If you do a Google search for Top Internet Women, you learn that Justin Bieber was once ranked at number 7. You can also find listicles of everyone from Beyoncé to Madonna, Avril Lavigne to Paris Hilton. But what about the women who devote their professional lives to the way the Internet is run? Google didn’t seem to count them as “Top Internet Women”, so, I decided to create my own list. My top Internet women are from all over the world, and from diverse backgrounds: civil society, government, academia, law enforcement, technical, law.
Two weeks ago, I asked 23 of the Internet’s most influential women for their answers to two simple questions:
- What is the single greatest opportunity facing Internet governance today?
- What is the single greatest threat?
Commissioner Neelie Kroes replied:
“The greatest opportunity is the chance to keep a single open internet, a global platform for great innovation and creativity. Its governance should be just as transparent, open, multistakeholder and globally balanced. The next two years will be critical in redrawing the global map of internet governance. and I want Europe take the lead in defining a credible way forward for this process.
“As digital agenda Commissioner I have long fought hard to keep an open, single Internet driving positive change - helping Europe’s economy and society. For me, the greatest threat is different countries going their own way, leading to fragmentation or breaking up the net. We have to avoid it. And having a truly global, open and multi-stakeholder conversation about the way the internet is governed is the only way to
How far did the other top Internet women agree with Commissioner Kroes? There was overwhelming support for multistakeholder governance as the way forward, particularly from women in Africa. Top Internet women agreed that Internet governance will have to evolve, create more balanced participation by all stakeholders. They also share fears about fragmentation of the Internet. However, few others mentioned a desire to have Europe take a lead.
Our Internet women’s top 3 opportunities were:
- Seize the moment to enhance people power
- Access for all, access to knowledge, innovation
- Improve collaboration between all stakeholders
The top 3 threats were:
- Governments – greater governmental control is not the answer to trust issues
- Fear, and over-reaction to online surveillance will create collateral damage
- Lack of affordable, open access to the Internet
Top Internet women: opportunities for Internet governance
1. Seize the moment to enhance people power
Sustained news coverage of online surveillance made 2013 a challenging year for Internet Governance. Concerns over surveillance are clear in the EU Commission’s recent Communication and may spark the “redrawing the global map of Internet governance” predicted by Kroes. The top Internet women agree. People power (or multistakeholder governance in the jargon) needs to improve. This is true for both ICANN and the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Some look on the bright side, saying that this “heightened global attention” creates an opportunity “to refine multistakeholder approaches” (Laura DeNardis, Professor at the American University in Washington DC). But improvements need to be real, not just “form only” (Pam Little, former Senior Director at ICANN). There’s hope that new blood will be free of the “history of antagonisms with those of opposing views” (Sam Dickinson, writer and public policy consultant). One of the challenges is to achieve “participation of all stakeholders on an equal footing with balanced representation” (Manal Ismail, Egyptian government), a reference to the small circle of people currently involved.
African top Internet women voiced genuine enthusiasm for open governance processes. “I am a member of a region where women don’t always have a voice and even when they voice their views, they rarely get heard. The multistakeholder Internet governance model has given women in my community the opportunity to voice their views and ideas. It has made them actively participate in Internet governance issues in a way that enables them to be heard and make a difference for posterity. The single greatest opportunity is to be heard and have your view considered.”
Dr Rasha Abdulla of the American University in Cairo had a similar message – open processes “all carry a promise of more citizen inclusion rather than governments inclusion”.
2. Access for all, access to knowledge, innovation
Kroes’ point about the Internet as a “global platform for great innovation and creativity” resonates with other top Internet women, especially those from Africa. Broadband access is “fundamental in content creation and unleashing the creativity, innovation and the sharing Ubuntu Spirit of Africa! (Nnenna Nwakanma of the Alliance for Affordable Internet). Others highlighted “the ease with which information is received and shared” (Ugandan blogger, Ruth Aine Tindyebwa) and “open innovation” as key opportunities. Others talk about the Internet’s potential to bring out the best in humanity: “Human curiosity, intellect and empathy make us hungry to live more lives than the one we have, and the Internet lets us do that. I’d like to see us applying those qualities more to how we actually govern it.” (Maria Farrell).
3. Improve collaboration between all stakeholders, say top Internet women
Amelia Andersdotter of Sweden’s Pirate Party, and the youngest MEP in the parliament, calls for us to “break free of the nation state centric rhetoric, and for legislators and executives to focus on genuine cooperation” on Internet standards. Two British senior law enforcement officers, Sharon Lemon and Charlie McMurdie, agree.
Top Internet women: greatest threats to Internet governance
1. Greater governmental control
Surveillance and loss of trust were on the minds of our top Internet women. They are concerned that these revelations increase existing tensions between countries (Sam Dickinson), and that “pursuit of narrow political objectives…could result in irreparable damage” to the Internet (Heather Dryden, Chair of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee). They warned against “way too much power afforded to governments” and use of the Internet “kill switch” (Rasha Abdulla). Fiona Alexander, of US Government’s NTIA warned that countries are using disclosures about online surveillance “as an excuse for cutting off or disrupting the free flow of information”.
2. Fear and over-reaction will cause collateral damage
Commissioner Kroes fears that “countries going their own way” will cause “fragmentation” of the Net. Likewise, Marilyn Cade warns that “rather than strengthening…existing mechanisms, some are enamoured with starting over”. It’s distracting from the core mission, and “fewer folks are showing up to do actual work”. Another risk is loss of goodwill.
Avri Doria cites “impasse and rat holes due to aggressive accusations and defensiveness” as a risk. Olga Cavalli cautions that “fear and anger paralyses the possibilities of opening a broader dialogue that includes new voices”. Fear is also pedalled by “lobbyists with a narrow corporate point of view and a back pocket full of convenient factoids”, according to Maria Farrell. Kathy Kleiman warns against creating “rules that punish all Internet participants as if they were commercial speakers” and the risk that we “doom the freedom of communication of those who will follow us”.
3. Lack of universal, affordable, open access
If not a divide, there’s a different emphasis from top Internet women from (or working in) developing countries. They perceive the same trend – towards greater governmental control – but predict the harm will be felt in “lack of universal, affordable, open access” (Joy Liddicoat, Valeria Betancourt, Jac sm Kee, Mallory Knodel of APC). Similar sentiments are expressed by Alice Munyua and Nnenna Nwakanma.
4. Other comments
Naturally, the comments do not all fit into need categories. For me, some of the most thought-provoking contributions stood alone. Amelia Andersdotter MEP says that privatisation of law enforcement is causing international tension. She sees American and European legislators and executives as “unwilling to carry the responsibility of upholding the law, human rights and due process”. Sharon Lemon observes that there is a “very small number of people, some with vested interests, making decisions about the framework of our future existence.” Manal Ismail explains the real difficulties inherent in creating effective multistakeholder governance. Desiree Miloshevic explains how easy it would be to break the trust that the public have in “just using the Internet”, if there was a major outage of the domain name system.
Top Internet women, including Commissioner Kroes, perceive that we are at a crossroads. That the potential for harm and collateral damage is great. But this has ever been the case with Internet governance. For as long as I remember, there has always been a looming fear on the horizon, that will lead to take over, loss of freedom, greater government control. Revelations of online surveillance have harmed public trust. They have increased the visibility of current Internet governance mechanisms to senior policy makers.
What do these new eyes see? A small circle of participants featuring in a large number of processes; industry has a central role in funding these mechanisms, and has a powerful voice – too powerful? Where is the legitimacy? Where is the real accountability? Multistakeholder governance sounds great on paper, and our top Internet women continue to have faith in it, but we all need to do better. Otherwise, we might just as well hand it over to Justin Bieber.