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Subsidiarity: how to make Internet governance decisions at the appropriate level

Page history last edited by Mary Murphy 8 years, 2 months ago



Moderator: Thomas Schneider, Deputy Head of International Relations Service, OFCOM
Peter Gruetter, Chairman, Swiss Telecommunications Association
Norbert Bollow, co-founder and co-convenor of the Just Net Coalition
Michel Veuthey, Vice-president of the International Institute of Humanitarian Law, San Remo Hanane Boujemi, Manager, IG Programme, MENA Region, HIVOS




While global solutions are preferable for global issues (e.g. IG, climate change), they are often difficult to achieve. After the failure of the Copenhagen summit (2009), the climate change community focused more on local, national, and regional initiatives. The same tendencies are noticeable in IG (most cybercrime conventions are regional, protests against IG policies are regional/national – SOPA, ACTA).

IG issues should be addressed at the policy level which is closest to the cause of the issues (e.g. cybercrime) or the impact a specific policy may have (e.g. access, net neutrality). 

The main challenges will be to ensure that ‘policy elevators’ move both ways (up and down) among local,national, regional, and global levels. The session will also discuss the practice of ‘forum shopping’ (inserting policy initiatives on the most favourable policy level). Swiss academics and practitioners will  present the country’s long experience in using subsidiarity principles.
The panel will address the following specific questions:

  • What issues could be addressed effectively at a lower level than a global one (e.g. regional and national levels)?
  • How can we ensure synchronisation among different policy levels while avoiding the risk of ‘forum shopping’?


Session notes


Who should decide what?


While global solutions are preferable for global issues, they are often difficult to achieve. Internet governance (IG) issues should be addressed at the policy level which is closest to the cause of the issues (e.g. cybercrime) or to the impact a specific policy may have (e.g. access, Net neutrality). The main challenges will be to ensure that ‘policy elevators’ move both ways (up and down) between local, regional, national, and global levels. At this session, moderated by Thomas Schneider, Deputy Head of International Relations Service at OFCOM in Switzerland, the use of subsidiarity principles and its practical challenges were discussed against the background of Switzerland’s long experiences with subsidiarity.


Michel Veuthey, Vice-President of the International Institute of Humanitarian Law in San Remo, gave his view on the connection between humanitarian action and the Internet. He identified three linkage points:

  • Learning lessons from past emergencies. The Internet facilitates a large database of published articles that are accessible from wherever you are.
  • Training. The Internet provides a platform for training, ranging from MOOCS (massive open online courses) to Youtube channels. Here, regional platforms are also needed to capture different perspectives, and to remove language barriers. The Internet is also used to ‘train the trainers’, for example, through mobile phone apps.
  • Alerting and accountability. Phones connected to the Internet can be used to receive alerts from the field. Also, Twitter and other social media can help raise of humanitarian missions. Finally, UNOSAT shows the utility of commercial satellite pictures to gather evidence, for example related to Gaza.


The Internet could be used more efficiently by combining local, regional, and global levels. This is not a one-way stream of communication from top to bottom; populations can also feed back. Finally, the Internet can make connections, for example between prisoners and families, and between diasporas and affected populations


Peter Gruetter, Chairman of the Swiss Telecommunications Association, opened with a general remark regarding the parallel World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, China.  IG (conference) competition should not lead to Internet fragmentation. IG does not have the same goals everywhere (ranging from access to information, economic opportunities or protection of intellectual property). He advocated a bottom-up structure, as seen in Switzerland’s government, for IG purposes. Switzerland as a bottom-up structure, i.e., only what cannot be solved at the lowest level is transferred to higher levels. Swiss subsidiarity and federalism are key points for Switzerland’s success, especially in respect of innovation. According to Gruetter, IG should also be a bottom-up structure, a technical, economic, and social challenge. Social aspects are dominant in the discussion, followed by economic aspects and finally functionality, i.e., technical aspects. Finally, he reminded us of the famous statement of one of the fathers of the Internet: The Internet is a network of zig networks, and diversity and communality make the Internet function.


Hanane Boujemi, who manages the IG program of the MENA region at Hivos, shared her views on IG as applied to the Middle East. The Middle East is going through many transitions, and slowly, discussion of IG is emerging. However, there is a basic problem with the concept of IG, since governance is seen as the business of governments, without the inclusion of other stakeholders. Therefore, the main challenges to an effective IG debate are a lack of transparency and participatory process, the conservative role of governments, and the ambiguity of regulation and legislation. There is also a tendency to apply offline legislation online, without taking specific features of the Internet into account; this legislation often restricts freedom of expression. The solution to the challenges in the Middle East would be to encourage the government to be more open, and to encourage civil society to engage in the discussion. Finally, Boujemi reminded us that it is important to localise the debate and to discuss IG issues in regional settings, as the ‘Internet means different things for different people around the world’.


Norbert Bollow, co-founder and co-convenor of the recently founded Just Net Coalition has a technical background and is active in civil society. For him, subsidiarity is a core principle of democracy. He identified the issue of languages as a main challenge and solution when choosing subsidiarity and therewith a democratic approach to IG. Information about rights must be provided in local languages in order to ensure that the owners of these rights can make informed choices. Bollow made a strong point that democracy is not only about voting, but also about preparing what should be voted on. Everyone who is not able to participate in this discourse for linguistic reasons will be excluded from it. Making available the discourse in local languages will automatically localise the discussion.


Bollow also saw a danger that the interest of markets will dominate the implementation of IG and its multistakeholder process instead of democracy and subsidiarity. He demanded a carefully designed structure in order to make sure that subsidiarity does not empower business instead of a diverse range of stakeholders taking decisions locally. He explained this further later when answering a question from a remote participant: International coordination is needed to give national parliaments input including an international perspective. Boujemi could relate to the idea of an international discourse of a global community advising local policymakers and identified it as good example for democratic communities.




During the discussion, Gruetter responded to a question from the Groningen hub about the system of global service providers, and he pointed out that there is a problem at the content and policy level, rather than at the technical level. The same questions are being dealt with really differently at both levels. Next, he addressed a question concerning the worrisome development of the fragmentation of the Internet. He said that ‘free and open Internet is a kind of reality of the past and a vision for the future, but not a current reality’. There are many barriers to accessing content, and some states actively try to strengthen them. One of the barriers concerns language, but Gruetter thinks that this problem will be technically resolved in 5-10 years.


One participant picked up on the common sense in IG that diversity and subsidiarity are good and fragmentation is bad and asked about the definition of fragmentation and its use as a threat in order to maintain a global Internet. Schneider agreed that this was an important question and supposed that the terms subsidiarity and diversity are mainly used by those who trust people to make the right choices while those who do not trust them might be using the term fragmentation.


But what is the highest level of subsidiarity? Or what should it be? According to one participant ‘some steps are not in place, blocking us from gently distributing the issues among the right levels’. Gruetter confirmed that the supranational level is very weak, and that nation states are often not ready to pass the most important questions to the upper level. Schneider then noted that there might be too much subsidiarity, and Bollow added that international regimes should not try to include everyone, but it might be better to start with a group of motivated countries that start joining and building an international IG system. Another participant pointed out that there is a fine line between subsidiarity and fragmentation and that this line might be very political.


Applying subsidiarity to Asian countries, Rinalia Abdul Rahim explained that subsidiarity is difficult to implement, since Asian governments go back in their shell, which obstructs the creation of a clear line between local, national, and global.


As a final comment and possibly a conclusion of this workshop, Khaled Fattal reminded participants that we might not need to follow the paths of democratic governance as seen in countries like Switzerland since this is a perspective that looks backwards instead of forwards. We need to look at democratic processes instead since democracy is a language that needs to be taught. Transparent and representative processes need to be put in place to ensure a bottom-up approach and subsidiarity.

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