Hibernating NetMundial rattles internet governance world at Davos

Launch dumped, but ICANN boss stirs pot at elite conf

The controversial effort by ICANN and the World Economic Forum (WEF) to devise a new internet governance body may have gone into hibernation but it is still causing ructions.

The NetMundial Initiative ended 2014 on a torrid note, publicly rejected by what it hoped would be its biggest supporters. Before heading into the New Year, the body's "coordination council" was created but left with nothing to do.

A big planned launch at the WEF's Davos meeting this week was canceled and the council won't meet before March 31 at the earliest – and even then it will be two seats short.

Instead, the initiative will move into a three-month "consultation" in which its entire raison d'être will apparently be hashed out. Much skepticism remains. Many believe that the end result will be the exact same proposal pushed by ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade for the past six months, only with different-colored wrapping.

Even though the Davos launch was dumped, Chehade is attending the elite conference and has already ruffled feathers by continuing to promote NetMundial at a closed meeting of bigwigs.

"If we do not strengthen trust in the integrity of how the Internet is governed then, quite frankly, someone will do it for us, and that is likely to be government," Chehade told the room, according to a Reuters reporter who was present. His remarks reportedly were not popular and sparked concerns of an elite group taking charge.

Alternative?

Sensing an opportunity, one of the most critical voices against the NetMundial Initiative – the Just Net Coalition, a civil society activist organization – chose this week to launch a rival group that is not built around big business.

Just Net says its "Internet Social Forum" will "bring together and articulate bottom-up perspectives on the 'Internet we want'."

Its central purpose will be to "draw urgent attention to the increasing centralization of the Internet for extraction of monopoly rents and for socio-political control, asserting that 'Another Internet is possible'!"

It is also explicit in its desire to provide an alternative to the NetMundial Initiative: "While the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the 'Net Mundial Initiative' convene global elites, the Internet Social Forum will be a participatory and bottom-up space for all those who believe that the global Internet must evolve in the public interest; a direct parallel to the launch of the World Social Forum in 2001 as a counter initiative to the WEF."

While the group's aims and passions are clear, what is less certain is how it hopes to compete with the resources provided to NetMundial by its three founders – who, after some pressing, revealed at the end of last year that they was seeding the initiative with $600,000 and dedicating staff members to the effort.

As to NetMundial's three-month consultation period, that will seemingly be led by respected internet governance academic and ICANN Board member Wolfgang Kleinwachter. The NetMundial organizers did not reveal how much they will pay Kleinwachter to lend the initiative his credibility (Professor Kleinwachter has since been in touch to say that he will not receive any money for his efforts), but his first attempt to make the internet community learn to love the idea came in the form of a blog post at the start of the year.

In it, he argues that the NetMundial Initiative represents an "opportunity to enhance the existing mechanism by bringing additional expertise, knowledge, resources and authority to the process."

The controversial council can "stabilize the still fragile multistakeholder Internet Governance processes by demonstrating that a collaborative approach on an equal footing would enable the various Internet constituencies to bring solutions to problems via concrete projects on a case by case basis."

Yet even as an optimist, he remains unsure about its viability. "It remains to be seen how such a unique round table would work," Kleinwachter notes. "It is too early to speculate." ®

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