Written by– Reuters with Lia Timson, AFP
Big internet companies were the clear winners at a global conference hosted by Brazil on the future management of the internet where most participants agreed it should remain a self-regulated space free of government intervention.
Convened by Brazil President Dilma Rousseff after revelations of US surveillance undermined trust in the internet, the two-day NETmundial conference concluded that governments, companies, academics, technicians and users should all have a say in where to go next.
It follows a campaign by a UN-backed group to shift control of the multistakeholder coalition that has shaped internet policy for decades to a less US-centric arrangement. The US last week announced plans to relax control of ICANN, the not-for-profit body that assigns internet addresses and ensures the delivery of web domains.
Companies such as Google and Facebook say stakeholder input is essential to spur innovation, expand the boundaries of the internet and keep their businesses growing.
“Our focus is on making sure the net stays free and open,” said Ross LaJeunesse, Google’s head of international relations.
“The meeting was generally very good because it recognised the power of the multistakeholder approach and talked about human rights and the importance of innovation,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of the event.
But the Google executive considered to be one of the fathers of the internet debunked what he called the “myth” that it is controlled by the US.
While America played an outsized role in how the internet was run when it was founded decades ago, that has long since ceased to be the case, Vint Cerf said as the conference began.
“The USA doesn’t control the internet – that’s a myth,” he said.
“It may have when I was running the program 40 years ago, yes. But not anymore.”
Cerf said the United States does still play a dominant role in the domain name system but that is one “they have said they are prepared to eliminate,” he said.
Companies had voiced concern about governments using the NETmundial meetings to push for regulation and interference that could inhibit investment and ultimately harm internet users.
The gathering steered clear of backing calls to grant governments greater control over the net, as Russia and China were pushing for.
“There was a lot of anxiety going into this meeting by all of the groups,” said David Gross, a lawyer representing a coalition of companies including Amazon, Microsoft and Telefónica.
Internet companies fear government intervention could harm their business in fast-growing markets such as Brazil. After revelations the US had spied on her personal communications, Rousseff tried to force them to store data on Brazilian users in the country. The measure, which was eventually dropped as part of negotiations to guarantee passage of country’s Internet Bill of Rights last week, would have cost the companies hundreds of millions of dollars.
“The industry is satisfied,” said Virgilio Almeida, Brazil’s secretary for IT policy who chaired the meeting. “Google and Facebook see this as a very positive debate because it not only involves governments. It’s a debate that includes everyone.”
While it is unlikely the two-day conference in Sao Paulo will change the way one-third of the world’s population uses the internet, industry executives and government officials said they expect it will influence future debate.
The participants of NETmundial will meet again later this year at conferences organised by the Internet Governance Forum and the UN’s International Telecommunications Union.
“We are hearing from a lot of the participants the notion of building on the momentum that is created here and we strongly agree and support this idea,” US Assistant Secretary for Communications Lawrence Strickling said.