3 February 2017

Dr. Anja Kovacs from the Internet Democracy Project attended the Internet Governance Forum, 2016, at Guagalajara, Mexico, with the support of the Association for Progressive Communications. This post details highlights of the forum for her: there have been important gains in the debate with regards to gender and economic, social and cultural rights, but is the space for civil society at the cybersecurity table shrinking? Read on for more. This post was originally published on Association for Progressive Communications’ blog.

Thanks to travel support from APC’s Member Exchange and Travel Fund (METF), I was able to attend the IGF and its related events from 4 to 9 December in Guadalajara, Mexico. Though I had worked closely with APC on numerous occasions in the past, this was the first time that I attended the IGF since Point of View had become an APC member. And as has been the case on numerous occasions since then, at the IGF I once again realised how much value APC adds not only to the field, but also for its member organisations.

This is exemplified by the three trends at this year’s IGF that really stood out for me and that closely resonate with the work that the Internet Democracy Project at Point of View, with which I work, does.

The first trend: gender had firmly arrived on the agenda. In fact, gender was everywhere. And as so many of the people discussing gender and internet governance were experts, there was no space for tokenist interventions. There were simply too many people with deep knowledge of the issue.

Of special value was the Best Practice Forum on Gender and Access, chaired by Jac sm Kee, which went far beyond the usual infrastructural perspective to take a holistic approach to the topic, covering everything from online abuse over social restrictions to challenges of data – as well as infrastructure. The many connections that emerged as we looked at one issue from so many different perspectives and areas of expertise made me realise: we are now no longer simply speaking about gender in internet governance. We are really gendering internet governance.

The second trend: social, economic and cultural rights – though perhaps not labelled as such – were among the key emerging issues that found space in the agenda. The main session on human rights, which was organised by Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) members Jac sm kee and Ginger Paque and which I had the honour to co-moderate, focused on the issue explicitly. And it brought home so clearly: how can we NOT focus on social, economic and cultural rights in internet governance in an age when big data is collected everywhere? How can we NOT focus on social, economic and cultural rights in internet governance if we are serious about using ICTs to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? Indeed, if we do not look at internet governance from this perspective, ICTs may in fact further strengthen inequalities, rather than undermine them as the SDGs intend.

With the relevance of social, economic and cultural rights for internet governance so forcefully demonstrated by the main session, they suddenly cropped up everywhere: in sessions on big data, on development, on the SDGs. And I wondered: why haven’t we used the language of social, economic and cultural rights much more before (and why do so many more people do so now)? All too often, we focus on a development discourse rather than on the language of rights because it is simply more palatable. But speaking about development from a rights perspective adds a layer of depth and allows for the making of connections that merely talking about development can never achieve. IGF 2016 illustrated more than ever before that this is as true in internet governance as anywhere else. Against the background of the political climates in which we live in particular, seeing such broad agreement emerge on this point was more than heartening.

Finally, the third trend: cybersecurity issues were notable in the agenda mostly because of their absence. There were sessions devoted to cybercrime, for sure. But the hard-core, high-level cybersecurity issues – about responsible state behaviour in cyberspace, about questions around jurisdiction, sovereignty, territoriality, terrorism – were hardly discussed at this IGF.

In contrast to the two above, that is quite a troubling trend. We know that cybersecurity concerns are at the heart of the internet governance positions that at least some governments take on the global stage. Moreover, it is also amply clear that such positions and the broader debates in which they are embedded directly and indirectly influence discussions in fields that at first sight might seem to have nothing to do with them. Thus, for example, in one instance in the context of the WSIS+10 Review, there was a threat to axe all text negotiated on press freedom because there was no agreement on the treatment of cybersecurity in the same text (don’t worry, in the end that never got to pass).

The spill-over of cybersecurity debates into other ones that we have seen over the past few years was troubling in some ways, but it also brought with it an important advantage: it allowed civil society, which often isn’t allowed in the rooms where cybersecurity is being centrally discussed, to gain insight into the issues and positions at play.

With the WSIS+10 Review having come to an end, the number of venues in which civil society can benefit from such a spill-over also has tremendously reduced, however. The recently re-established Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation will be one of the few places where this dynamic might still play out. And so as cybersecurity discussions once again retreat into the hallowed chambers of the UN General Assembly committees and state-only venues at the ITU, civil society will be less, not more, informed about one of the most important internet policy debates currently in existence. It is in this context that the absence of the hard cybersecurity issues from the IGF as well is so troubling. The venues where cybersecurity is discussed are not accessible to civil society. The venue that is accessible, and where we have an influence, does not cover the debate.

But the positive trends I highlighted above (and also the way in which the community media debate emerged to the fore in this IGF) give much reason for hope. In all these cases, APC has played a pivotal role in getting these issues on the agenda and pursuing them doggedly until they received the attention they deserve. It has been inspiring to see this, and to understand even more, now that we are a member, how the entire network contributes to such successes.

And so I am wondering: can we as APC – together with our partners in other organisations and networks – do the same for the cybersecurity debate, and if so, how do we need to approach this?

What can we do to put cybersecurity issues, too, firmly back on the agenda of the IGF?

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