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11/06/2016

EuroDIG 2016: Internet governance is a political question!

This was my first time attending the EuroDig and after visiting the slovenian and croatian IGF initiatives, I was curious to see how the whole thing plays out on the european level.

Introduction

13396635_10156208718933647_755863748_oI’ve attendend the EuroDIG 2016 as a travel fellow of the Internet Society and I’ve arrived at Brussels on the 8th of June. Due to previous engagements I only had time for the pre-sessions on the 8th and the sessions on the 9th of June and did not attend the sessions on the 10th of June. Will plan better next time.

What follows are my notes related to the sessions I’ve attendend and some general thoughts on the event in the end. It was impossible for me to attend everything since this was a multi-track conference so I’ve went with the topics that weren’t covered on the local IGF meetings.

Session: Embracing the digital (r)evolution. Moderated open mic session

13383758_10156208717718647_844701177_oThis was awesome and not just because I got a reward for speaking up first. The moderator did an excellent job encouraging the speakers from the audience and it was wonderful to see what later became the reoccuring theme of the EuroDIG 2016 – internet is a political question. It is not a question about technology.

This became event more apparent when the local representatives from the Balkan region got together to discuss local challenges while realising that the main problem between the west and the east lies in the core definitions of privacy, internet development, governance. More on this at the conclusion of this report.

Session: How do transnational data flows affect users’ trust?

The session began by an opening speech by Commissioner Günther Oettinger which was faced with a silent protest from the audience related to the geoblocking debate and then continued as planned. This was again an open mic session and it was again interesting to see the general principles being debated with the audience being split down the middle based on their local/regional experience.

Especially interesting questions where posed by (in my opinion) the younger participants, questioning the core principles of the internet governance. It was also interesting to see the crucial debate between the concepts of privacy and security being debated as two opposing side of the same coin. More on this at the conclusion of this report.

Session: SEEDIG Messages

This was one of the lightning sessions and it was good to see the local chapters getting together, exchanging ideas and spreading the message. And it was especially great catching up with old and making new friends.

Session: IoT – A sustainable way forward

This looked like the most promising session of the first day but I was deeply disappointed by it. Everybody on the stage were overtly positive and excited by the promises of the internet of things development and products, while privacy and security took a back seat to the entire debate. This techno-deterministic excitement was especially visible during the remarks from the regulator representatives of the panel.

Although security and privacy did get an honorary mention and were also reflected from the questions posed by the audience, I still cannot shake the feeling that we are slowly walking into another techno-nightmare with dire consequences.  Mentioning privacy and security as something implicit rather than begin the main focus point seems to me a very dangerous way of ignoring them completely. Especially since it seems we are all very engaged in promotional campaign for the IoT products and services which are then reported as a colossal fail.

Regarding the IoT debate I think the main problem comes from the marketing department leading the IoT development where the tech and privacy activists come in at a later stage. Sticking a sensor and a camera in a kid’s toy and calling it a good thing is weird and dangerous. Sticking a bunch of sensors and an internet connection into a car is weird and dangerous. Promoting these types of products as exciting and new while only mentioning privacy and security problems in passing is just plain wrong.

One of the main problems of debating the future is that we are doing it with examples from the past disregarding the huge differences between the two periods. Internet has never been more intrusive, it has never been as omnipresent and it has never included more actors who have different goals. In the past the internet community was more coherent, it was more focused and it was more exclusive than today. Just take a look at the internet neutrality debate. Or the meta data debate. Or the ICAAN debate about the domain names. All things are not created equal.

We desperately need a scale of values. Is privacy more important than development? Is security more important than inclusiveness? Is democratic process more important than the results of the process even if the results are anti-democratic?

Wrap up and after-thoughts

13410717_10156208925273647_262729225_oEuroDIG 2015 was a valuable experience and I am very happy that I’ve attended it. It’s very interesting to see the intricacies of the internet governance debate on a European level, the level of dialogue between different parties involved and the positions expressed by interested parties.

As I’ve said in the beginning, the core message I think should resonate the strongest is that the internet is a political and not a technical question. Focusing on the political aspect of governance is to me the most important of them all since all the major problems of our time (net neutrality, surveillance, freedom of speech) are political and not technical in nature.

Furthermore I would like to see more people from the sector of political and social science attending these debates. I agree the tech community can and does offer a valuable input in these matters but I am afraid that the overal internet governance debate is too important to be left just to the techies.

When debating with different people before and after the EuroDIG sessions, I was constantly faced with the »ICAAN does not do that« reply which to me is a bit scary. Mostly because ICAAN is one of the few internationally respectable organizations with a very strong global presence which in my opinion gives it an excellent starting point in this debate.

Another recurring theme I’ve noticed is this fear of excluding specific parties from the debate. Namely people are saying the democratic process is more important than the goal of the process. Which can generate some truly scary results when you are debating people who have horrendous ideas.

The culture of the internet was build on basic principles which were agreed with the community. Since this community was reasonably small and focused they had similar (or should I say not completely contradictory views which did not undermine the basic principles) views on the regulatory and development matters and democratic process brought quality results.

With the expansion of community and introduction of opposing views everything changed. Since the ideas were opposing each other the level of consensus had to be lowered to accommodate that. Which is fine until the ideas were against the basic principles of the entire organization/community.  Where it all goes horribly wrong.

Final thoughts

Here are my final bullet points.

  • EuroDIG 2016 was a valuable experience. We need to talk more about the political aspects of internet governance and think of a way how to bring in more people from the field of political and social sciences.
  • We should stop debating security and privacy against the technological advancement but set a scale of values where some values are more important than others (call it the Maslow’s hierarchy of internet needs). I would suggest we start with rights of access, above it place the right of privacy/safety, above that place the right of development.
  • It was great to see young people attending the EuroDIG, especially since they were the ones that encouraged the political debate the most.
  • We should reevaluate the basic principles of internet governance and state them loudly and clearly. Process IS NOT more important than the final goal – keeping the internet free, open and for all.
  • Regional chapters are the best (if you are from the region). SEEdig FTW!

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