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Internet Governance 28 April 2014

NETmundial: Variations on a theme–multistakeholder consensus building in action

By Kathryn BrownFormer President / CEO

The NETmundial conference ended on a high note late Thursday night with the reading of the NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement. The conference was not without contention on a number of issues but the spirit of the event was inspiring and enormously promising. There was a serious and significant effort to find common ground among a diverse group of stakeholders–governments, civil society, public sector Internet companies, technical folks, and academics. The document was carefully created through a homegrown process and reflects, perhaps imperfectly, but nevertheless powerfully, the concerns and aspirations of the participants.

The process was unique in many ways–a draft document was prepared ahead of time based on thousands of comments from more than 180 distinct commentators.  The conference involved a two-day discussion of the document’s contents at an open microphone. Representatives from all participant groups, including governments, lined up at microphones to comment on specific parts of the draft document. With participants watching, an editing team worked to incorporate the comments. An executive committee managed the process and a high level committee composed of members of the various stakeholder groups were called upon to give a first review of the text. And, in the final plenary session, stakeholders who disagreed with the outcome were given an opportunity to air their concerns publicly.

NETmundial highlighted a multistakeholder approach that caused parties to work with each other in a way that was novel to all parties, while combining elements of IETF meetings, U.N. meetings, and even the usual Internet conference with panels of “experts” giving presentations. The NETmundial model was created by the organizers in a way that reflected their own sensibilities around a central commitment to inclusion AND a strong intention to produce a tangible outcome. The time was short and the work was important.  What seemed to provide the momentum toward success was an extraordinary spirit of cooperation and mutual respect.

Given the challenges, what is rather remarkable is the level of consensus reached and the quality of the document produced. The document was described as representing “rough consensus,” a non-binding outcome and it is the case that not everyone was happy with every part of the final statement. There were a number of important issues that needed to be left for another day, but the principles and “roadmap” presented provide a coherent template for further action.

In the next few months, the Internet community will engage in discussions on WSIS; we look forward to the IGF in Istanbul; and we will have a number of opportunities to discuss the transition of the IANA functions. These meetings give us the opportunity to continue to practice and perfect the multistakeholder cooperation demonstrated in São Paulo to get things done.

The conference was a celebration of Brazil. It highlighted a committed, smart, and very capable group of Internet savvy government officials, business professionals, and civil society activists. Developing country stakeholder groups were well represented; indeed, many participants from ISOC Chapters from around the world–including those participating in HUBS remotely–were engaged, compelling, and ready to take charge of their own destiny.

I believe the conference sparked a renewed appreciation for what a multistakeholder process could produce. I imagine that its innovative approach will be studied and replicated in part and in whole throughout the world in our collective efforts to build a global, secure, trusted Internet for all the world’s people.  Congratulations NETmundial for showing us a way forward.

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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