The Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Mr. Edetaen Ojo has called on governments to accept the multi-stakeholder Internet governance framework as a regulatory approach, by establishing national Internet governance mechanisms that will ensure the full participation of all interested parties.
Speaking at the sixth Annual Freedom Online Conference, held in San Jose, Costa Ricaon October 17 and 18, Mr. Ojo noted that the current view among many governments is that the regulatory function is the exclusive preserve of governments.
Mr. Ojo spoke on “Digital Development and Openness: Best Practice” at the conference organised by the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC), an intergovernmental coalition established at the inaugural Freedom Online Conference held in The Hague, the Netherlands, in December 2011.
He contended that beyond adopting the multi-stakeholder Internet governance approach, there remained the challenge of how to perfect the idea, particularly at the national level, such that the concerns, perspectives and interests of ordinary citizens and civil society actors are factored into the regulatory process to advance a more balanced approach to the regulation of the Internet.
“We need to craft a model of how the multi-stakeholder approach should work in reality and practice at the national level,” he said.
According to him, the approach that African civil society organisations have taken in the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms is that National Internet Governance mechanisms should be established that will ensure the full participation of all interested parties.
Mr. Ojo suggested that such mechanisms should be in the form of independent multi-stakeholder bodies that will guide Internet policies at the national level, consistent with regional and global normative frameworks.
He said: “We do not want the multi-stakeholder model to just be an opportunity for ordinary citizens and civil society representatives to vent or sound off. We want to have a real possibility of imputing into the process with our perspectives and recommendations taken seriously, rather than appearing to be a ritual to fulfil all righteousness.”
Mr. Ojo began his presentation by making “a number of hypothetical proposals, which some people might consider quite outlandish, but which I believe merit thinking about in order for us to create the proper attitude that will get us where we need to be.”
He first proposed that “if Internet governance is to be truly democratic, then the character and indeed the future of the Internet should be determined by ordinary citizens everywhere, who constitute the vast majority of Internet users, in accordance with a basic democratic principle.”
He noted that in Africa, in particular, “those who hold political power and authority have very limited online presence and very limited real online experiences. In many cases, these people in power fear that many ordinary citizens are taking advantage of the Internet to empower themselves and are in fact becoming too powerful.”
Mr. Ojo contended that as a result of those, political leaders, acting under various guises, which may appear legitimate and genuine, such as the need to protect national security, or to ensure law and order, often make laws and policies which exclude and minimize the participation of citizens and other stakeholders in the process.”
Such laws and policies, he said, “frequently have the effect of limiting the potential of the Internet for the ordinary citizens, limiting the power of ordinary citizens and quite frankly, often holding them back.”
Mr. Ojo argued that both the real motivation of those exercising authority and the consequence of their legislative or policy interventions call into question the legitimacy of the process and its outcome.
He illustrated this by reference to the Cybercrime Act in Nigeria, arguing that: “In the 16-months that this law has been in effect, we have not seen cyber criminals being punished under it. Those who have been arrested, detained, charged to court, and remanded in prison custody have been individuals who have criticised government officials or other powerful figures online.”
Mr. Ojo also proposed that “decisions about how the Internet is governed or managed and other such arrangements should not be made offline but should be taken online, by those who are actually present and active in the space.”
According to him, “the present arrangements and processes appear very much like colonialism where people in offline communities are making decisions about the governance of those in online communities, about how they live their lives online.”
He noted that if the proposal was accepted and implemented, it would have the same effect as the first proposal, in that decision-makers in the online environment would become the ordinary citizens.
Mr. Ojo however acknowledged that “with the clear realization that ordinary citizens dominate this space and would easily overwhelm them, those currently holding political power and authority would never agree to this proposition.”
He then explained that civil society actors and ordinary citizens are not actually asking for these proposals to be implemented as he was merely using them to illustrate the fact that the current practice is untenable.
He said: “We understand that to achieve an Internet governance and regulatory framework that respects the rule of law and human rights and is consistent with democracy principles, the process is as important as the content.”
Observing that the argument is often made that Internet regulation should be approached with a human rights lens, he said the problem with the proposal is that “if you do not have a human rights lens, you cannot apply it.”
He contended that in Africa, governments and businesses typically do not have any human rights lens to apply.
According to Mr. Ojo, “For governments, at their best, they just want to maintain Law and Order and any collateral damage in achieving that is acceptable. At their worst, they want to suppress critical or opposing voices and sustain themselves in power.”
Given this premise, he said governments will brutally crush any and everyone seen as a threat to that goal as a result of which “they are simply not configured to apply the human rights lens.”
In the case of businesses, Mr. Ojo noted that “they mostly want to make money, so their primary consideration is not the human rights consequences of their actions.”
He said businesses were also not wired to be overly concerned about the human rights consequences in their endless quests for larger and larger markets.
But Mr. Ojo stressed that the roles of governments and businesses in Internet regulation are important, adding that “many citizens and most civil society actors understand and respect this.”
According to him, “we also think that the role of those whose primary concern is the protection of human rights is critically important and all of the actors have important roles to play in the regulatory process in order to achieved a proper balance of the various considerations.”