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Human Rights 27 September 2011

Philadelphia 2.0: Do we need an Internet Constitution?

1787, in the backdrop of a revolutionary war, bankruptcy and looming threats both domestic and foreign, delegates from the confederated states gathered at Philadelphia for a landmark convention that would engender the United States.
Unanimity on the structure of governance and the separation of powers for the future republic was a delicate and very difficult venture and entailed compromises that didn’t please all parties that gathered for the convention.

Today, an interesting rationale was raised at Workshop 144 sponsored by the Council of Europe; Human Rights First: A Constitutional moment for Internet Governance. The Council of Europe had formulated principles that member states and other stakeholders could abide when coming to grips with Internet Governance (IG). In a nutshell, these principles encompass human rights, multi-stakeholderism, responsibilities of states, universality of the Internet, decentralisation, openness, linguistic diversity, security of the Internet and chiefly but not the least the empowerment of the Internet user. In spite of the Council’s commendable efforts to lead the way in formulating sound precepts that IG players can both adopt and adapt, not everyone agrees on these set of principles and core values. Geographic, social, economic, political and cultural considerations sometimes get the better part of many stakeholders’ outlook. Different players view these principles in variegated and sometimes very ambiguous ways and what one principle may infer for some, could be entirely interpreted differently by others.

Are there certain principles that can coalesce and gain traction amongst IG stakeholders? A so called ‘patchwork’ of principles? An epithet coined for there is no better word to describe such a convergence of principles. This was a significant issue discussed back and forth in the workshop. Assuming the patchwork materialised amongst various stakeholders and a common ground ( hard to come by) was achieved would this translate to a codified living text that enshrines these principles? This was a very thorny issue as some IG actors loathe the idea of having an authority visualised as a centralised global government that will oversea the vast network of networks. Others would also argue that the multifaceted nature of issues dealing with the Internet Governance require a more formal framework in tackling them. These arguments are incessant and would hardly be surprising if they featured in future IGFs. To have a constitution or not is best left to IG stakeholders to iron it out.

For now a Philadelphia 2.0 may not be in the offing right here in Nairobi but do expect protracted looming debates for or against an Internet magna carta.

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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