By Marilyn Vernon |
Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are a key player in the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance. However, civil society has been absent from discussions on the technical coordination of the internet domain name system (DNS) mechanisms.
Accordingly, on January 8, 2015, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) organised a workshop in Nairobi, Kenya to encourage more African civil society participation in the organisation’s work.
At the workshop which was attended by over 50 participants from private sector, academia, civil society, and the technical community, Adam Peake, ICANN’s Civil Society Engagement Manager, noted that at the core of ICANN’s functions was the bottom-up community based consensus which promotes inclusive engagement from the global community to keep the internet open, secure and inter-operable. This gives rise to many critical issues relating to human rights online, including privacy, access to information, freedom of expression, transparency and accountability, areas in which CSOs have extensive expertise.
Peake called for more meaningful CSO participation in ICANN processes and for their increased contribution to internet governance discussions and the development of solutions to align technical processes to government accountability and public interest.
Some of the critical issues for civil society engagement in ICANN came to the forefront during ICANN’s 50th meeting held in London in June 2014. At the meeting, the Council of Europe raised concerns about ICANN’s policies and procedures regarding global public interest and the protection of human rights. The Council cited states’ awareness of their responsibility to protect the human rights of their citizens including the right to freedom of expression; states’ attention to vulnerable groups; and the need to strike a balance between economic interests and other objectives of common interest, such as pluralism, cultural and linguistic diversity. As a result, recommendations were made for developing an ICANN human rights review process and reporting.
Since then, the Cross Community Working Party (CCWP) on ICANN’s Corporate and Social Responsibility to Respect Human Rights has been created. The party aims to address several concerns, including the inclusion of a reference to human rights in ICANN’s Bylaws; defining public interest objectives; and developing a mechanism to safeguard human rights.
While recognising that CSO participation in ICANN processes is critical, participants at the Nairobi workshop highlighted various challenges. For Africa in particular, there is limited knowledge of the operations of the domain name industry. There is also limited awareness of the role and responsibilities of governments in the ICANN policy development process that cuts across national policy areas such as internet security, development, and freedom expression.
Dr. Bitange Ndemo, the former Permanent Secretary in the Kenya ICT Ministry, said the exclusion of African CSOs from internet governance policy making process limits regional and international cooperation, decreases dialogue at the national and regional levels, and discourages strategic stakeholder partnerships. As a result, an environment in which stakeholders suffer from a lack of understanding and mistrust is created, which undermines citizen-centred socio-economic public policy development.
African civil Society engagement in public policy frameworks to support the evolution of the internet takes place in various platforms. These include the African Network Information Centre (AFRINIC), the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), and the Internet Society (ISOC). Other platforms that enable civil society contributions to Internet Governance include regional Internet Governance forums like the East African IGF which, Kenya, Burundi and Uganda have hosted in the past.
In order to transform the DNS and internet industry in Africa and provide regional support, ICANN launched the Africa Strategic Plan (2016-2020). Participation in ICANN is facilitated through advisory committees, supporting organisations and working groups such as the At-Large Advisory Committee (ALAC), which is structured by region and serves the African region through the African Regional At-Large Organisation (AFRALO), Non-Commercials Users Constituency (NCUC), Non Commercial Stakeholders Group (NCSG), and the Not for Profit Operational Concerns Constituency (NPOC).
Currently, there are 41 African civil society groups participating in the AFRALO, 80 members in the NCUC, two members in the NCSG executive committee, and additional African representation in the various supporting organisations and advisory committees of ICANN.