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IGF-USA 2012 Opening Plenary Roundtable: Emerging Internet Issues – Governments or Governance?

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Brief session description:

Thursday, July 26, 2012 – This major session of the opening plenary of IGF-USA discussed the current state of play with various proposals ranging from the WCIT, the UN Commission on Science and Technology and Enhanced Cooperation, areas where more government may be called for from their perspective or strong improvements in “governance.” Panelists offered a range of perspectives about government and governance.

Details of the session:

The session was moderated by Marilyn Cade, the chief catalyst of IGF-USA. Panelists included:

  • Rebecca MacKinnon, the Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation
  • Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center
  • Jacquelynn L. Ruff, vice president of International Public Policy and Regulatory Affairs for Verizon Communications
  • Paul Brigner, the regional bureau director of the North American Bureau at the Internet Society
  • John Curran, president and CEO of the American Registry for Internet Numbers
  • Kristin Peterson, co-founder and CEO of Inveneo
  • Fiona Alexander, associate administrator of the Office of International Affairs at NTIA

If there’s a keyword lying at the heart of the Internet Governance Forum it is “multistakeholder.” Key is the belief that individuals from various backgrounds—from private industry to civil society to government to academia—benefit from gathering and discussing their visions for the future, and the viability thereof. Whether they’re able to reach any consensus after gathering and discussing the issues is another matter entirely.

The 2012 IGF-USA conference, held at Georgetown Law Center in Washington, D.C., Thursday, opened with a panel showing just how diverse these individuals can be, and how varied their focus is in regard to the pressing issues facing the parties looking to influence the continued growth of the Internet.

Rebecca MacKinnon from the New American Foundation speaks at the Opening Plenary Roundtable at IGF-USA in Washington, D.C. on July 26, 2012.

Rebecca MacKinnonof the New America Foundation opened the seven-member discussion by highlighting the importance of the “digital commons,” the non-commercial backbone providing structure to a number of vital digital institutions. Because of the shared nature of this backbone, which stretches across traditional nation-state boundaries, MacKinnon said she believes the world is on the verge of a reformation of the current governing concepts, as individual states try to gain control over institutions that involve those beyond their jurisdiction.

In the modern era, MacKinnon asserted, individuals are “not just citizens of nation-states and communities, we’re citizens of the Internet.”

“We have to be informed about how power is exercised,” she continued, highlighting a need for everyone involved to play their part in shaping the direction of the Internet’s evolution.

This, in turn, circles back to not just the perceived necessity for multi-stakeholder solutions, but the lingering questions as to how those solutions are reached.

“How do we ensure that the policy-making mechanisms actually allow input from all affected stakeholders?” MacKinnon asked.

She theorized that societies are on the precipice of a “Magna Carta” moment, in which the traditional concepts that dictate the ways in which governments work will be disrupted by this multistakeholder model.

This drew some rebuttals to some degree from other members of the panel.

Fiona Alexander, associate administrator at the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, agreed with MacKinnon that some nations may be standing at that edge, but said the Magna Carta moment isn’t to be expected of every country, or even every stakeholder taking part in current dialogue.

“They [unnamed stakeholders] have in many cases failed to live up to what’s expected of them,” she said, which leaves those advocating for multistakeholder solutions in a situation where they’re defending a model for governance under siege, fostering doubts for its efficacy.

And a large number of those stakeholders are far behind those in developed, Western countries in regard to Internet penetration.

Fiona Alexander speaks at the Opening Plenary Roundtable at IGF-USA in Washington, D.C. on July 26, 2012.

Kristin Peterson, co-founder and CEO of Inveneo, a non-profit organization dedicated to the proliferation of communications technology in the developing world, shared just how much work needs to be done in bridging the gap between dominant Internet stakeholders and those just attaining reasonable access to the Web.

“Internet access is important not just on individual level, but on a functional level, an organizational level,” she said.

Part of this is due to the remoteness of developing, rural areas, which drives up the cost of infrastructure to a counterproductive degree.

A single 1MB connection, Peterson highlighted, which would be suitable for a school or a medical clinic, costs upwards of $800 a month in Haiti. Another unnamed country that Inveneo has worked with has less than 100MB in total. And that 1MB of Internet access? It costs roughly $2,000 per month.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, far removed from countries just beginning to break down the barriers preventing them from gaining full access to the Internet, are stakeholders who, in the minds of some, will have an inordinate amount of influence over multi-stakeholder debates.

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, highlighted the influence of corporate entities as one such problem.

Comparing growing corporate influence over the Internet to “the clouds gathering at the beginning of a Batman movie,” Rotenberg warned those in attendance, “You have to pay attention when the skies darken, things are about to happen.”

One such entity, which Rotenberg accused of having an ever-growing outsized influence over the Internet, is Google, whose growing presence on the Web is the “Number-one threat to Internet freedom.”

Regardless of whether that’s the case, such problems do require a means to draw in those affected by the evolving dialogue on Internet governance.

John Curran speaks at the Opening Plenary Roundtable at IGF-USA in Washington, D.C. on July 26, 2012.

“How do we get people engaged, how do we raise a flag and pull in society, business, governments?” asked John Curran, president and CEO of the American Registry for Internet Numbers.

Curran offered perspective into the scope of the problems facing Internet stakeholders, the shape of which appears on multiple layers, with technological standards and protocols existing at the bottom layer. They require little political involvement, moving up to domain names and IP addresses, which aren’t necessarily the most hot-button social issues under debate within the halls of Congress. Nonetheless, they bring about privacy and tracking concerns, peaking with the broad, end-user experiences that draw in such general topics as intellectual property use, censorship and national security.

And, of course, given the nature of IGF, the multistakeholder model is seen as the best means to approach such problems.

Paul Brigner, the regional director of the North American Bureau at the Internet Society and Jacquelynn Ruff, vice president of international public policy and regulatory affairs for Verizon, offered insight into how new players are accepting and integrating into the multistakeholder approach.

Telecommunications firms, well aware of the dwindling demand for their traditional services in the wake of the Internet revolution, are “moving away from focusing on traditional telecommunications to Internet protocol and Internet issues,” Brigner said.

Jacquelynn Ruff speaks at the Opening Plenary Roundtable at IGF-USA in Washington, D.C. on July 26, 2012.

An issue such as the possible transition to a sending party pays structure, for example, is an issue that demands the inclusion and participation of a multitude of affected parties. Under such a regime, “You’re not free, necessarily, to innovate at low cost like you experience today,” Brigner said. “The end-to-end nature of the Internet that allows these sort of things to evolve.”

To alleviate some of the difficulty inherent in such discussions, Ruff cited the importance of enhanced cooperation, the notion of mapping past developments, current deficiencies and projecting future ambitions in a way that involves all interested parties. Emphasizing examples within UNESCO, ICANN and the Council of Europe, Ruff celebrated enhanced cooperation’s increasing rate of adoption.

The world is at “a fork in the road on the global discussion on where the future lies,” she said. And applying enhanced cooperation to the traditional multi-stakeholder methodology could be an effective means to remedy the arguments over which path to take.

That said, a plethora of stakeholders have their own interpretation and they will be seizing the opportunities granted by this IGF event and future conferences to throw their hat into the ring drawn by the opening plenary session’s panelists.

— Morgan Little

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