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International effort to wrangle t'internet from NSA fizzles out in chaos

Is it time to put web governance effort out of its misery?

The launch of the ICANN-Brazil-led internet power grab dubbed NetMundial has been cancelled for a second time, raising questions over its continued existence.

NetMundial was dreamed up in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations of blanket global surveillance by Uncle Sam's NSA and the Brits' GCHQ. The governments of Brazil and other nations are so incensed by the spying, they want a new way of governing the internet – ideally, one without the US and UK ruling the realm like kings.

It is not going well.

The program's coordination council was supposed to meet for the first time in Costa Rica on 31 March to discuss a draft "terms of reference" drawn up from comments provided by the internet community.

However, following a distinct lack of interest that not only led to the comment period being extended twice but also saw around a quarter of commentators post hostile responses, the meeting has been cancelled.

Even the creation of the council itself was a struggle, with a number of organizations refusing to engage, and a small number of nominations submitted.

The problem lies in the fact that no one is sure why the initiative exists, with one representative noting: "It is difficult to suggest any of the principles as having a natural 'home' in the NetMundial Initiative as all of the issues mentioned already have 'homes' in various institutions and processes - and in most cases they have a global mandate for those issues."

Others were more blunt: "NMI's CC [Coordination Council] does not seem to have any substantive role to play. Obvious lack of interest among CS [civil society], academia, and tech communities to submit nominations for CC, and replies to this (extended deadline) consultation seem to confirm the previous assertion."

The March meeting cancellation follows an earlier cancellation in January. Initial plans were for the council to meet in Switzerland on 19 January, just ahead of the annual Davos conference run by one of the co-founders of the program, the World Economic Forum.

But following public rejection of the initiative by, among others, the Internet Society, Internet Architecture Board, International Chamber of Commerce and parts of civil society, the meeting was postponed to allow for public consultation on what it should actually do.

Bit of a draft in here

Since January, a subgroup of the council has been meeting weekly to develop the terms of reference from submitted comments. But minutes of those meetings have shown a split, with some council members arguing for developing and publishing a "terms of reference" (ToR) from what they have received, and others pointing out that the very small number of responses would make any such document meaningless.

"If we only have 25 replies/comments we can not be trying to claim global community support to do X, and that will just open the whole effort up to criticism," noted one council member at a meeting.

Even at its meeting last week, the council subgroup couldn't agree on the format of the terms of reference, or its content, or even its rationale for existing.

Reflecting the controversial nature of the program and the aggressive comments received, one subgroup member representing the European Commission's Andrus Ansip complained that the draft summary of comments was too "defensive." "The second page is about what we are not doing rather than what we are doing," he noted.

A key reason behind the decision to cancel the March meeting is believed to be the refusal of the US government to send its Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. "I would not recommend the US Secretary of Commerce attend the Costa Rica meeting based on our discussions so far," her representative told the group last month. "We have 19 comments with no analysis; this is not enough to have the Secretariat draft the ToR."

The involvement of Pritzker has been repeatedly used by the co-organizers to bolster the NetMundial Initiative's credibility following a highly critical reception from the internet governance community.

The initiative has never recovered from a botched launch back in November. Then, the three co-organizers – ICANN, Brazil's and the World Economic Forum – announced they would give themselves permanent seats on the council along with two other permanent seats held for the technical community and the Internet Governance Forum.

That approach goes directly against the open and inclusive approach of internet bodies, and led us to describe the initiative as a "UN Security Council for the internet." While the three co-organizers have taken their seats, the two other seats remain notably empty. ®

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