Internet Security

The Future of the Net was in Brazil… And Then It Left

When NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden offered to help Brazil investigate US spying allegations in return for asylum back in December, the country was at a bit of a crossroads. Still smarting from the revelations that the communications systems of its president Dilma Rousseff had been hacked by the NSA, the Brazil Government could have understandably opened its arms to Snowden and yet, despite the temptations and the flood of anti-US feeling at the time, Rousseff declined the invitation.

Instead, Rousseff took another path. She wanted to start a process of internet governance, an attempt to wrestle control of the internet in Brazil away from US tech giants and the US government, as she saw it. She was not alone. It’s an issue that dates back to 2012 and the UN World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai where a powerful US lobby that included Google, Cisco, Microsoft and AT&T came to virtual blows with the ITU over the telecoms body’s plans to propose help for poorer countries, so they too could derive benefits from communications technologies.

While last week’s NET Mundial conference in Sao Paolo on the future of the internet was not intended to openly oppose the US and the NSA’s supposed dominance of the internet, the preamble and discussion document referred to freedom of expression, information and privacy. Avoiding arbitrary or unlawful collection of personal data and surveillance was also mentioned. It couldn’t be more obvious and no one would begrudge the country from a bit of finger-pointing and mockery in the direction of Uncle Sam, although internet founding father and Google executive Vint Cerf said last week the idea of US internet control was a “myth”.

NET Mundial for one had an impressive list of attendees from across the globe, a mix of academics, government representatives, businesses, NGOs and internet thinkers, including Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who made the keynote speech.

“I am asking web users around the world – not just us in this conference room today – to define a global Magna Carta for the internet,” he said. “That’s why I am asking countries everywhere to follow Brazil’s example and develop positive laws that protect and expand the rights of users to an open, free and universal Web.”

It was well received but I guess we’ve heard it before, at least the sentiment. This event was meant to galvanize global influencers into action around that sentiment but reaction has been mixed. Despite Rousseff using the conference to sign Brazil’s own legislation protecting internet privacy and guaranteeing open access to the web, there have been rumblings of discontent, certainly over the way in which the conference set about forming its Multistakeholder Statement document.

Civil society representatives in particular have been active online in the aftermath of the event, openly criticising the document. Groups such as The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Association for Progressive Communications claim there was too much compromise and too little about anti-surveillance, the very trigger for the conference in the first place. There was a lack of acknowledgement of net neutrality and a fear that a lack of text ensuring due process safeguards could undermine the rights to freedom of expression and privacy.

Too much to ask? Probably, given the scope of the stakeholders and the time limitations. The document was never going to please everyone, what international document ever does? However, the lack of surveillance discussion is surely a concern.

Not according to Neelie Kroes, vice president of the European Commission, it seems. Understandably supportive and political in her reaction, Kroes said that NET Mundial “has put us on the right track,” and that “the concluding declaration document adopted by acclamation proves that a global multi-stakeholder approach can produce concrete outcomes.”

Maybe this is the key achievement, actually getting all these important stakeholders into one small room in Brazil at the same time to discuss the future of the internet, with only a handful of Edward Snowden masks being waved in discontent?

While the document may have been a bit too watered down to suit everyone’s taste, Kroes does have a point. You have to start somewhere and if a multi-stakeholder approach is the future of internet governance then it’s going to take time, lots of baby steps and not an insignificant amount of compromise.

But herein lies another problem. Compromise smells of interference, lobbying and vested interest. After all, the NSA is not going to stop using the internet to spy on people; it’s just going to work harder at making sure it doesn’t get caught.

So while NET Mundial may indeed be a catalyst for global change, certainly on human rights for internet users, it is also a reminder that the world doesn’t work like that. Not everyone lives in a democracy. Levels of freedom and free speech vary from country to country. Can the internet really succeed in overcoming all the ingrained injustices, monopolies and idiosyncrasies of the world?

Of course we know the answer to that already. The US Federal Communications Commission, with spectacular timing, has already put the boot in on net neutrality. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that proposals for new rules that would allow companies to pay for faster access to their websites and services, effectively creating a two-tier internet, are expected to be announced in the next few weeks.

So we’ve seen the future of the internet in Brazil. It’s the internet of the present and it’s going to take a lot of NET Mundials to make all the issues of surveillance and human rights a thing of the past.


Marc Ambasna-Jones is a freelance writer and communications consultant that has written about technology trends and issues for over 24 years for national newspapers, consumer and business magazines. He can be found on Twitter @mambjo.


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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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