Another problem, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Katitza Rodriguez recently noted, is that "still a large part of the world's population feels excluded from international Internet policymaking venues" -- even multistakeholder ones. That is because even though participation is in theory open to anybody, in practice only a limited number of groups from outside the developed West can afford the time and have the technical expertise, English-language skills, and funds to send people around the world to attend regular meetings. The result is that non-English-speaking developing-world Internet users are underrepresented in organizations like ICANN. According to Alex Gakuru, who was elected in 2009 to represent the African constituency in ICANN's Non-Commercial Stakeholder Group, when he first attended a meeting of ICANN's main policy-development organization, "I was the only black man." Then he joined a working group to represent noncommercial interests in resolving a particular issue in the domain-name system. Speaking at a recent conference in Nairobi, he described a frustrating experience:
They did not want me there, so they said things like, you don't have so many years of experience in ICANN; you just joined not so many years; you weren't here when ICANN was formed. So I said, "OK, in other words, nobody from the developing world is good enough to participate in ICANN? If that's so, why don't you just tell me and we can announce it to the board?' Then they said, "Oh no, you can join."
Groups like the Internet Society are working to address the diversity problem by sponsoring fellowships for engineers and members of civil society groups from the developing world to attend ICANN and the IETF meetings. They are also bringing developing-world officials to IETF meetings, where the Internet's technical standards are debated and agreed upon, to experience consensus-based policy processes driven not by bureaucrats but by a mix of engineers, business and government representatives, activists, and nonprofits. The hope is that many governments will become more supportive of multistakeholder processes once they have more experience with them. "The engineers say, we're not going to solve your political problems. But we have solutions to your technical problems," says the Internet Society's Wentworth. After attending a recent IETF meeting, she reports, officials from Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Cameroon started sending engineers to the IETF for the first time, when in the past their governments had only dealt with the U.N.'s ITU.
Even if multistakeholder governance organizations do grow much more diverse, another problem remains. With so many stakeholders from around the world espousing so many different interests and concerns, one still cannot be sure that the rights of the world's most vulnerable and underrepresented Internet users will be protected without a common set of values and core principles. This is why, argues the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Rodriguez, "human rights must form the baseline for any multistakeholder Internet policymaking." The problem is that "current processes do not guarantee human rights will be respected and maximized."
Here's where the United Nations is actually useful. While it is clearly the wrong organization to coordinate Internet standards and regulations, the world body has played an essential function in establishing a human rights framework for Internet policymaking on a global scale. Thanks in no small part to U.N. human rights-focused institutions, a global consensus is growing that the Internet's development must be grounded in the principles enshrined in a set of global human rights agreements, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its two associated covenants. In July, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution affirming that these human rights principles extend to the Internet. Last year, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, issued a seminal report on the challenges as well as the opportunities created by both governments and industry when it comes to online free expression. These documents are now being used by human rights advocates around the world as a basis for human rights-grounded policymaking that is increasingly difficult for governments or corporations to dismiss.
History has shown that all governments and all corporations will use whatever vehicles available to advance their own interests and power. The Internet does not change that reality. Still, it should be possible to build governance structures and processes that not only mediate between the interests of a variety of stakeholders, but also constrain power and hold it accountable across globally interconnected networks. Right now, the world is only at the beginning of a long and messy process of working out what those structures and processes should look like. You might say we are present at the creation.