Internet industry seen as winner at global conference in Brazil

Net Neutrality protest at Google HQ. Mountainview, 2010. [Steve Rhodes/Flickr]

Big Internet companies were the clear winners at a global conference hosted by Brazil on the future management of the Web where most participants agreed it should remain a self-regulated space free of government intervention.

Convened by President Dilma Rousseff after revelations of US surveillance undermined trust in the Internet, the NETmundial conference concluded that governments, companies, academics, technicians and users should all have a say in where to go next.

That is exactly what companies such as Google or Facebook say is essential to spur innovation, expand the boundaries of the Internet and keep their businesses growing.

“Our focus is on making sure the Net stays free and open,” said Ross LaJeunesse, Google’s head of international relations.

“The meeting was generally very good because it recognised the power of the multistakeholder approach and talked about human rights and the importance of innovation,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of the event.

Companies had voiced concern about governments using the NETmundial meeting to push for regulation and interference that could inhibit investment and ultimately harm Internet users.

NETmundial called for less a US-centric Internet, but it steered clear of granting governments greater control over the net, as Russia and China were pushing for.

“There was a lot of anxiety going into this meeting by all of the groups,” said David Gross, a lawyer representing a coalition of companies including Inc, Microsoft Corp and Telefónica SA.

‘The industry is satisfied’

Internet companies fear government intervention could harm their business in fast-growing markets such as Brazil. After revelations the United States had spied on her personal communications, Rousseff tried to force them to store data on Brazilian users in the country. The measure, which was eventually dropped, would have cost the companies hundreds of millions of dollars.

“The industry is satisfied,” said Virgilio Almeida, Brazil’s secretary for IT policy who chaired the meeting. “Google and Facebook see this as a very positive debate because it not only involves governments. It’s a debate that includes everyone.”

While it is unlikely the two-day conference in Sao Paulo will change the way one-third of the world’s population uses the Internet, industry executives and government officials said they expect it will influence future debate.

The participants of NETmundial will meet again later this year at conferences organised by the Internet Governance Forum and the UN’s International Telecommunications Union.

“We are hearing from a lot of the participants the notion of building on the momentum that is created here and we strongly agree and support this idea,” US Assistant Secretary for Communications Lawrence Strickling said.

Part of that momentum was facilitated by the US government’s decision to relax control of ICANN, a California-based non-profit that assigns Internet domains. While mostly symbolic, the move is widely seen as an overdue step toward a globalized administration of the Web.

Governments, industry and rights campaigners are engaged in a global battle to shape the Internet as formal and informal policies emerge to assert control over an increasingly powerful media.

At the heart of the battle is a concept known as 'net neutrality'.

Net neutrality has only recently become a choice phrase in EU policy but Internet governance hit the EU radar in 2005 when the UN began to address the issue.

>> Read our LinksDossier: The global battle to rule the Internet

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