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Reflections on the Internet Governance Forum - Community Broadband Bits Episode 116
This week, Lisa Gonzalez interviews me about my recent trip to the Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul, Turkey. The IGF is an opportunity for anyone concerned with Internet Governance on planet Earth to discuss the perceived problems and possible solutions. It uses a multi-stakeholder format, which means that governments, businesses, civil society, and academics are all able to come to the table... this means just about anyone who has the means to participate -- including by doing so remotely -- can do so.
I went as part of a delegation with the Media Democracy Fund, along with six other grantees of theirs to get a better sense of how we can contribute and what we might learn from these international discussions. Lisa and I discuss my impressions, some of the topics we discussed, and why it is important for people in the United States to participate in these global deliberations.
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Thanks to The Bomb Busters for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Good To Be Alone."
Lisa Gonzalez: Hey, everybody. This is the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. This is Lisa and Chris. Hey, Chris.
Chris Mitchell: You know, you could say that a little more forcefully: THIS IS THE COMMUNITY BROADBAND BITS PODCAST.
Lisa: I could, but I don't want to step on your purview. You're good at that. What's going on, Chris? Where have you been? You've been gone for a while.
Chris: I've been all over the place, and I've learned a lot, as usual. But the most interesting place was probably Istanbul...
Chris: ... for the Internet Governance Forum -- what was that, two weeks ago, now, I think.
Lisa: Tell us about that. What was the purpose of the Internet Governance Forum?
Chris: Well, it's interesting. The Internet Governance Forum is something that I'm still trying to wrap my head around. This is a mechanism that allows what some call stakeholders -- the idea that anyone who has something to say, or has a stake in the way the Internet is governed -- which, I would say, is EVERYONE -- but it's a way to try and figure out how you govern something like the Internet, which is so large, it's beyond borders. We don't want to trust governments to do it. You know, you don't want Russia speaking for the people of Russia, because, frankly, I think Putin's interests are quite different from that of small businesses and people living in Russia. You also don't want businesses to be taking over all of it. You want to make sure that we have some input from everyone.
And so, there's this thing called multi-stakeholder-ism, or a multi-stakeholder process. The idea is, basically, once a year, everyone comes together and talks about key issues, in terms of Internet governance. This is everything from the way that the IP system works; to how we deal with child pornography; to network neutrality, which is a global issue; to all kinds of other things. So it's all over the place. And there's so much going on -- I think there was three or four thousand people there, in Istanbul.
Chris: It was a bit overwhelming. And I did not know enough about it before I went. I mean, I tried, I read up a bit. But you could -- I'm sure students spend years studying this sort of thing.
Lisa: Um-hum. Um-hum.
Chris: It's not just an international event. There's local governance forums. So there's regional. And then there's within states. And the idea is that these feed in over time. So, it's not just Istanbul. But it rotates from country to country. And, unfortunately, Turkey was chosen BEFORE it began cracking down on the human rights and Internet rights of Turkish people.
Chris: And so it was a bit ironic that we were talking about this wonderful thing, the Internet, which is about allowing everyone to communicate, and we were in a country in which people have been arrested and -- for communicating -- and YouTube and Twitter have been blocked. And this was something that came up at events around the IGF. But the IGF tends not to focus on the issues of any one country...
Chris: ... so we didn't really talk about Turkey within the IGF format. But because I was there with six other people who were doing human-rights-type work in the United States, working on connecting everyone with the Internet, and that sort of thing, you know, we made sure that we did meet with some of the people and learn quite a bit about what's happening in Turkey while we were there:
Lisa: Were there any particular issues or conversations that you thought were striking, that you want to share with everybody?
Chris: [laughs] There was a lot. There was so many. And I think one of the issues that I took away is the idea that we, as United States citizens, and as activists in the United States -- I think, many of the people who listen to this show are people who are actively working to improve Internet access for their communities -- we can't just ignore what's happening on the international stage. While I was there, there was this declaration. It was the African Declaration of Internet Rights and Freedoms, which, I believe, is on the Internet -- africaninternetrights.org or .com, I'm not sure which. [It's .org] And it's -- all these people in Africa got together and came up with this document. And they're trying to get African countries to sign on to aspects of it, to establish these norms -- that there should be freedom of speech, there should be freedom of, rather -- freedom of expression is typically what it's called, in most of the world. You know, these are things that as United States citizens, I think, we should be participating in, and making sure that when network neutrality and freedom of expression issues are being discussed at the international level, that there's some people there from the United States who represent people. Otherwise, it's just going to be representatives of AT&T and Comcast. And, unfortunately, a fair amount of the sorts of people that are funded by those big telecom carriers.
Lisa: Um-hum. Um-hum.
Chris: So we have this thing called civil society. And people who have studied international relations and political science and all that are very familiar with it. The idea of civil society is, basically, people who are with non-profits, people who just aren't part of business or government. And, to some extent, the people representing civil society at these meetings are the kind of people that we think of as just being in the pockets of the telcos. And so I think it's important that people like us -- and our group was organized by the Media Democracy Fund, which funds a lot of our work, ...
Chris: ... it's important that those sort of perspectives get sent to the international layer, because we don't want people, you know, discussing these issues and getting the sense that everyone in the United States thinks that whatever AT&T thinks is correct.
Lisa: Right. Absolutely. So, then, you said that there were representatives from different places and different regions. And, you know, in terms of how that interweaves with our work, were there other communities there that you knew -- that you heard of -- that had municipal networks?
Chris: Municipal networks are fairly unique to a few areas. The United States has a lot of them. Sweden has a lot of them. And there's a few scattered around Northern Europe elsewhere. But not that many, frankly, from what we can tell. Municipal networks really didn't come up much. But there were people there -- One of the people in our delegation was Matthew Rantanen, who we've had on this show previously. And, you know, he was there -- in part, helped to remind people that not everyone in the U.S. is connected. And so, when we're talking about strategy of how to connect everyone, we have to remember that only ten percent of people living on tribal reservations in the United States have access to the Internet. That's a staggering number. And Edyael Casaperalta, who runs the Rural Broadband Policy Group, and is a very close friend -- she does wonderful work -- you know, she stood up at one point and said, you know, people from the United States who are here representing the United States government act as though we've solved all these problems. But yet, 19 million people in rural America can't get access to the Internet. And, in fact, we're discussing whether or not we're even going to take telephone away from them....
07:04: ... because of the way things are changing at the state and federal levels of regulation. And so it was a good reminder. I mean, in some ways, both Matt and Edyael had this feeling while they were there, working with people from, you know, countries that we don't think of as being on par with the United States. But they felt more at home with them, because they're organizing around the same issues, and making sure everyone's connected, even though they live in, you know, what is the most prosperous country on the planet.
Lisa: Um-hum. Are there any particular thoughts or memories, or any particular striking events that you want to tell us about?
Chris: Matt and I did get a chance to see the city. And let me give you a little tourist's plug. I read somewhere that Istanbul is the sixth-highest visited -- or, you know, most tourist destination on the planet. And it's really quite remarkable. It's very easy to get around. We had a great time taking what they call the trams -- I just think of it as light rail. Took a lot of ferries. Went over to the Asian side. The conference was right in an area called Taksim Square, which is right near this open area where people are gathered all night long. It's really -- it was an incredible place to visit. And I highly recommend it.
But I think that one of the things I'll be thinking about for a while is something that came right out of the program, ...
Chris: ... which was this issue of what's called zero rating. Zero rating is something I hadn't heard of. Have you heard of it?
Lisa: No, I have not heard of that.
Chris: So, zero rating is where -- let's say that you want to expand access to the Internet in Africa, or in Asia, or in the ** of the United States as well. But the idea is, you have a population of people who, maybe, cannot afford access. And so you get them mobile devices. Now, Facebook may subsidize the cost of those devices, for instance, or another application. But Facebook is one that wants to do this very clearly. And a person then gets that device -- a phone, likely -- can access the Internet. But they have a broadband cap. They can only use it so much per month, and then it will start costing them more money. But all the stuff that they do on Facebook doesn't count against their cap. That's the zero, right?
Lisa: Oh. Interesting.
Chris: So, this is an issue of network neutrality, to some extent. And there's a big discussion over whether the benefits of lowering the cost to bring some people online -- even if they can really only access certain areas of the Internet -- a very limited portion, which means they're not actually on the Internet, it's more like a walled garden, ...
Chris: ... if, you know -- if the benefits of making sure people have some level of access, even if it's just a Facebook and a few other things -- if that outweighs the damage to the way that the Internet has historically worked, which is that if you're on the Internet, you can go anywhere.
Chris: And so, it's a pretty big policy fight. And there's, you know, some very strong feelings on both sides of it. And, you know, what it comes down to is that if we, who believe that everyone should have access to the full Internet -- if we're going to be taken seriously, we also have to be pushing for strategies to make sure that people have real access. Because in a lot of areas right now, I think people feel like they have to choose between no access or Facebook access.
Chris: And we need to develop strategies to make sure that they can choose between no access, Facebook access, and REAL access. Right?
Chris: I mean, we can't just say, no, don't do the Facebook thing, because that's harmful....
Chris: ... and it's ultimately going to give too much power to Facebook, and it's going to warp the way the Internet works. It doesn't work if we don't come up with some alternatives.
Lisa: Right. Absolutely. And while you were there, what contribution did you make to the Forum? Did you speak? Or....
Chris: You know, I added one comment in one session. I talked to people a lot behind the scenes. And did a lot of -- I met a lot of people who are doing really great work. And one of the things that I did feel strongly in speaking up about was -- there was a panel about network neutrality and economic development. Which is to say, if you embrace network neutrality policies, will that result in more Internet investment or less Internet investment?
Chris: And I stood up to make the point that in the United States, the entities who are investing in the best networks -- municipalities, Google, companies like Sonic -- these companies have no interest in violating network neutrality. And they believe in having the Internet work the way it has worked historically. But the ones who most want to violate network neutrality -- the big cable companies, AT&T, Verizon, those guys -- they're the ones that are really trying to limit investment.
Chris: You know, they want to shovel money to shareholders.
Chris: They don't want to actually invest in better networks to the extent that they can avoid it. And so, I stood up to make that point, that I think it's important. And I wanted to ask the question of -- is this a dynamic that we see elsewhere in the world? And it wasn't really -- I didn't really get a very good answer. I don't know that -- I probably didn't make a very good job of making my point, frankly. It was a bit intimidating, being there among all those people ....
Lisa: Oh, I'm sure. Right.
Chris: ... and feeling... That, and, also, I'll just say that I did feel there were entirely too many comments from people, you know, from the United States. A number of the panels devolved into people from the United States sort of being angry at each other, or going back and forth....
Chris: ... when the audience was filled up with people from all around the world. They didn't come here to see a U.S. argument.
Lisa: Yeah. I was wondering about that. I was wondering if the panels would consist of a larger percentage of people from the U.S., when, actually, we are not up there in terms of having the best, you know -- I mean, what do we know....
Chris: Well, ....
Lisa: ... compared to what other places in Europe and, you know, different places are doing?
Chris: Well, there's definitely different approaches. I mean, I'll just say that we know quite a bit, having developed the Internet....
Lisa: Sure. Well, sure.
Chris> ... but we've also made a lot of mistakes, that we should have learned from, many of which many people haven't learned from, I think.
Lisa: Um-hum. Um-hum.
Chris: But, yeah, there is just this United States dominance that, I think -- people from the United States need to figure out when we can contribute best, and also when we should shut up, and sit back, and let other people from other countries talk about their issues, and figure out what their need are. I mean, for instance, if I went to a panel on network neutrality or zero rating, there's bound to have a lot of people from the United States.
Chris: But I went to a panel on the Internet as an engine for economic development. And it was almost entirely people from Africa, people from Asia. There was very few people from the United States.
On other issues, maybe, for instance, on issues of gender equality, and Internet, and how it's related, you know, those panels had very few people in them as well.
Chris: And so, there was definitely a mix of interests and what not that I found interesting.
And let me just say that one of the things that I found most interesting was really being told in stark terms that security matters, in a lot of areas. It's not just a matter of cost for getting on the Internet. There's also an issue of security. In Pakistan, many women have been murdered because they were organizing for a better life, and people from the Taliban hacked their cell phones, figured out where they were, and then murdered them.
Chris: That's really hard to hear -- and horrifying. Because we think of security as sort of convenience in a lot of ways....
Lisa: Right. Protecting your bank account.
Chris: Right. Exactly. Not protecting your life or your family.
Chris: And there's an issue also in Africa, where people are, you know, concerned if they make financial resources available online, is that going to be -- are they just going to disappear?
Chris: So, there's a lot of issues that relate to expanding Internet access around the world, but I think I didn't really realize how important they were. And it's interesting to get a better perspective of it. You know, I didn't get a sense that municipal strategies are going to be all that appropriate in many countries in the near term. I know that some cities in South Africa, and, I think, maybe, Brazil, may be interested in working on this sort of thing. But I think they're often interested in trying to figure out how to offer like a free Wi-Fi or wireless kind of experience ....
Chris: ... as opposed to actually competing with, you know, at the high level, with a super-fast, reliable network, and that sort of thing. So it will be interesting to see. And I don't know that every city around the world has to get interested in this. I mean, I think the reason we've seen so many U.S. cities doing it is unique to our regulatory environment, and where our companies are -- the big telephone companies, and that sort of thing.
Lisa: Um-hum. Um-hum. Planning on going back?
Chris: You know, I would very much like to stay a little bit abreast of what's happening around the world. And I think that it's really important that, as we worry about the outsize rule of some communications companies, in terms of how they may distort the way the Internet is developing, we have to be aware of what's happening around the world. They're global corporations, in many cases. And if we're only paying attention to what's happening in the United States, then we're missing some of the strategy of what's happening internationally. And we're also missing the fact that there are allies all around the world who we could be working with and learning from, and that sort of thing.
So, it's in Brazil next year. I don't that I'm going to have an opportunity to go, but I'm certainly going to be paying closer attention to these issues.
Lisa; There's more on the Internet Governance Forum at intgovforum.org. You can also sign the African Declaration of Internet Rights and Freedoms at africaninternetrights.org.
Send us your ideas for the show. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets. This week we want to thank the Bomb Busters for their song, "Good To Be Alone," licensed using Creative Commons. And thank you for listening.