Will the real public interest internet please stand up?

13 Nov 2020 15:00h - 16:00h

Event report

The discussions centred around the meaning of a public interest Internet. Ms Bruna Santos (Advocacy Coordinator, Data Privacy Brazil Research Association) said that main contention points include the definition, complexity of the Internet, factors influencing the promotion of the public interest, and potential governance solutions. Mr Ramon Roca (President, Foundation for the Open, Free and Neutral Network) explained that the true definition of public in the case of the Internet means the same access and rights for all. We talk about numbers, but the bottom line is that minorities, as well as vulnerable, gender and different income groups have to be represented in the public interest and connected.

Continuing with the definition, Ms Mehwish Ansari (Head of Digital, Article 19) stressed that the most fundamental way to think about the public interest in the context of the Internet is to put the considerations of users, both individuals and communities, at the centre of not just the deployment but also of the design and development. Ansari asked whether the design of the Internet reflects the public interest. According to her, the political economy of the system is a capitalist environment with deeply embedded private interests. Marketing technologies like smart cities and surveillance as solutions to societal problems can actually undermine the solution of structural challenges. ‘There are definitely moments where the public interest and the private interest intersect and even align. But civil society needs to be there in the decision-making process to be able to question some of the industry-driven assumptions’, she concluded. Standardisation can open up design and development and challenge techno solutionism.

Mr Graeme Bunton (Head of Policy, Tucows) said that treating the Internet as monolithic makes us lose sight of the complexity, the plurality of ideas about the purpose of the Internet and the public interest. To reveal the public interest in such a complex system, we have to reflect the complexity of our approaches and think in terms of the layers and the functions of the Internet itself. For example, the public interest in the infrastructure layer is that it be robust, resilient, secure, flexible, and accessible.

Ms Farzaneh Badii (Director, Social Media Governance Initiative, Yale Law School) added that the term ‘public interest’ is a highly contested concept, often abused by states and other actors to reach their political or other agenda. ‘The government can just claim they are in the public interest and get away with it’, she stressed. We need to discuss the interest applicable to a globally distributed network, and understand the public interest as a globally distributed concept. This means looking at the various functions of the Internet, how and who conducts them, and what sort of public interest issues may rise. The public interest on the Internet cannot only be decided by the governments. She agreed with Bunt on that the public interest should be tackled across layers and functions.

An example of contested interests in defining the public interest was Save.org campaign. Mr Peter Micek (General Counsel, AccessNow) explained how numerous civil society organisations have pushed back against the sale of control over .org domain. The .org is clearly seen as the public interest by the civil society sector that ‘lives’ in this online space, which was not controlled by either a private company, profit-seeking company, or a government. ‘The Internet Society has controlled the public interest registry since it was created in 2003,and it is important for us to have this formal stamp of civil society control’, Micek said. He agreed with other speakers that the increased capitalisation and privatisation of shared Internet resources due to hyper-capitalism create a type of monoculture. Like Badii, he said that labelling something as the public interest, does not have to truly be such. We need stronger governance structures. In the case of .org, that means putting an adverse and representative panel of experts onto the board and ensuring the real power for the community.

The speakers also discussed the challenges for establishing common open spaces or securing the public interest. Should we have open ‘parks’ online, like public parks offline? Roca supported the idea, saying that citizens should be involved in building infrastructures and that ‘public online spaces’ can be a good alternative for securing the public interest. Ansari and Bunton reminded that one of the major challenges of civil society and users participating in building the infrastructure in the public interest is their lack of financial resources and knowledge to partake in the meetings of the global technical community. Badii noted that the public interest should be looked at a granular level, according to the function of the Internet. It is not only about participation, but about meaningful participation.