around products and services (commodities actually) peddled by private sector vendors to “protect” states or other private companies from cyberattacks. No mentions were made about the role of some of these same private sector vendors in making, installing, maintaining and implementing surveillance and censorship tools for clients such as Turkey, China and the U.S.

The capture of the “multistakeholder” model by pretentious state actors and private sector using the “diplomatic” and “polite” rules of the U.N. is made complete by the narrow-minded mindset of some individual leaders and representatives of the civil society organizations. The latter are happy to take a seat on the IGF table, perhaps mistaking it as the apex of their efforts, and have joined the state parties and the private sector in excluding and sometimes discrediting other voices and concerns that are deemed too controversial, too inconvenient, too undiplomatic, too subversive.

Alternative and counterpoint

The ungovForum idea is both old and new. Grassroots organizations and movements have long been holding alternative or counterpoint fora to the GATT, WTO, IMF-WB, WEF, APEC and similar official gatherings. It is both a matter of choice and circumstance — people’s organizations staging their own conference because they and their ideas are unwelcome in the official conference. The ungovForum is new because it is arguably the first alternative, parallel and counterpoint people’s forum to the IGF.

The program of the ungovForum was unapologetically progressive, confronting the burning issues in Turkey and elsewhere, and raises the torch of Internet freedom in a march forward.

While the Edward Snowden video conference did not push through, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange provided an awesome alternative and he did not mince words when he branded the IGF as an Internet Censorship Forum, which is an honest and frank appraisal on so many levels

Assange also announced the launch of a new book on Wikileaks and Google, which seeks to open discussions on the expanding role of the latter in the surrender and loss of privacy and in surveillance and censorship. It will come out on September 18.

Many were surprised that Turkish allowed the ungovForum to happen, but real credit goes to the courageous Turkish organizations who will stand up to and fight back against whatever repercussions of living under a climate of fear amid and after the IGF. Props too to their foreign partners and champions who backed their efforts.

Organizers adjourned the ungovForum with a “see you in Brazil” where the next IGF session will be held — a portent of things to come inside and outside of the IGF and the “multistakeholder” approach and a reflection of the reality that boundaries have to be challenged if we are to make Internet freedom a reality and bring its progressive benefits and tools to each and every interested person and community worldwide.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to the Southeast Asia Press Alliance for the grant that made possible this blogger’s attendance at IGF 2014.