Activists, Lawyers & Journalists: Open More Space for Civil Society and Human Rights at IGF

We, the undersigned representatives of a group of global activists, journalists and lawyers from more than a dozen countries who attended and participated in the 9th annual meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) on September 1-5, 2014, in Istanbul, Turkey, as part of the Freedom House civil society delegation, make this statement at the meeting’s conclusion to highlight our positions and concerns.

A growing number of governments and non-governmental organizations, as well as the UN Human Rights Council, have expressed serious concern that civil society is facing increasing assault around the world, with authoritarian governments growing more bold and sophisticated in stifling individuals and groups that promote human rights, expose corruption, or otherwise give citizens a voice. In light of this, it is vital that the IGF work diligently to maintain and strengthen the equal participation of civil society, and refrain from using procedures — such as the UN principle of discouraging ad hominem attacks — as a pretext to stifle debate.

In a new report released last week, Freedom House described the IGF host country Turkey as a battleground state for internet governance, meaning that what happens domestically in Turkey sets a precedent for internet governance elsewhere. The state’s intensifying efforts to control the Internet in Turkey demonstrate many of the challenges to internet governance, and it is unfortunate that groups that wished to openly discuss this were forced to have these conversations in a separate venue due to UN restrictions on open dialogue.

We share the sentiment of the vast majority of IGF participants that, at this critical juncture in determining the future of the internet, the internet governance process can and should be improved. Furthermore, we stress the importance of upholding and strengthening the multistakeholder approach to ensure that the internet remains open, global, secure, and resilient. In calling for more protection of human rights online, our group makes the following recommendations:

1. Renew and extend the IGF mandate: We call on the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) and UN member states to strongly support renewing and extending the IGF mandate, which is currently set to expire at the end of 2015. We believe that short-term mandates hinder the ability of the IGF to fully achieve the outcomes that stakeholders involved in the process seek. The substance of the mandate should be evaluated and, where necessary, adjusted, through open consultation utilizing the multistakeholder approach. Over the past nine years, the IGF has provided one of the few venues for certain civil society members, who do not need to fear reprisals in their home countries, to directly address leaders in national governments, the private sector, and the technical community, particularly for participants who are blocked from engaging with government representatives and other decision-makers in their own countries.

2. Strengthen multistakeholderism through equality, diversity, and access: The 2014 IGF included numerous workshops on topics of human rights, including freedom of expression, gender, privacy, and access. Yet the value of this enterprise is undermined when governments can use the IGF to promote themselves, but civil society groups are forbidden by the ad hominem principle from criticizing them. Likewise, gender equality cannot genuinely be discussed when the vast majority of individuals at high-level meetings, delivering speeches, and participating on workshop panels are men. Access also cannot be addressed when remote participation fails to adequately provide two-way discussion from those who cannot attend in person. The IGF should include these voices not only to promote multistakeholderism and inclusion, but also to improve the quality of discussion and the prospects for solutions.

3. Expand transparency: For civil society to be an effective stakeholder in the internet governance ecosystem, more transparency is needed on the part of businesses and governments as well as the IGF itself so that civil society can play its role in holding other stakeholders accountable for their actions that affect the internet. We welcome the growing number of businesses that have issued transparency reports on government requests for user data and content takedown, and urge them to continue to improve and expand the detail and scope of these report. Governments should ensure that legal frameworks do not prohibit businesses from disclosing information necessary in a democratic society for holding states and non-state actors accountable.

Even as we highlight these challenges, we affirm that the 2014 IGF, with its open-ended consultative process, enabled individuals and groups to amplify human rights perspectives and concerns in the Forum’s sessions, as well as through side meetings, and we urge all stakeholders to continue to engage and participate in future IGFs.

Freedom House
Arzu Geybullayeva, Independent journalist, Azerbaijan
China Digital Times
Dalia Haj-Omar, Sudanese Civil Society Member and Human Rights Advocate
Digital Rights Foundation, Pakistan
Ei Maung, Myanmar
Erkan Saka, Istanbul Bilgi University, Turkey
Francisco Vera Hott, Lawyer and activist, Chile
Laksiej Lavoncyk, Belarus
Legal Aid Center for the Press, Indonesia
Center for International Law, Philippines
Liza Garcia, Foundation for Media Alternatives, Philippines
Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO)
Nighad Dad, Digital Rights Foundation
Prof. Asli Tunç, Turkey
Serdar Paktin, Activism Strategist, Turkey
Tetyana Lokot, Researcher and journalist, Ukraine
Thai Netizen Network
Unwanted Witness, Uganda