The NetMundial Initiative – ICANN and Brazil's plan to wrest the internet from the US and the NSA – is attempting a reboot by asking everyone what it should actually do.
An online survey, opened on Monday for two weeks, will be used to develop new "terms of reference" including what its focus should be, what work it should undertake, and what the role of its coordination council should be.
The survey follows a disastrous launch in November, where the three co-organizers – ICANN, NIC.br and the World Economic Forum – attempted to impose their vision of a multi-stakeholder internet governance body, and were repeatedly rejected by the technical community, business world and civil society.
Regardless, the organizers and in particular ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade pushed ahead in an effort to meet a planned launch of the initiative at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month. That push resulted in the creation of a coordination council, but in the process caused a big loss of goodwill and trust in the process and organizers.
The survey will attempt to rebuild trust and do what the organizers should have done in the first place: ask what gap the initiative can fill.
As well as asking what the council should do (such as organize outreach, build online platforms, produce progress reports etc), the survey asks the key question of what aspects of internet governance identified in the final statement of the NetMundial conference in April 2014 should be taken forward by the initiative, and how.
It also asks what the main deliverables of the initiative should be and gives a number of "suggestions" such as "serve as a neutral clearinghouse", "provide a neutral 'connection platform'" and so on.
Chance of success
Overall, the survey shows a level of openness that has been severely lacking in the organizers to date. The big question is whether it will be sufficient to bring the internet community on board.
In theory, the NetMundial Initiative is a good idea – exploring, among other things, how the internet should be run in the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations on mass online surveillance. It's just that is a gap between internet policy discussions and actual implementation of the policy outcomes.
While the so-called "multistakeholder model" has largely won a decade-long fight over traditional inter-governmental decision-making as a way to decide the future of the internet, those talks often fail to translate into actual work. It's just hot air.
The result has been a traveling circus of internet governance professionals who attend a seemingly endless series of global conferences – repeatedly characterized as "talking shops" – without any real movement. That situation was disrupted last year when Edward Snowden's revelations of the NSA and GCHQ's invasive spying on the internet started having a real impact on the way in which governments approached internet governance issues.
One upshot of that was the NetMundial conference in April in Brazil which attempted to build agreement on how to deal with issues such as privacy, freedom of expression, and general principles of internet governance.
The resulting statement [PDF] was hailed as a success but again failed to produce anything substantive. The NetMundial Initiative is intended to build some substance around that document. But its formation was spectacularly botched by self-interested organizers.
ICANN attempted to control the process – as it is frequently guilty of doing – even going so far as to propose five "permanent members" of the coordination council, of which it would be one, and decide who the other members would be.
NIC.br, as the Brazilian government's version of multistakeholderism, attempted to leverage its position and the fact it will host this year's Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to put itself at the heart of discussions.
And the World Economic Forum saw an opportunity to insert itself into discussions over the future of the internet, despite having no experience or history in the complex field, through its access to politicians and big business.
The result was an almost universal rejection from the many organizations that have been working on internet governance issues for more than a decade.
However, despite its very public rejection of the process, the Internet Society sees the potential advantages of a multistakeholder body focused on turning talk into something practical. Others, including the Chinese and US governments, have put their weight behind the NetMundial Initiative by putting senior figures on the council. Those groups are thought to have had a significant influence on the survey.
Long way to go
There is still a long way for the initiative to go, however. The organizers largely ignored a previous consultation and devised their own plans. While the survey is open-minded, its summary and implementation will be critical.
Skeptics fear that the same initiative will simply be relaunched with new packaging in several months' time. It's down to the organizers to demonstrate they have taken their public thrashing seriously.
Likewise, there are still questions over the organizers' seats on the council; the two unfilled seats; the money that the organizers have put in; the fact that the "secretariat" comprises staff members from each of the organizers; and lingering doubts over whether the organizers can resist influencing decisions in their favor.
The survey is online now and will be open until 16 February, 2015. A draft document from the results will be put out for public comment on 2 March, and then discussed at the council's first meeting on 31 March. ®