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From Lima to São Paulo: ICANN, HASTAC, and the Marco Civil da Internet

This years’ HASTAC conference is taking place in Lima, Peru with presentations covering a large variety of topics related to internet, games, humanities, and digital media. Today, April 25, the program includes a keynote talk by Mitchell Baker, the Executive Chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation, who will be soon on the stage to discuss all things Mozilla and comment on the meeting she participated a few days ago in São Paulo, Brazil.

HASTAC’14 conference is happening at the same time NETmundial hosts the Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance in São Paulo. NETmundial was organized by the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee (CGI.br) and /1Net, a forum of international entities of the various stakeholders involved with internet governance. The conference includes contributions from several hundreds of individuals from nearly 90 countries and dozens of high-level official government representatives, academia, civil society, private sector, and representatives of the technical community like Mitchell Baker.

I have been involved with ICANN since the late nineties when I joined the ICANN At-Large. The At-Large community was supposed to represent organizations of individual internet users worldwide. It was a very exciting, if naive, period of the internet history. In 1999, in the early days of the e-democracy movement, the ICANN At Large Membership program allowed users from all over the globe to participate directly in the ICANN process. The program was an experiment that gave interested individuals a way to be informed and connected to the policymaking structure for the internet domain name systems. This all came to an end on March 14, 2002 in a public meeting in Accra, Ghana, when ICANN decided to reduce direct public (“at large”) participation.

Well, not all of it. In 2011 I joined the ICANN Non-Commercial Users Stakeholder Group (ICANN-NCSG) and have been following the discussions since then. The Global Multistakeholder meeting that happened this week in São Paulo was published in the listserv associated with the group. Coincidentally, this meeting on internet governance was held just a few weeks after the Marco Civil bill (Civil Rights Framework for the Internet), which was introduced in 2011, has made its way through Brazil’s National Congress after a long and somewhat painful process of public consultation.

The main provisions of the Marco Civil da Internet include privacy protections, the non-liability of ISPs (Internet Service Providers) for content posted by users, and most of all, the infamous net neutrality. The Marco Civil was approved by the Federal Senate of Brazil this Wednesday, April 22. The passing of the bill was received with great enthusiasm by the technorati in Brazil, a country where companies like Globo’s Virtua and Telefonica’s Vivo have arguably been practicing traffic shaping for years. Net neutrality prevents this to happen as telco companies cannot alter the bandwidth available to users based on the content their computers is exchanging.

This is also a hot topic in the U.S., where the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) proposed this week new rules for net neutrality. Under these rules companies like Amazon or Netflix would have to pay ISPs like Comcast for faster lanes to send video and other content to their customers. The proposal would create a de facto two-tiered system by allowing the introduction of different bandwidths for content providers. The Editorial Board of The New York Times published today a piece speaking out against the FCC’s proposal. The editorial board argued that the proposal would harm competition and inflate the cost of internet connection to consumers.

Meanwhile, back in the meeting in São Paulo, stakeholders also discussed the transitioning of the IANA functions to ICANN. This has been expected since the U.S. Commerce Department announced it would end its control of the domain name system root. At that time ICANN was called upon to convene the multistakeholder process and execute the transition plan. There has also been a considerable discussion on the ICANN’s ability to run a fair process given it has a huge stake in the outcome.

The U.S. government’s decision to relinquish management of the internet to the international community is a long-standing issue in the debate around internet governance. Compared to the nineties, internet governance has undoubtedly become more international, but it has not necessarily become more inclusive. I said my experience with ICANN in the nineties was naive because we believed in an open, worldwide, digital democracy. I remember receiving the ballots and passwords by snail mail and voting on ICANN At Large representatives. This framework of an internet democracy sounds particularly outdated in a context in which the public debate revolves around security and privacy. In a context where net neutrality is endangered and privacy is a long far-fetched dream, the idea of a distributed, digital democracy seems entirely alien.

Yet, against all odds, the outcome document issued by the NETmundial supports principles of horizontal participation, democracy, equality, openness, transparency, accountability, and a decentralized internet as global resource to be managed in the public interest. And this all happened this week.

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