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Watch out for the wording: a NETmundial vocabulary

Published on 22 April 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

Every diplomatic negotiation boils down to a limited number of open concepts and words. NETmundial is no different. There are some phrases that either carry a specific approach to Internet governance (IG) or trigger different interpretations. By understanding their use, we can better understand the dynamics of negotiations and the positions of different actors. 

This text is part of a just-in-time analysis of NETmundial language. It is conducted by a multidisciplinary team of linguists, lawyers, journalist and ICT specialists, among others.
For comprehensive follow-up of NETmundial please visit the recently launched Geneva Internet Platform.

Ecosystem has been introduced by the I* organisations, in the context of the multistakeholder environment primarily related to ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) and IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority), but now extended to general IG discussions. There have been some reactions from the eco-academy that this is an inappropriate term and ‘system’ should be enough. It has, however, become widely used and accepted in IG debates around NETmundial.

Stewardship is another contextually-loaded term that has recently ballooned in IG debates, most notably in the autumn of 2013. It should connote the ‘guiding’ of such a globalised multistakeholder process (and system).

Creativity emerges as a companion to innovation: it has been introduced by the corporate sector (and is especially of interest to the quality content industry) to bring intellectual property rights protection to the table.

Multilateral – there has long been an interplay with the term multistakeholderism. NETmundial language however brings other nuances (introduced mainly by BRICS countries): multilateral is decomposed into an international, legitimate, representative and even democratic model. Interestingly, some proponents of the multilateral approach seem to accept the multistakeholder model but only with these properties as precursors.

Public goods and public commons are not new terms. Within the NETmundial process, however, they have been reintroduced by the ITU (International Telecommunication Union), and supported by a few actors from the Arab region, Africa, Asia, and BRICS. They do not appear in the current draft and it is unlikely that they will be part of the final document.

Sustainable has been frequently used as an adjectival counterpart to development by BRICS countries. Sustainable development is a well-developed concept in international relations. Applied to the Internet, sustainable development would forge a stronger link between IG  and the UN process on post-millennium goals (most likely to be called sustainable development goals) and bring issues such as a costs model and equitability, along with concepts like universal access, back to the negotiation table.

Universality is offered as a replacement for availability by some European countries, with regard to the universal right to access the Internet; proponents of the latter argue that, in some cases (if ordered by a judicial system as a response to unlawful acts), it might be appropriate to block access to the Internet for certain users.

The term roles and responsibilities has featured in most of IG documents ever since its appearance in the WSIS (Word Summit on the Information Society) final documents. In the absence of a common understanding of the term, various actors quick-wittedly suggested ‘improvements’ to the term: while BRICS and Arab countries insist on the WSIS formulation of respective as a preceding adjective, proponents of a multistakeholder model sometimes omit this, aiming to water down the term and make it even more vague; or they use appropriate or meaningful instead of respective to emphasise that, even though governments might historically have certain respective roles, this may not be really appropriate or meaningful in the case of IG. Civil society, the US government, and the corporate sector often insist on adding on equal footing as a way of contradicting the term respective roles. Some European governments turn to specifying that roles and responsibilities can be defined per issue rather than in general IG terms.

Full – whatever it means – is used to describe the participation of various stakeholders. Full participation is vague enough not to trigger any controversy.

Orphan issues is a term that has been introduced through the IGF in the previous two years, to denote the Internet policy issues that no institution is dealing with as yet. This unhappy term has been challenged by some actors for the reason that it brings with it the connotation of a ‘need for new mechanisms that would address issues that could not be addressed by the existing mechanisms’ –commonly implying intergovernmental ones.

Security is sometimes accompanied with safety, resilience, and stability – especially thanks to the corporate sector and the other proponents of a multistakeholder model. Standing alone, security may imply a dominant political dimension, for which the BRICS governments strongly stand; it should primarily be the concern of national governments, with some consultations with other stakeholders. By adding these other terms, however, the political dimension is watered down by the social, end-user, and technical dimensions – thus is the role of the governments put down.

State behaviour in cyberspace has become a synonym for discussions about cyberwarfare, cyber-conflicts, cyberweapons, or disarmament. Governments, particularly western ones, are cautious not to make any mention of weapons, conflicts, or warfare claiming ‘we can’t define it and it has not yet happened’; civil society and academics are more inclined to using the direct terms, however.

Finally, the word appropriate often jumps into quite inappropriate places in draft texts. It can serve to blur the ensuing phrase, since it remains an open question as to who should say what is appropriate and what is not.

During the NETmundial meeting discussions, some more phrases have emerged as controversial:

Necessary and proportionate is a phrase that has become a stumbling stone of NETmundial discussions during the meeting. After being included in the initial draft document, the phrase surveillance should be conducted in accordance with the ‘necessary and proportionate’ principles has not found a place in the second draft. The USA opposed this wording and suggested the use of the wording from the UN General Assembly resolution on online privacy. It may be a make-or-break point in NETmundial negotiations (prevent consensus).

Code of conduct, in the context of Internet governance, brings  reference to inter-governmental agreement  with regard to preventing cyber-conflicts. It has been used within the ITU processes, and is opposed by ‘western’ countries.


Diplo and the recently launched Geneva Internet Platform conducted the analysis of the 188 contributions, based on the data-mining and discourse analysis techniques. Some initial results were published here. This analysis is based on the successful multidisciplinary research on Emerging Language of Internet Governance involving international law, linguistics and data-mining among other disciplines. You can find more information on the IGF Language Analysis here https://www.diplomacy.edu/IGFlanguage

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2 replies
  1. Chip Sharp
    Chip Sharp says:

    Regarding “Orphan Issues”:
    Regarding “Orphan Issues”: This term has also been used to refer to issues that are being dealt with by one or more existing institutions but not necessarily in the way a particular speaker likes, or is being dealt with by an institution that a particular speaker isn’t aware of.

  2. Chip Sharp
    Chip Sharp says:

    Regarding “roles and
    Regarding “roles and responsibilities”: When used by governments referencing WSIS or the Tunis Agenda, the term “roles and responsibilities” must be read in conjunction with paragraph 35 of the Tunis Agenda where the roles are actually defined. In fact, the Tunis Agenda needs to be read as a whole and not piecemeal, picking out favorite paragraphs. Note also that the Tunis Agenda does not recognize “academia” and “technical community” as stakeholder groups.

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