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“We Don't Need No Governance”: Why the Internet Governance Forum Misses the Point

Internet Ungovernance Forum poster, used with permission.

Internet Ungovernance Forum poster, used with permission.

Billed as the highlight of the year on the Internet policy conference circuit, the UN-sponsored Internet Governance Forum is a supposedly indispensable annual meeting about the Internet and its future. 

Held in Istanbul in early September, IGF 2014 gave hope to many people in Turkey, particularly in the face of the country's deteriorating record on freedom of speechcensorship and digital surveillance. In theory, IGF 2014 offered these people the opportunity to speak out about critical problems in the country hosting the forum, as well as the chance to meet and exchange ideas with other activists, journalists, academics and coders from countries all over the world.

In practice, however, the voices of these activists were drowned out by the voice of the state, with government representatives alone given a platform to talk about the situation in Turkey. The UN, for its part, promotes a discussion that is general in character, shying away from “naming and shaming” individual countries. This year, it afforded Turkish officials the perfect opportunity to show just how “perfect” everything in the country is.

A different kind of forum

These limitations and a painful lack of attention to critical Internet policy topics inspired a small group to create an event that would run parallel to the IGF, held at the same time in the same city. In this way, the Internet Ungovernance Forum (IUF) was born.

The invitation letter for the IUF explains:

Today, it is more imminent than ever to strengthen networks of solidarity and connect struggles across the globe for the Internet we want. For this we envision the Ungovernance Forum to be a space in which we can discuss the problems and solutions of the Internet openly, with courage, and without shying away from conflict. To develop the program of the forum we have relied on our powerful but inevitably limited existing networks. We therefore invite all of you to use this event to expand our collective imagination and circuits of action.

Paticipants at the IUF wore t-shirts with the message “We Don't Need No Governance”, inspired by the Pink Floyd song.

One city, two agendas

IGF 2014 kicked off September 1 with Discotech, an event organized by digital rights organizations APC, Tactical Technology Collective and the World Wide Web Foundation. At the event, activists from around the world shared their insights and experiences about censorship and circumvention tactics.

The session was productive, offering participants the chance to learn more about how censorship is deployed in different settings, and how we can fight against it.

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Photo taken by Işık Mater. Used with permission.

Several Turkish activists decided to boycott the IGF entirely, but the organizers of the Ungovernance Forum thought that being there and running a booth calling on people to participate in the Ungovernance Forum was the better option.

Our choice was vindicated by positive reactions to our booth at the IGF. The first two days of the IGF gave the Ungovernance Forum the visibility it needed to attract people who otherwise would not have joined its activities. Thanks in part to the IGF, the Ungovernance Forum became an opportunity to mobilize broad international support and expand networks of solidarity between Turkish activists working in isolation and their counterparts across the planet. 

The Ungovernance forum featured a range of discussions designed to help participants focus on current challenges to openness online and future collective strategies for protecting the Internet from corporate and government overreach.

Participants were also able to use the Ungovernance Forum space as a free platform to launch and promote online initiatives:

There was little in the way of mainstream media attention for any of our events but having Julian Assange as speaker at the forum gave the event the attention needed to make front-page news in at least two Turkish newspapers. Turkey's active social media community remained an engine for spreading word about the Ungovernance Forum throughout the week.

An Internet nation?

Interestingly, one of the most important reactions to the Ungovernance Forum came from across town at the IGF in a speech called “Internet Nation?” delivered by leading Internet governance scholar Milton Mueller at the closing ceremony of the more celebrated event. In addition to thanking the organizers of the Ungovernance Forum — Mueller was one of several speakers that hopped between the two — he made an important point about the Internet as a decentralized organism:

Building on J. P. Barlow's “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” Mueller attempted to construct the concept of an “Internet nation”:

So maybe John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace is worth a second look.

Barlow’s idea that the internet was immune from control by existing governments has been discredited. But remember, Barlow drafted a declaration of independence. Such a declaration does not necessarily mean that existing nations have no power; it means that the residents of cyberspace want a distinct nation of their own.

You might laugh at that assertion. An Internet nation? What does it mean? Surely, everyone knows that nations are territorial, that the physical facilities of Internet service providers are located in a jurisdiction ruled by a government. Jurisdictions and laws are attached to Internet users as well. But these arguments carry much less weight than one might think.

While many of the participants at the IGF might share Mueller's vision, the IGF's focus on equal voice “multi-stakeholderism” — drawn from the language of corporate development — remains fatally flawed. In multi-stakeholderism, the state and the private sector inevitably allocate the biggest stake for themselves, leaving other stakeholders with just a slither. IGF skims over a range of content, without getting to the core issues of power and control that divide the Internet. The forum's “no naming and shaming” policy is in itself a form of censorship, qualifying what activists can and cannot say. 

If this is multi-stakeholderism or the closest thing to multi-stakeholderism in the real world, then this concept is useless to us. This doesn't mean that we should stop engaging with the powerful via advocacy and other channels, but we should acknowledge that this alone will not be enough.

Because while we are trying to change legislation, the state is surveilling everything we do, censoring websites and trying to re-erect old barriers. While we are doing our best to force companies to change their behaviour towards us, they are selling our information, entering into secret arrangements with governments, putting back-doors on our technologies and software, and preventing us from owning the tools we have. And when we offer them the opportunity to talk about common problems they do not allow us to talk, or they talk around an issue without really talking about it.

That is why declaring independence and fighting for it is important. As long as we do not put these stakeholders on the back foot, they will never yield to a true discussion. As IUF participant Asli Telli Aydemir noted, quoting Frederic Douglas in her blog piece  “Who is Evil?”:

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Or, to use the more provocative words of Jacob Appelbaum, who delivered a keynote speech at the IUF, in order to achieve the kind of Internet we want, it is necessary first to “conspire”.

Ahmet A. Sabancı is a Global Voices author and one of the organizers of the IUF

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