Free media: issues, challenges and proposals

Aligning free media activism with Internet governance: opportunities and threats

, by Association pour le progrès des communications (APC) , KNODEL Mallory

Complimenting activism with advocacy

This article explores the alignment of the principles and strategies of the free media movement with current issues in Internet governance spaces. It argues that Internet governance (IG) spaces – such as the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) – offer many strategic opportunities to strengthen and develop the priorities and actions of the free media movement. As Cath, Ten Oever, and O’Maley write, “the community of practitioners concerned with media development [...] can, and must, engage in the decision making bodies that are shaping Internet governance to ensure that the Internet – and the growing media sphere it sustains – remains open, pluralistic and democratic.” [1] By outlining relevant issues in IG we can then explore the tactical approaches to advocacy that supports free media in IG spaces.

Free media activism is concerned with a wide range of issues rooted in social justice principles. These include media ownership and regulation of the television, cable and radio industries; the quality of journalism and access to information; intellectual property; communications infrastructures and spectrum; as well as the ideological dominance of commercialism over social justice values of community, democracy, and communication rights. These areas of concern and activity are reflected in the World Charter of Free Media (WCFM), a document published following the 4th World Forum on Free Media [2] which outlines the special features and responsibilities of free media and identifies unifying principles. These responsibilities and principles provide free media activists and organizations with a social justice framework for engaging in Internet governance activities. In particular, some free media principles stated in WCFM constitute a call for action: “Build partnerships with other social sectors and international activists to promote and defend the principles,” and, “Promote the principles of the Charter among free media in every region of the world and on the occasion of various intergovernmental or international events among civil society.” [3] These calls are directly related to the multi-stakeholder, interdisciplinary opportunities in Internet Governance.

By mapping free media issues in Internet governance spaces, identifying where policy advocacy could be most effective, free media organizations can tactfully engage in policy advocacy. Furthermore, the alternatives created by the free media movement and the benefits afforded to Internet governance policy advocates are highlighted. Lastly, we have summarized the concrete actions that can be taken by free media activists interested in engaging in IG policy advocacy.

Mapping free media issues in Internet governance

Below is a summary of issues and, where relevant, the Internet governance spaces that serve as venues for effective advocacy. The free media activists and authors of the WCFM “advocate establishing democratic Internet governance policies including a guarantee of network neutrality, the right to network privacy and freedom of expression in social networks.” Other issues relevant to free media include fighting digital inequality, integrating feminist concerns into Internet governance, ensuring democratic governance of the Internet, and privacy issues.

Digital inequality

At each of the Internet’s four layers (“social, content, logical, and physical”) (Cath, et al., 2017, p. 6) is the real potential to intensify exclusion and increase inequalities. Indeed, over the last few decades, the digital divide has only increased, which has served to compound the disadvantages of those without Internet access: in an increasingly digitized world this means they are unable to access services previously available offline. [4]

“Digital inequality” is often approached from a human rights perspective, which does not directly address social inequality yet is the dominant framework in Internet governance discussions. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights [5] does not fundamentally address power imbalance issues. Power, and its imbalance, is the determining factor in Internet access and digital inequality. It is not possible to solve the digital divide unless we look at Internet access in terms of power, capitalism and globalization. This approach to communication rights and digital justice is, as Bishakha Datta put it, “about chipping away at the deeply entrenched power grid underlying Internet governance.” [6]

Alternative and independent media have not traditionally been a significant consideration in IG discussions. Yet given these trends there is the need for more collaboration between civil society organizations oriented towards media criticism and alternative media, and Internet-focused civil society groups. This could raise awareness of digital inequality, and push for the necessary policy responses among regulators and policy makers.

Furthermore, Internet governance advocacy must address oppression by enabling multi-stakeholder participation and engagement from a diverse range of civil society voices in order to, as stated by the WCFM, “rebalance the information flows between all countries of the world, and within countries themselves, creating democratic public spaces that embody an ethic of respect for the privacy of information.”

Gender Justice

An intersectional feminist approach is critical for policy advocacy in Internet governance. Like free media, feminism focusses on establishing alternatives and shifting the status quo. The Feminist Principles of the Internet [7] is a text that expresses a layered and nuanced approach to IG at every layer of the Internet from use and content to structures and infrastructure, “offer[ing] a gender and sexual rights lens on critical Internet-related rights.”

Gender and identity is cited extensively in the WCFM: “... Our struggles are an essential part of the fight for human rights and the struggle against colonialism, occupation, patriarchy, sexism, racism, neoliberalism and all forms of oppression and fundamentalism... [from] a variety of interests in society, the voices and actions of indigenous peoples, discriminated minorities and social groups oppressed because of their religion, identity, sexual orientation, class, disabilities, ethnicity or language… [and is] opposed to building aesthetic standards and gender-based behavior imposed on people.”

Important progress in inclusion in IG spaces has been made in recent years, such as the anti-harassment measures undertaken by the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). But advocacy for feminist principles in IG must go beyond mere inclusion to intentionally valuing and adopting the political framing of Internet governance issues in terms of power, patriarchy and colonialism.

Good governance and the common good

Governance that is inclusive, accountable and participatory is a prerequisite for an Internet that serves the public interest as a common good. The WCFM states, “We defend the Internet as a common good.” Whether at national, regional or global level, IG processes must be inclusive, transparent, accessible, participative and accountable. And good governance of the Internet can only be achieved through participation from civil society. For a fair and open Internet to be governed with the public interest in mind, as opposed to the interests of corporations or governments, the participation of free media activists is vital.

Internet governance is an area that free media activists can be involved in at local, regional and international levels. Coalitions of policy advocates are complimentary to movements engaged in a multitude of activities ranging from direct action to expressions of solidarity, and in this case, using distributed influence to create change democratically, build people power and develop the movement both in terms of knowledge and praxis.

“[C]ommunities on the ground should have access to the power to develop, control, and own technology.” Free media activists already understand that communities play a fundamental role in democratic communication in the digital age, [8] yet in global IG processes there is little acknowledgment of the value of community engagement in initiatives such as digital migration from analog to digital broadcasting or counteracting concentration of media.
Civil society advocates who engage in local, national and regional spaces should also participate in democratizing communication at the global level, affirming that democratization and the right to communicate for all are essential if we are to build a just and sustainable world.

Freedom of expression

It is immediately clear that freedom of expression is essential to media activism. As stated in the WCFM, “We affirm that freedom of expression for everyone, the right to information and communication, and free access to knowledge are fundamental human rights... Recognizing the international declarations, charters and reference texts on communication, including Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) concerning freedom of expression, and the various statements of social movements regarding the right to communication adopted at the World Social Forums.”

Freedom of expression is a focal point in IG, and effective advocacy to “implement... public policies to strengthen free media, their quality and sustainability” means understanding where the key debates that threaten freedom of expression are happening. In ICANN for instance, the number of generic top level domains (gTLDs) are being dramatically increased. This means greater accessibility and visibility for online publishers. The increase in gTLDs is also sparking substantive debate over controversial management mechanisms of domains like .gay and .amazon. As of 2013, non-Latin scripts for domains are now available. Furthermore, it’s important to join advocacy efforts against global and national policies that would require top-down licensing or disclosure of information in order to obtain a domain name.

Media pluralism

To achieve WCFM’s goals to “promote democratic regulatory frameworks by advocating the development of independent organizations and agencies, especially against hyper-media concentration,” the Internet Governance Forum can be one such venue. Presenting best practice in regulatory frameworks can strengthen advocacy efforts in national contexts.

Topics such as social media as news platforms, algorithms, media plurality and the criminalization of technical expertise are issues that are discussed at global, national and regional IGFs. [9]. While the IGF isn’t a decision-making space, it is an important forum for engagement and advocacy because it builds civil society cooperation and alignment and brings other stakeholders into a space where issues can be discussed.

Becoming engaged in intersessional work at the IGF, in Dynamic Coalitions [10] and Best Practice Fora can lead to clear outcomes from a variety of stakeholders which are then presented and discussed at the IGFs themselves.
In addition, the IGF is more effective than most spaces in offering an increased representation of voices from the Global South, perhaps due to a disproportionately large participation by civil society. Active national and regional IGFs also mean that participants do not have to travel to the global forum to get involved.

Internet Gouvernance Forum à Genève, 2017.

Access to information

Today, if we are to respect the human right to access information, Internet access is a basic requirement. Furthermore, increasing the number of Internet service providers by opening up a wireless Internet provision through unlicensed spectrum standards and allocating spectrum to community networks is the only way to provide access to all communities. The WCFM calls for “the development of community media, reserving and assigning frequencies dedicated to the social sector… the independence of public service broadcasting… [and] universal access to communication and broadband Internet.”

The Dynamic Coalition on Community Communications (informally called the DC3) has a workshop on community networks accepted for IGF, Intersessional work on "connecting the next billion" and best practice forums. [11]

At the ITU, the next generation of connectivity such as faster speeds on different spectrum frequencies and the use of “...unlicensed spectrum – portions of the spectrum that do not require a government license to use – are one way to empower individuals to have more control over their computer networking and information sharing.” [12]


The WCFM states: “We reject the monopolization of Internet infrastructure, data grabbing by corporations, and the monitoring of cyberspace … [Our focus is] creating democratic public spaces that embody an ethic of respect for the privacy of information.”

Being involved in the IETF provides many opportunities for privacy considerations at the protocol level. Making web browsing and other information flows more secure protects everyone’s privacy. [13] Furthermore, there is a research group on Human Rights Protocol Considerations where the politics of protocols are discussed and can lead to better protocol design. [14] Discussions and standards setting at the IEEE [15] also include privacy and security concerns such as for WiFi and local area networks.

Civil society has a lot to share in terms of real world implementation of tools, technology and services that benefit activists and independent media. Civil society can get involved as individuals in either the IEEE or the IETF by putting forward protocol designs or contributing to research on privacy concerns.

Supporting free media alternatives

Free media and technology activists have worked hand in hand with social movements to create spaces of expression for social justice and to support cultural autonomy. This work is focussed on liberation and autonomy as opposed to profit and power for corporations and states. The goal is to guarantee spaces for free expression, not just for those who use alternatives, but for everyone by being involved in the governance of the Internet itself. As the WCFM states, “Facing this hegemonic system, communication activists and civil society have historically relied and continue to rely on free media in their struggle for real democracy and social justice.”

As an outside strategy in the WCFM, “building an inclusive pluralistic and transformative communication” means creating alternatives that can provide many benefits to activists. However, policy concerns also need to enable and not hinder the autonomous, counter-hegemonic spaces that technologists and media activists create. The very way the Internet is designed can indeed have an impact on tech sovereignty.

So while the Forum on Free Media “facilitate access to free and open technologies,” [16] it is also important to keep IG spaces open in order to foster these technologies, for the benefit of all.

On the other hand, the practices and policies that IG advocates have worked to establish in regards to corporate accountability should also be established in alternative spaces. Examples would be terms of service, user agreements, anti-harassment policies and so on. Two alternative providers, eQualitie and May First/People Link are examples of groups that have implemented such policies, highlighting the important work of feminist and alternative infrastructure. [17]

It is clear from the previous section that IG spaces such as ICANN, IETF or even the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will enact policies and standards that are either enabling or disabling for alternative providers. Alternative providers should engage in IG policy advocacy to shift the status quo and lower the bar for alternative providers while raising the bar for multistakeholder IG spaces that only prioritize corporate values. The increasing number of groups defending free media and their increasing interconnection are an incentive to our desire to work together across borders and different forms of media expression.

Acting on opportunities and threats

First and foremost, the advocacy strategies of civil society and social justice groups should, wherever possible, be collaborative. As governments and corporations already benefit from institutional support, they also collaborate and work together. So too must social movements and civil society organizations. They should see themselves and their goals as mutually beneficial rather than competitive. Spaces such as the World Forum on Free Media and the Internet Social Forum, [18] where Internet governance is discussed through a social justice lens, serve a great purpose, which is to challenge one another as well as recreate alignment and build common strategies.

The WCFM demands “the transformation of communication systems and are committed [to] strategic actions and priorities.” It is critical that an array of strategies and tactics include engagement in IG spaces. There are clear paths to engagement, outlined below:

 Attend and influence national and regional Internet Governance Fora as a space for advocacy and building relationships within the larger sector.

 Join a Dynamic Coalition or other intersessional work of the global Internet Governance Forum.

 Follow the work of or join the Non-commercial Users Constituency of ICANN.

 For organizations, become a sector member of the ITU; or join a national delegation, which leads to participation in Study Groups.

 Join the IETF research group mailing list on Human Rights Protocol considerations.

 Join any IEEE section, chapter, branch or group as an individual.