Grace Mutung'u   16 Jan 2018   Alumni, Diplo Blog, Diplomacy

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Many issues in Internet governance are discussed on both the global and regional levels. For example, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) makes policy on domain names, while the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) discusses a wide range of infrastructural, economic and cultural issues about the Internet. However, issues discussed at these levels need to be translated into national laws; these are made by legislatures. Without the favour of parliamentarians, executive branch policies may not be effectively translated into laws. Parliamentarians are therefore being increasingly engaged in questions of Internet governance and diplomacy.

Parliamentary diplomacy occurs at many levels. Institutionally, houses of parliament from different regions and even globally collaborate on many issues through bodies such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Parliamentary Assembly of La Francophonie. Regional co-operation bodies such as the EU and the African Union also have legislative arms where parliamentarians represent their different national interests. Diplomacy can also take place in the course of duty for committees dealing with foreign affairs. In many cases, international treaties requiring ratification and domestication are taken to parliamentary committees. It is common practice to involve key parliamentarians at some stage of treaty negotiations, so as to get their buy in for the proposed instrument.

Diplomacy can also occur at individual levels when members of parliament engage in their areas of interest. Depending on the soft power that a member possesses, they may even lobby for certain issues in diplomatic circles. Conversely, foreign powers may use parliamentarians to lobby a state.

Whether at corporate or individual member levels, parliamentary diplomacy’s importance in the digital era cannot be denied. The connectedness of the Internet may easily import laws made in one jurisdiction to others. Therefore, when making national laws, parliamentarians must be alive to global perspectives on the issue at hand. They must balance local interests with best practices. Their duty is not only to legislatively shape local society, but also to open the Internet for their constituents to enjoy the benefits of being online.

As more people get connected, Internet related issues are finding their way into the legislative agenda. An example is the Kenya Copyright Amendment Bill (2017), which proposes that Internet service providers police their networks for copyright infringing works. This has been lauded by a section of local industry as a key tool in the fight against piracy. However, in many global fora, content control by private companies is discouraged. This is because human rights, such as the freedom of expression, may be abrogated where the cost of compliance is too high. Where there is a dispute regarding the content, the private company may not be competent to resolve it. Judicial oversight is therefore preferred.

How then can the legislative committee reviewing the bill, balance between the competing rights of intellectual property owners and Internet service providers? How can they best protect the common good and promote human rights? One answer lies in having sufficient knowledge and exposure in the emerging challenges of human rights in the digital age.

In many of the global policy making forums, government representatives are mostly executive branch officials or regulators, and parliamentarians have not adequately engaged. As many Internet governance experts will note, there is increasing interest in Internet policy making by governments. As parliamentarians are expected to represent the public interest, they should participate more actively in Internet policy making. Thankfully, this does not necessarily mean numerous trips around the world to attend conferences, because with the Internet, one can also follow and participate in policy making processes remotely using digital tools.

Grace Mutung'u is an associate at the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet) and an affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. She is also an assistant curator for the GIP Digital Watch observatory, and an MA graduate of the University of Malta/DiploFoundation.

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