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7th Internet Governance Forum – so what?

2012 November 12
by breyan

From 5th to 9th of November, I’ve been in Baku, Azerbaijan where this year’s Internet Governance Forum was hosted. There were two reasons to be excited to go: first of all to experience “multi-stakeholderism” and “civil society participation” in “internet governance”, three buzz words that you rarely see in action; second, to visit the capital of a country that most people don’t even know where to place on a map or would consider visit one day.

On Monday the 5th of November, I attended the Global Internet Governance Academic Network (GigaNet) symposium. You can find the program and papers discussed here. The topics discussed ranged from the Internet Governance process in itself to the transfer market from IPv4 to IPv6 to the role of internet intermediaries as private law enforcers to deep packet inspection and political activism. At the same time in the afternoon, there was a very interesting workshop organised by Index on Censorship on the privatisation of censorship going on – so I spend my time moving from one room to the other. My own presentation focused on the discourse networks surrounding two bills introducing access blocking of sexual child images in France and Germany. The slides of the presentation are here and you can find the paper on the GigaNet website. The symposium was a great place to exchange thoughts about internet governance issues from a broad diversity of perspectives and get to know researchers working on related topics.

The Internet Governance Forum as such did not reinvent the wheel in terms of content discussed. Much of the issues were more or less familiar to me – although there were many sessions I couldn’t attend with over 12 workshops running in parallel most of the time. Some sessions were excellent while others made you wonder whether global dialogue would ever be possible. The richness of the IGF is certainly to bring a broad diversity of stakeholders together and to provide a space to discuss issues they care about.

True, there were many organisational issues (not enough internet access, not enough food, not enough water or coffee). The venue wasn’t ideal for interaction: the ambient noise was always present so that you could barely hear your neighbour speak and needed headphones to follow the debates (as one participants pointed out to me, this made it actually easy to ignore dissenting voices or interruptions), the coffee and lunch area was a long and unattractive corridor with near-to-no spaces to sit together around a coffee. There was nowhere to escape (except the annexe exhibition) as the expo center was situated a long way from the city itself.

Also, not all stakeholders were there: not all governments take it serious and send a delegation, not all civil society participants find funding to attend (plus what is “civil society”  anyway?), small and medium sized businesses are near to not present at all. Plus, the tone of the discussions is often very diplomatic so as not to offend anybody in particular (panelists were asked not to “name and shame” countries in particular – especially the host, activists were asked not to distribute critical material about the host country). There were the usual suspects or “internet governance stars”, in particular Vint Cerf , since 2005 Google’s “Chief Internet Evangelist”, who managed to be at a record number of sessions, sometimes in two parallel sessions at once. The European Commission was very present, making headlines after condemning Azerbaijan’s human rights violations and when two of its delegates indicated over twitter that their computers had been hacked while at their hotels. The private sector was mainly represented by US companies, with Google having representatives in many sessions but also Facebook and Microsoft being present.

Human rights issues were on top of the agenda with many sessions dedicated to them, including in their intersection with business and government. As I’ve heard from people who’ve been attending the forum since the start in 2006, this was the first time human rights issues were that prominent at the IGF. There continues to be debate on whether a forum that deals with freedom of expression and communication should actually be hosted in a country that has repeatedly violated freedom of expression. My personal stance is that particularly in such countries the forum can help shed light on practices that are too often ignored and never make it into Western media. For once, over 1600 participants to the forum and over 4000 following the livestream could listen to Azerbaijani activists’ and inform themselves about what was actually going on in this country. Of course, the restrictions do not stop because foreigners are there. However, awareness is a first step in the right direction.  Plus, it’s a great opportunity for activists’ to connect to the outside world and provide more detailed accounts of what will happend once the forum is finished.

For my own topic – internet blocking in liberal democracies – it was particularly useful to meet researchers and practitioners working in these areas. The content industry was there pointing out unemployment in the music industry due to increases in piracy, the child protection organisations were there arguing that blocking was “the least that could be done” as governments’ were not willing to spend more money on criminal prosecution and that the world was just “not perfect” with awareness and education campaigns not helping solve the issue, there were also the businesses trying to navigate between governments’ demands for stronger cooperation and protection and securing their business models and there were the hackers and geeks and freedom lovers arguing against any type of internet surveillance and blocking considered as ineffective and easy to circumvent. The whole range of the debate I had analysed in my research (see above) was represented, including positions I found hard to agree on. Some of the debates became quite emotional although it was also the first time I encountered the “technical community”, the folks working at ICANN and other organisations who focused mainly on the technical side of the network of networks.

The main question the IGF triggers is the “so what?” question: having 1600 people from 128 countries fly to a three-million city on the Caspian sea to debate internet governance, for what? There are no binding agreements coming out of the IGF. There are press releases, statements, twitter posts and reports. But no concrete action, no overarching agreement on the issues debated. Will there ever be agreement? What comes out of it? What is there beyond the debate? Beyond the connections that are made and maintained over the years? Should there be another IGF? Should the discussion continue?

This was the 7th forum. The focus on human rights showed that the discussion is evolving, the debate is shifting. Some issues are resolved, some compromises are made, new people come, others leave, some come again. The forum reveals the variety of interests in a global information infrastructure – the internet or what will come after it – business interests, civil liberties interests, security interests… It reveals that there is a need for debate, for discussion. That people want to understand what the internet is and the way in which it affects our lives, our modes of policy-making and governance. There is no easy solution, no one-fits-it-all answer to a  broad range of economic, political, legal and social issues. However, it shows that the issues are similar across the world, that we all want to protect our children, that we all want to communicate and that the issues behind “internet governance” are simply human issues: there are questions of power and control, of freedom and profit. It’s the question of what type of society we want to live in and what role technology shall play in it. There is no simple answer to this question.

After PIPA and SOPA, it’s back to ACTA

2012 January 26
by breyan

On January 18, websites across the world blacked out to draw awareness to the Protect IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Among the blacked out sites, Wikipedia certainly attracted most attention as did Google’s link exhorting users to contact their representatives. The protest proved successful in generating worldwide awareness and convincing politicians to withdraw the controversial bills (although the issue is likely to reappear in another bill).

Interestingly, the protest wave carries on since. The target has shifted from the US to the EU as 22 member states signed the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) today. The pressure is now on individual member states and, as usually in EU politics, on the European Parliament that can accept or reject the treaty. ACTA has been an issue of dispute since its secret negotiations were leaked to the public in 2008 via Wikileaks.  It is thus not surprising that activists try to leverage the anti-SOPA and PIPA fervor that still resonates with many internet users. It has been difficult to raise broad awareness on the issue in the past. Will activists succeed this time?

For Yochai Benkler, the SOPA/PIPA protest marks the success of a “new model of politics” – what he refers to as networked publics – that has won over the power of resource-rich buisnesses such as the US entertainment industry. The ACTA protest provides further insight into how global these movement has become (an argument discussed in my dissertation). Will the ACTA campaign be as successful as the SOPA/PIPA one? There is evidence that things are moving on ACTA: Demonstrations took place in Poland. The European Parliament’s website itself has been attacked by Anonymous this morning. The attack was vehemently opposed by La Quadrature du Net and Telecomix campaigners, who know that the EP is their only chance for influencing European politics. (An anonymous tweeter later on complained about DDOS attacks on the LQdN’s website!).

But why do some campaigns attract global attention and are more successful than others?

1. A clear issue, message and target

The SOPA/PIPA protest resembles the 2005 “No Software Patents” campaign that succeeded in lobbying Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to reject a directive aiming at introducing software patents to Europe (also marked by an internet blackout by the way). Compared to other campaigns (e.g. the Telecoms package reform of 2009, composed of five directives), the software patent issue was clearly limited in scope (one issue = software patents) and the opponents were well known (big software giants such as Microsoft). The SOPA/PIPA bills were similarly focused on a single issue (copyright/intellectual property rights) and the opponents were old adversaries from previous copyright wars (Yu, 2003).

ACTA might be more complex to analyse. Its focus is on counterfeiting and trade, the digital measures are only one part of the broader treaty. Additionally, the procedure for international trade agreements is far more obscure compared to national policy processes. After years of hidden negotiations and leaked documents, the message today is: “yes, the EU has signed but that’s just the beginning. Please call your MEP now!”. Not as convincing as “save the internet, call your congressman today!”. Convincing others to join this effort is not always easy as attests a twitter post from this morning:

OMFG Getting #Anonymous on IRC to read… & phone their MEP is like trying to explain @PascalNegre [the president of Universal Music France] why sharing is good !

Achieving policy impact requires effort. SOPA and PIPA have not been rejected simply because internet users blacked out their webpages or tweeted about the issue. This is one part of the story – or of the wider “ecology of protest” (Treré, 2011) consisting of various technologies and platforms used by activists. Effort means a threshold for recruiting new participants and forming a broad alliance.

2. Broad alliance – legitimacy

Next to concerned citizens, the SOPA/PIPA and also the “No Software Patents” protests involved a broad constituency including industry partners.The debate around SOPA/PIPA gained in momentum when Wikipedia decided to black out its site, a clear use of leverage politics (Keck and Sikkink, 1998) that allows weaker (or less visible) actors to call upon powerful actors to weight upon a particular situation.

For the “no software patents” campaign, small and medium sized free and open source software companies opposed US companies that didn’t enjoy good publicity at the time in Europe. The “David against Goliath” image was media-savvy and convinced many MEPs to change sides. Having industry actors involved allows to broaden the range of frames from civil rights and democratic procedures to economic and business-oriented claims. Arguments politicians love to hear, as I argued here. Sillicon Valley businesses did play a role in the SOPA/PIPA issue and immensly benefited from having civil rights arguments and the “moral authority” of citizens on their side. It’s all a question of legitimacy in the end. However, without industry involvement would both campaigns have had a similar outcome?

3. Online and offline

Finally, online protests alone are not sufficient for changing policies. Here, I’d like to come back to the notion of effort mentioned earlier. Internet activism suffers from recovering includes many forms of action, some of which require more involvement than others. Some forms allow to attract attention to an issue, for example petitions or a blackout. But for many activists and decision-makers, they are simply not sufficient to make a change. For complex policies such as the ones we are talking about here, institutional lobbying is generally required. Public concern is not sufficient for policy-makers, they need specialised input even more so when the issues are complex and interwoven as is the case of many internet topics. The necessity to provide expertise, collaboratively generated online, can lead to tensions and divisions within the movement (as shows the anonymous example at the beginning of this post) and the emergence of a few central hubs within campaigns. Organisational dynamics of online campaigns will be the object of the next blog post.

Post-doctoral fellowship at the Oxford Internet Institute

2011 December 8
by breyan

Since November 2011 I am working as a post-doctoral fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute in the UK. The Wiener-Anspach Foundation is funding the research. Currently, I am looking at the evolution of claims and narratives surrounding internet blocking measures in France, Germany, the UK and the European Union. The research aims at offering comparative insights on contentious action around internet regulation in the EU by focusing on the debates surrounding the introduction of website blocking measures to counter the spread of child abuse images on the Net.

Internet filtering or blocking is not just an issue in repressive states such as China. Increasing pressure is placed on ISPs to filter or block content in Western states as well. This may be for normative or moral reasons (e.g. child abuse images, gambling sites or hate speech), security reasons (e.g. the prevention of terrorism) or copyright enforcement (e.g. file-sharing sites). As argued by Deibert et al. (2008: 3 ), “The emerging trend points to more filtering in more places, using more sophisticated techniques over time. This trend runs parallel to the trajectory of more people in more places using the Internet for more important functions in their lives“. While there is general consensus on fighting child abuse for instance, internet blocking poses a series of legal and social questions, notably from a civil liberties perspective.

The cases I am looking at are the UK, Germany, France and the EU, which have all witnessed controversial debates about the blocking of child abuse images. The UK has chosen a self-regulatory approach that consists in ISPs blocking child abuse images when notified by the Internet Watch Foundation. In Germany, an attempt was made to introduce a similar system but did encounter strong opposition, notably from the socialist party (SPD) for constitutional reasons. A bill was introduced and finally adopted despite widespread opposition. Due to changes in the ruling coalition after elections, the website blocking measures have been abandoned. A new bill legislates that child abuse images have to be removed, not blocked, a claim that has been successfully made by the actors rejecting the bill in the first place. On the contrary, in France, opposition to the LOPPSI 2 bill did not succeed as the national assembly allowed the blocking of access to sites with “obvious” child abuse material, without judicial oversight on February 8, 2011. In March 2010, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström proposed a draft directive for “combating sexual abuse, sexual exploitation of children and child pornography” (COD/2010/0064). The proposal stirred vivid debate on whether blocking websites is an effective measure for reducing child abuse.

The idea is to map discourse coalitions and the various arguments that are used in favour or against internet blocking (of child abuse images in the present case) way in which frames are used, adapted and contested over time. I am particularly interested in comparing the frames and concepts mobilised across a series of countries and to see whether civil society advocates succeed (or not) in reframing the debate to their advantage.

“Hacking the Law”

2011 November 2
by breyan

From a research project on the internet and citizen participation it has become a 450 pages dissertation entitled “Hacking the Law: An Analysis of Internet-based Campaigning on Digital Rights in the European Union”. The dissertation was submitted to the Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres at the Université libre de Bruxelles on August 17, 2011 and successfully defended in public on October 22, 2011.

So here is the abstract of the dissertation:

Digital rights activism constitutes an exemplary case of how the internet’s affordances can be mobilized to engender political change. The values and principles stemming from the hacker imaginaire, and free and open source software practices, underpin digital rights activism, which uses the internet as a  tool, object and platform for the protection of rights in the digital realm. The analysis centers on how digital rights activists use and adapt the political affordances of the internet to intervene in European Union policy-making. Two original case studies of internet-based campaigning at the European level (the “No Software Patents” and the “Telecoms package” campaigns) provide in-depth insight into the campaigning processes and their impact upon parliamentary politics.  The cases highlight the complementarity of online and offline collective action, by examining processes of open collaboration, information disclosure and internet-assisted lobbying. The success of the “Telecoms package” campaign is then assessed, by providing the perspective of the targets: members and staff of the European Parliament.

The belief in values of freedom, decentralization, openness, creativity and progress inspires a particular type of activism, which promotes autonomy, participation and efficiency. The empirical evidence suggests that this set of principles can, at times, conflict with practices observed in the field. This has to do with the particular opportunity structure of the European Union and the characteristics of the movement. The EU favors functional integration of civil society actors who are expected to contribute technical and/or legal expertise. This configuration challenges internet-based protest networks who rely on highly independent and fluctuating engagement and suffer from a lack of diversity and cohesion. The internet does not solve all obstacles to collective action. It provides, however, a networked infrastructure and tools for organizing, coordinating and campaigning. Online and offline actions are not only supportive of each other. Internet-based campaigning can be successful once it reaches out beyond the internet and penetrates the corridors of political institutions.

If you’re interested in reading more about it; please drop me a line as I’m very keen on sharing my findings and discuss the analysis. I am currently looking at options to publish it very soon.

Communicating in the Media

2011 January 14
by breyan

This morning I was asked to participate in interMédias, a radio show that analyzes media on the Belgium french-speaking public channel, la Première. I had done some radio news during my time as a journalism student at ULB. Not much live broadcasting though, especially not with the audience of the RTBF!

The reason I was asked to participate in interMédias is the result of a series of encounters and makes me wonder about the relation between researchers and the media and how academics intervene in the media.

Less than a year ago, a journalist from Imagine demain le monde contacted me to prepare a cover on internet and politics, especially citizen mobilizations. I didn’t know where she found my name as I had not intervened publicly – besides academic conferences – on my dissertation subject previously. As it seemed a good exercise to communicate to a non-academic audience, I of course accepted. My supervisor François Heinderyckx had recommended me as he was interviewed for the issue.

Months later, I was contacted by GSARA, a ‘movement of permanent education’, asking me to speak at a reflexion day about the use of the internet for activism in September 2010. There I met not only a campaigner from the French-speaking Human Rights League who later on asked me to write a short essay for their Chronique but also a director from the RTBF. The latter contacted me last week asking for a meeting to prepare the televised version of interMédias. Shortly after our encounter, the radio then contacted me. And here I am, just thinking back about the broadcasted debate this morning.

It feels good to be able to share and discuss one’s research domain with journalists, knowing that they will report it more widely than any academic paper will ever do. This part of the exercise really satisfies some academic frustration, you know when you have the feeling nobody cares about the topic of your research. Finally somebody – and not just anybody – does seem to care.

However, as internet and politics is such a hype subject, it’s a real challenge to analyze it in the media. All types of activism are regularly mixed up together, the internet is not considered a ‘real’ space and ‘online’ activism less worthy than ‘offline’ action. Yet, there is an implicit fascination with the technology and its potentialities for democratic societies.

There are no easy answers to the questions posed by the use of media for political engagement. A discussion with a journalist is long enough to explain the phenomenon in some depth. A short essay can be rewritten and improved so that it reflects a balanced perspective on the issue. Radio and television is another story. What I like very much is the discussion style and the fact that different participants intervene and provide complementary perspectives. Also internet users can ask live questions and – maybe – receive a compelling answer. However, the time to answer questions to which I’d instinctively feel inclined to say ‘it depends’ (on the context, the actors involved, the tools used, etc.) is real short and probably asks for training. The question to which it comes down is basically how can you, as a researcher, explain a very complex phenomena in 1-2 minutes? I’m not sure I want to speak longer – what is more annoying than a professor monopolizing the attention for 20 minutes or more? It ultimately leads to finding the right balance between both as often.

Rencontres du Réseau « Démocratie Électronique »

2010 December 16
by breyan

I’m about to head to the Université Paris-Est Créteil to participate in the annual “rencontres du réseau ‘démocratie électronique’! Stéphanie Wojcik kindly invited me to discuss one of my papers: “Internet-Based Protest in European Policymaking: The Case of Digital Activism” that was published in the special issue on “E-Politics in a Global Context” of the International Journal of E-Politics (Vol. 1, Issue 1, 2010).

Sabine Saurugger from Sciences Po Grenoble will be my discussant. I am looking forward to her critical remarks and a constructive discussion. Interestingly, she will be presenting and commenting on my paper and then it’s up to me to react to her comments. Last year, this format functioned really well and engaged the audience in a nice discussion. For me it’s also a great opportunity to get in contact with French researchers working on the political uses of the internet. I feel that at times I’m far to focused on the anglo-saxon world. So I’m really looking forward to the comments and feedback, especially as my dissertation – which I’m currently writing – expands and develops upon various concepts found in the paper discussed here.

We will also be discussing a paper by Alexandre Dézé (discussant: Nicolas Hubé) on how the French extreme right party, the Front national, uses his internet site. I am looking forward to learning more about this topic!

See also the complete programme of the day:

Nexus: New Intersections in Internet Research

2010 December 13
by breyan

Amazing news! Feels like an early christmas present. My neighbour just rang the door and handed me over a package containing one of the most exciting objects I’ve ever received!

After over a year of hard work – planning, teaming up, coordinating, communicating, finding a publisher, writing, editing, editing, editing, editing – I can finally hold it in my hands! May I present:

Nexus: New Intersections in Internet Research!

Co-edited by Daniel Araya, Tessa J. Houghton and myself, it’s a most useful collection of chapters collaboratively written by 2 or more former Oxford Internet Institute SDP09 alumni! It is divided into three sections investigating socio-cultural, technosocial and political intersections in internet research!

Personaly, I co-authored chapter 9, Leetocracy: Networked Political Activism or the Continuation of Elitism in Competitive Democracy with the talented Nils Gustafsson from Lund University in Sweden.  In this chapter we point to the fact that successful forms of networked digital activism can be heavily depending on technical and networking skills. Rather than functioning as the base of more egalitarian politics, the growing importance of networked political activism aided by digital media may on the contrary create new elites.

Nexus comprises many promising approaches, analyzing gender and technology (Anitza Geneve & Carla Ganito), online photography (Eric Cook & Cristina Garduño Freeman), the geo-linguistics of Wikipedia (Thomas Petzold & Hanteng Liao) or the monetization of blogs in Malaysia (Julian Hopkins & Neal Thomas) to name just a few.

Check out all the details and order Nexus right here.

Nexus received already many praises:

«The talented young scholars behind this collection break new ground in examining emerging collaborative uses of the Internet and the impact of such use across a range of settings. Well-written and thematically coherent, this volume takes us deeper into the social implications of ICTs, while at the same time ably demonstrating the multidisciplinary and transnational character of the developing field of Internet studies.» (Peter Dahlgren, Professor Emeritus, Media and Communication Studies, Lund University, Sweden)


«In this volume, the Oxford Institute and QUT at Brisbane have brought together a virtual ‘dream team’ of doctoral students, many of whom are already highly accomplished researchers. The main value of this volume is its strong contribution to empirical research on the subject of Internet research along with a healthy dose of reality-check on the promises and warnings surrounding cyber-discourse. This is a stellar collection with talented editors and deserves a close look by Internet researchers, activists and advocates.» (Michel Bauwens, Founder, P2P Foundation; Associate Professor, ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation)

Internet, Politics, Policy: An Impact Assessment

2010 September 27
by breyan

Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend the OII conference “Internet, Politics, Policy: An Impact Assessment” in Oxford, UK. It was not only exciting to travel through the channel and through London and the English country side towards Oxford. Most of all, I was looking forward to meet my co-auhtor, François Briatte, with whom I had just completed a second article without ever having had a chance to meet him in person.

I stumbled upon François paper on the programme of the Siegen conference “Social Web – Towards Networked Protest Politics?” he was unable to attend. As our research interests seemed close, I send him an email and before I could think we were collaborating on an article together (you can find the reference in the publication section).

In January 2010, he contacted me via Facebook (we still hadn’t met inbetween) and off we were for a second round of internet-based collaboration. You can find the result here. Any comments are of course more than welcome as it’s still a work in progress we are planning to submit to the Policy and Internet journal.

Thanks to Sylvain Dejean, here you can find a summary of the presentation. And here you can find blog notes taken by Ismael Pena-Lopez during the sessions he attended at the conference.

Journée de réflexion "Clic démocraTIC"

2010 September 15
by YanaBr

Ce matin, j’ai été invitée à introduire la journée de réflexion “Clic démocraTIC” organisée par GSARA, en collaboration avec le CNAPD. C’était une première expérience et une bonne prise de contact avec une série d’acteurs de la société civile intéressés par l’utilisation des technologies à des fins politiques. Le panel sur l’activisme 2.0 m’a notamment donné l’occasion de discuter avec des représentants de Greenpeace, la Ligue des droits de l’homme et Amnesty.

Voici les slides de la présentation.

Je n’ai malheureusement pas beaucoup de temps pour approfondir les échanges de ce matin car je suis déjà en train de préparer mon intervention à la conférence “Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: An Impact Assessment” au Oxford Internet Institute demain. J’y présenterais un article co-écrit avec François Briatte qui s’intitule: “Digital Network Repertoires and the Contentious Politics of Digital Copyright in France and the European Union”.

Can Lah!

2010 July 27
by YanaBr

“With those two words Singaporeans express the possible.” It’s an affirmative expression and kind of the leitmotive of this blog. I started my PhD a little less than three years ago. For a long time, I played with the idea to create a blog. Should I? Isn’t it necessary for international visibility? I could start one anonymously or just keep my previous website, a somewhat static page I never managed to update regularly.

Today, I feel ready to communicate to the world. I’ve learnt so much in the last couple of years, not only academically but mainly grew as a person. I’m not yet sure what I can contribute to this giant conversation that is happening over  the internet. Will it be meaningful? Will it last? Will it be read?

As a kid I used to be fascinated by messages in a bottle thrown to sea. What intrigued me was the time it took for the bottle to arrive to a far away shore, to be eventually found one day and even more unlikely to be answered to.

Starting this blog feels just like throwing a bottle into the sea. The wide ocean of networked computer-mediated communication. Read it, hate it, comment it, ignore it…

Can Lah! It can be done!