Participants in a Brazil-hosted conference on Internet governance laid out an aggressive agenda, with some calling for a policy statement that would condemn Internet surveillance, support net neutrality regulations and create programs to close the digital divide.
Much of the focus of the Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance, called NETmundial, on Wednesday was on surveillance efforts by the U.S. National Security Agency, detailed in leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Free expression online is in danger when spy agencies are conducting surveillance worldwide, said H.E. Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's president.
News of the NSA surveillance "caused anger and repudiation in vast circles of public opinion," she said.
"Freedom of expression is a crucial right, but it has to be coupled on the network with a complementary right to privacy," added Tim Berners-Lee, director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Mass surveillance is "perhaps the most immediate threat to the Internet. Surveillance, of all the threats to the Internet, is one of the more insidious ones, because you don't see it happening, unlike censorship."
Leaders of the two-day conference in Sao Paulo said they hope to come to consensus on a document outlining goals for future Internet governance.
Participants in a morning session applauded when Rousseff said the conference must push for broader participation in Internet governance, with no one country dominating the process.
Rousseff praised U.S. President Barack Obama's administration for announcement last month that it plans to end its formal relationship with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
Much of the early discussion at the conference focused on surveillance, however. The conference advances trust in the Internet by advocating a right to privacy for Web users, said Nnenna Nwakanma, co-founder of the Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa.
Trust in the Internet and its governance "is being destroyed by the collection, processing and dissection of our communications," she said. "Surveillance undermines Internet security and our trust in all personal, business and diplomatic communications."
Nwakanma also called on the conference to look for resources to close the digital divide and to encourage women to embrace technology. In some parts of Africa, just 16 percent of people are Internet users, she said.
"NETmundial is offering us a great opportunity for change -- change from one stakeholder highjacking the [governance] process to an open and inclusive process, change from one official issuing orders to collaboration, change from just reports to real transparency," she said.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is [email protected]