The Multilateral Outcome of NETmundial

by Jennifer McArdle


Tension is increasingly mounting over the future governance framework of the Internet. The Internet Governance Forum came to a close last week, and Internet stakeholders are beginning to look to October’s Internet Governance Telecommunications Union (ITU) Plenipotentiary with anxiety. As the U.S. prepares for October’s meeting, it would be wise for them to look back to April’s NETmundial meeting. NETmunidal provides an informative example of a concluding meeting statement that does not necessarily reflect the ‘mulitstakeholder’ decision it supposedly endorsed.


The conflict over the future of the Internet is over two differing approaches to Internet governance: multistakeholderism and multilateralism. Multistakeholder advocates believe stakeholders from a multitude of entities should govern the Internet: states, private sector, civil society groups, academia, and non-governmental institutions. Multilateral champions, in contrast, believe that a conglomeration of states, most likely located within the United Nations (UN), should govern the Internet.  While the divide separating both camps is not necessarily manichaeistic, their divergences over how the Internet should be governed has tremendous social, economic, and security implications


At first glance, the April NETmundial Internet governance meeting in Sao Paulo, Brazil appears to be a victory for the ‘multistakeholder’ Internet governance camp. A quick look at the website home page shows the ‘NETmundial multistakholder statement’ as the first item on their banner. Country statements post meeting seem to support this view. In late April, the U.S. State Department—perhaps one of the more vocal advocates of multistakeholderism—issued a press release that noted their ‘pleas[ure] that the [NETmundial] document continues to focus on a future Internet rooted in mutlistakeholder processes and institutions.” Likewise, the European Commission, another important member of ‘team multistakeholder’ stated that, “NETmundial has put us on the right track.” However, a closer analysis of the NETmundial statement seems to suggest otherwise.

The outcome document from NETmundial, “The NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement”, provides various taskings or suggestions that advocate for either a multilateral or multistakeholder process. There are fifteen such statements that task an item or make a suggestion. Overall when comparing the various items that support multistakeholderism to the items that advocate multilateralism, the outcome of the various statements are 40% promoting a mulistakeholder approach to 60% advocating multilateralism. Moreover, if one only includes concrete follow-on taskings to organizations, the result would be 100% multilateralism. Of those fifteen statements, the only concrete taskings that takes place in the document is to UN forums or UN sponsored conferences. The UN is a multilateral institution, composed of member states.


There is also some disconnect between statements advocating a multistakeholder process and the institution or former document the ‘NETmundial Statement’ endorses as a mechanism to achieve multistakeholderism. For example, in 2.1.2 the document advocates for a mulitstakeholder process to enhance cooperation on Internet governance public policy. While making this statement, the document notes that cooperation should be in the spirit of the Tunis Agenda and should consider UN Commission on Science and Technology Development (CSTD) working groups. The Tunis Agenda places emphasis on development goals through a multilateral process and the CSTD is a UN institution, which is inherently multilateral. While 2.1.2 advocates for a multi-stakeholder approach, the institutions that are mentioned to help facilitate that process are multilateral.


From a U.S. policy perspective NETmundial was not the success that the U.S. State Department purported. In the upcoming ITU Plenipotentiary negotiations, the U.S. government would be wise to heed the example of NETmundial and take note of the disparity between overt statements and actual outcomes.


This blog is based on a conversation with Senior Fellow, Melissa Hathaway. Initial observations on the disparity between the NETmundial document and outcomes are hers. 

Fear of Science

Brian Barnett

Injecting a conflated understanding of ethics into journalism negatively affects scientific progress. That is to say, unethically performed research such as the fraudulent Wakefield paper on autism and vaccines or the Tuskegee syphilis experiment should be reported on and brought to the attention of the public. In contrast, journalism involving research findings should not jump to conclusions about the potential for research to be used unethically. When these unwarranted ethical questions are presented in the media, their only utility is to propagate a mistrust of science research.

A recent Atlantic article presents recent neuroscience research as a potential treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The research focuses on altering memories that trigger PTSD symptoms. When a memory is retrieved, it can be affected by additional stimuli or neural signals. This is generally useful, as memories need a way to update themselves in response to changes in the environment or behavior. The research targeted the unstable nature of recalled memories by giving participants a dose of propranolol (a beta blocker drug) before asking them to recall a fearful memory. The idea is that these drugs reduce emotional responses (e.g. some musicians take beta blockers before a big audition so that their nervousness or anxiety is lowered and they are able to play well). If a person’s emotional responsiveness is reduced, then recalling a fearful memory might not produce the usual physiological response. Over time, repeated and directed therapy could cause this memory to reconsolidate into a non-stressful version.

The article does a great job of explaining the content of the research in a concise fashion, but its attempt to incorporate ethical concern is harmful. The subheading at the top of the article is as follows: “A controversial area of brain research suggests [changing memories] may be possible – but is it ethical?” The article does not mention ethics again until the very last sentence, where the author asks the same exact question. The author wants to make sure that the first thing that the reader sees after the title is this question. I find this disconcerting. When a proposed treatment is not even close to being verifiable, and the scientific community understands the limitations of a specific study, we do not need to spend time questioning its ethical nature.

It is easy to take our science findings and extrapolate them to their scary extremes. Tacking on a question of ethics probably generates controversy and can be good for an author’s page views. It is telling that the author asks the question but does not address it. It can be hard to make definitive statements about what is right or wrong when it comes to a complex concept like memory alteration. Regardless of how difficult this question is to answer, science research on memory alteration should not be stopped. When our scientists are not close to figuring out how to reliably alter memories in a benign, therapeutic context, then we do not need to worry about their ability to perform unethical experiments. The research studies presented in the article followed Institutional Review Board guidelines and underwent stringent peer review (processes which are largely meant to prevent unethical research from occurring). There is a distinction between ethically performed research and the ethical use of a technology or process. This neuroscience research followed all established ethical guidelines and it should not be stopped because of the fear that it might lead to unethical practices later on.

If we are going to worry about anything at all involving this research, it would be that a rogue actor, who somehow does understand how to manipulate memories, starts to cause undue harm and suffering to others. If this hypothetical situation occurs, what can we do? Our only option would be to perform even more research to figure out how to undo his or her actions! Opportunists will always try to take advantage of science and technology advancements. We cannot avoid that fact, unless we become complacent, halt all research, and never solve another difficult problem again. Performing solid, peer-reviewed research on topics like PTSD therapy is a valuable endeavor and placing unnecessary questions of ethics around it will limit our abilities to succeed. Ethics are an important aspect of our society and are the vehicle by which we demonstrate fair and just treatment of our fellow citizens. However, scientific research should not be hampered by premature concern about its ethical consequences.