Internet governance principles in a changing international environment session at UK IGF 2013

This panel session looked at the role of Internet governance principles in maintaining the multistakeholder model. With the global IGF and other international fora all looking at what some are calling “constitutional” issues surrounding the Internet, existing and proposed principles are under heavy scrutiny, as stakeholders search for a set of common rules by which everyone agrees the Internet should be governed. The panel, including representatives from the business community, civil society, and government, familiarised the audience with notable national and international initiatives, and discussed with the audience how the UK can most beneficially advance the debate.

WHY DO WE HAVE INTERNET GOVERNANCE PRINCIPLES?

Panellists suggested a number of different reasons for why we should have Internet governance principles, including supporting UK business, and ensuring human rights on the Internet are not taken for granted. It was agreed that that there is a tension between the needs of business and civil society, and that principles need to strike a balance between the two.

It was also argued that principles, while not having the force of law, help to bind us together, and provide a context within which the Internet governance debate can happen. However, some noted with concern that principles tend only to be followed by countries and organisations that had a hand in drafting them.

HOW DO WE PICK BETWEEN PRINCIPLES?

At the IGF there will be an analysis of 28 different sets of principles from around the world to determine where there are elements of commonality. While this was seen as an important activity, some panellists were concerned about how a set of principles is selected for the list, and whether certain stakeholders will be excluded from the process.

It was suggested that the starting point for any selection of principles should be international law. Companies conduct business every day based on the understanding that international law will prevail, and principles should not be written in a way to jeopardise those rights.

DO WE NEED UNIVERSAL PRINCIPLES?

It was suggested during the debate that there is a global demand for universal Internet governance principles. Rather than continuing to support a proliferation of principles from different organisations and countries, we should focus our attention on a single set of principles that can be adopted by all; we need to quickly identify core areas of agreement and use the multistakeholder model to get them adopted. It was suggested that unless supporters of the multistakeholder model take the lead on this action the UN will do it for us.

Others suggested that we need to focus on domestic issues and that principles will necessarily be solutions to national concerns. However, there was agreement that the development of principles has a role in maintaining a single Internet, and buttressing support for the multistakeholder model.

ADVANCING THE DEBATE

While there was uncertainty over what the IGF could achieve in examining different sets of principles, it was agreed that it was a useful initiative and that the results could provide direction to the debate. It was also agreed that the UN has a role in helping both the development of principles, and also their adoption. However, there was no clarity on how the UN would fit into the existing processes for creating Internet governance principles.

There was a concern that the proliferation of principles could cause problems, leading to a devaluing of the concept. However, it was felt that this concern is outweighed by the importance of developing common points of reference, and that all stakeholders should continue to work with as wide a range of actors as possible, and avoid the development of a balkanised Internet.

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