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In the Internet Policy World, Who Gets to be Civil Society?

Categories: Human Rights, Internet governance
Global Voices members meet at IGF 2013 in Bali, Indonesia. Photo by Hisham Almiraat, used with permission.

Global Voices members meet at IGF 2013 in Bali, Indonesia. Photo by Hisham Almiraat, used with permission.

Written by Ellery Roberts Biddle, with inspiration from Hisham Almiraat.

There was plenty of hot air at the 2013 Internet Governance Forum [1], both on the beach and in the Nusa Dua Conference Center. Held this year in Bali, Indonesia, the UN-sponsored IGF [2] is almost entirely open—save for a few “high level” meetings, anyone can attend and ask questions at whatever session they wish. Experts and advocates come to talk about everything from access and infrastructure, to industry regulations, to child protection, to the exercise and protection of human rights online.

During this four-day circus of workshops, panels and coffee-fueled hallway chatter, Advox Director Hisham [3] and I attended many sessions on the issues we care most deeply about: free expression, privacy, and other fundamental rights in the digital environment. Panelists spoke of human rights, but typically through a lens of principles and doctrine—real stories about user experience seemed few and far between. There was plenty of talk about human rights—but not so much about human beings.

During Global Voices’ brief session we explained our mission: to tell stories about people who use the Internet for a civic purpose. When we opened the floor for questions, activists from a diverse range of countries—Azerbaijan, Sudan, Mexico, and Morocco, to name a few—all shared stories of colleagues who had been harassed, arrested, or worse because of their actions online. As the conversation continued, we discovered we had all been feeling slightly out of place at the conference. Why weren't there more conversations like the one we'd just had?

At a meeting that prides itself on openness and an emphasis on civil society (i.e. the public), you might think this kind of omission wouldn't happen. These issues are supposed to the bread and butter of Internet rights groups. Yet time after time, I watched my colleagues point to human rights violations in discussions with “civil society” representatives, and the response was sometimes kind, but often dispassionate. One got the impression that it was seen as immature or obvious to speak of actual human rights violations. It was as if the majority of attendees, many of them IGF “veterans,” had decided this was understood and therefore no longer worthy of discussion.

This raised a few questions.

First, who exactly makes up civil society? By IGF standards, anyone who wishes to may attend the meeting as a representative of the public interest. Of course, with a few exceptions, there are no processes by which the public can elect Internet policy representatives. Civil society members typically attend as individuals or on behalf of an NGO or academic institution with a policy agenda that seeks (or at least claims) to serve the public interest.

How can we be sure they mean it? There is no official process for determining the legitimacy of this claim. And this is probably not a bad thing—if the act of deciding who represents the public interest were to become bureaucratized, the bulk of “civil society” would probably look and sound more government-like than it currently does. So the proof is in the pudding—over time, a group's actions typically make it clear where their priorities lie. And groups are often dissolved or excluded from conversations if their motives seem especially dubious.

In the end, civil society at the IGF is a mishmosh of people, most of whom do care about the public interest, but are often sidetracked by competing priorities such as funding, personal politics, and media attention — these things affect us all. At forums like IGF, principles and process often seem to be the tie that binds. Individuals who I know and respect have spent years working on documents like the Internet Rights & Principles [4] charter, a critical act of leadership within the Internet governance world, but something that does not exactly cut at the heart of human rights challenges facing Internet users in many countries every day.

In a session that our colleague Reem Al Masri dissected beautifully in a previous post [5], a representative from the Arab League explained that we cannot address human rights violations until we've determined a process and approach that all entities (governments, industry, and civil society) agree with. This is a bad answer—in so many national contexts, this is not possible. Organizations that claim to represent civil society could spend infinite quantities of time and money working to perfect process. And those who claim to represent civil society while working almost wholly in the interests of the government can continue to push state agendas. In the meantime, the fate of the Internet and the users that these organizations claim to represent will be sealed. National-level policy will move in whatever direction the more powerful government and corporate entities want it to—they understand how it affects them and they have the time, money, and institutional muscle to make things change.

At a broad scale, it makes me wonder what this means for Internet policymaking in much of the world. If those who claim to represent the public choose not to address the worst violations of human rights in their respective countries or regions, what will become of the world's most vulnerable online speakers?

I recognize that there are many pressing issues that bring people to this event, and I don't think it would be practical for all of us to focus only on those online speakers whose circumstances are most dire. But I fear that process and principles may be taking up more than their fair share of the agenda, while individuals most in need are getting short shrift. I don't know why this is, but I suspect that after years of attempting to work on Internet-related policy with bureaucrats and corporates, civil society has found that working on process and principle can lead to real outcomes, while trying to change blasphemy laws or surveillance practices feels like banging one's head against a wall.

Apart from a few statements of support for one initiative or condemnation of another, no policies or laws are actually made at IGF—the conference is literally all talk. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it depends on what you talk about.

If your organization has enough money to send you to Bali to talk about Internet policy for five days, do some talking that is worthwhile. If we attend IGF next year, I think we will make a point of listening to the stories of human beings, and working to protect the rights they need and deserve.