The digital rights community is increasingly enclosed within spaces running on private donations.

RightsCon, along with the IFF and re:publica, are becoming the 'go to' forums for conversations on internet governance.

This article argues that there is a need to preserve public spaces such as the IGF, as critical alternatives for civil society.

                                                              By Deepti Bharthur

The pool deck of the Laico, a sprawling grand hotel in Tunis, may seem like an unlikely gathering place for the digital rights community – a brethren that cut its teeth on struggles organized through anonymous chat rooms and public libraries. And yet, it was there that they had gathered in large numbers: activists, policy professionals, researchers, government representatives, donors and tech corporations, at the tune of almost 3,000 people.

Since it was first convened in 2011 as a closed, invite only event in Silicon Valley, RightsCon, an event dedicated to ‘human rights in the digital age’ has evolved into a massive annual three day jamboree, growing both in attendance and scale. This year alone saw over 450 sessions spanning 16 themes such as AI, automation, online hate speech, privacy, data, plus two whole days of pre-event activity.

In the eight years its been around, RightsCon, organized by Access Now (an international non-profit organization working on open internet issues) has become the last and perhaps most important of three pitstops for actors working in the domain of digital rights and internet governance). The first being the Internet Freedom Festival (IFF), an ‘unconference’ organized every year in Valencia, Spain followed by re:publica, which claims to be ‘the Most Inspiring Festival For The Digital Society’ organized in Berlin.

What all these events have in common, besides a discernibly woke nature and an emphasis on being edgy (for good measure, this year’s RightsCon offered a lounge space embellished with Tunisian rugs and bean bags, actual tents with floor seating that served as session venues, and yoga sessions in the morning), is the massive amounts of funding they receive from large private tech corporations. A cursory glance at this year’s funding for both RightsCon and the IFF will show Google, Microsoft, Mozilla in the ranks, along with other standard actors in the donor community. While sponsorship information for re:publica is not easily available, a post acknowledging close and long-standing partnerships with the likes of “Daimler AG, IBM, Microsoft, Deutsche Bank, Deutsche Telekom, Google, Deutsche Bahn AG, Telefonica, and Mozilla...” indicates that the case may not be so different.

The fact that events such as RightsCon are privately organized or financed are not by any means an indictment of these spaces themselves, or of the value they bring to the discourse on digital rights and policy. But the increasing primacy of these platforms suggest a worrying trend, something that civil society would do well to pay attention to – that of the privatization of the digital policy space.

To put this in context, last year at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Paris, themed around the Internet of Trust, I found myself at a small after hours meeting in one of the annexes of the UNESCO headquarters. The one hour session, hastily put together a couple of days before the event, was set up to discuss opportunities for civil society coordination ahead of RightsCon. It was there that concerns were echoed, and not for the first time, about the repercussions a shrinking IGF had for civil society and the growing presence of big business.

Concerns were echoed, and not for the first time, about repercussions a shrinking IGF had for civil society and the growing presence of big business.

“Last night, they had a party in one of the oldest buildings of Paris...the entire building was rented out,” said one of the people present at the meeting as a preface to the discussion. ‘They’ being here the International Chamber of Commerce, one of the largest business organizations in the world whose members include major tech companies.

Fancy parties aside, the issue at stake was that a very lean workshop program, and lack of day ‘0’ in the event programming that could have made room for side-events and strategy meetings, civil society’s participation at the multistakeholder forum, organized annually under the auspices of the UN, had decidedly become diluted. The purported solution towards this: coordinating efforts for dialogue at spaces like RightsCon to compensate, or better, give the IGF a miss altogether.

Stemming from the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) process, the IGF was established as a way of encouraging and fostering multistakeholder dialogue around issues of internet governance, and bring together a broad spectrum of actors from civil society, government, private sector, technical communities and so on. As a goal, multistakeholderism in internet policy has been at the centre of most civil society struggles in the domain. To have a seat at the table, and to make our perspectives heard alongside state and market actors is crucial, especially today, when Internet Governance has long passed the time where it was about technical management or about decisions to be made about standards and guidelines.

But there has been growing disillusionment with the space IGF offers. For sometime now, the efficacy of the forum itself has been repeatedly called into question – given that by design it is a space that is process and not outcome driven, which makes it in the view of many, analogous with inaction. This, combined with the increasing influence of the private tech sector, who bring in powerful and coordinated presence and strategies to bear upon the forum, is neutralizing any potential for other voices such a forum may have.

The result of these manoeuvers has been that multistakeholderism in digital policy increasingly devolves into a representation charade, where without irony, civil society must now bear the responsibility of actively needing to solicit private sector inputs and voices in order to claim ‘diversity of views’, if it wishes to be heard in the first place.

Of course, corporations should be listened to, and have their interests represented as key stakeholders. That is not in question here. But the crucial difference between public and private interest cannot be forgotten. It cannot be the case that multistakeholderim can be interpreted to suggest that corporations have equal public interest, especially when their voice and influence is already disproportionately dominant.

In this context, RightsCon and its ilk may seem like just the alternative spaces for engagement that civil society needs, given the large tent they offer for cross-learning and dialogue, and the very diverse spectrum of actors they bring together. But ceding a critical global venue such as the IGF to a forgone conclusion of irrelevance is not the answer.

The criticisms of the IGF formal processes are undoubtedly well warranted and need attention. However, it is equally important to acknowledge the infiltration of big tech capital into private global fora such as RightsCon or the IFF. The dangers of co-option and dilution of agendas become further exacerbated if all free and open spaces for civil society to debate and intervene in digital policy only exist if they are privately financed by tech companies going forward. 

It is equally important to acknowledge the infiltration of big tech capital into private global fora such as RightsCon or the IFF.

Civil society needs these spaces also to keep lines of communication open with corporations. But we also need spaces outside of their influence, to fully and meaningfully engage with the issues at hand, something that the IGF can still be salvaged to represent despite its many structural deficits as a platform.

The process of multistakeholderism cannot be painted in lieu of stateism, as has become alarmist thinking, or allowed to become perverted by private interests in the ways that it increasingly becoming. Multistakeholderism needs to be broadened, politics need to be expanded and new constituencies need to be considered, as the lines between the digital and non-digital grow fuzzier.