New Zealand Law Society - The dynamic world of Internet governance

The dynamic world of Internet governance

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After University, American Susan Chalmers decided to put her piano and French training towards running a chamber music festival. It was working with performers and commissioning original works at the festival that she realised copyright on the Internet was increasingly important.

"I decided to go to law school because I wanted to study copyright. I wanted to represent musicians and try cases. By this point, I had been on both sides of the stage – as a performer, and as an administrator – and I like to advocate for others, so it made sense."

Susan was in law school when the global financial crisis (GFC) hit, crippling the United States job market. She graduated at the top of her class but, after sending out hundreds of resumes, and getting almost as many rejection letters, Susan decided to venture to New Zealand.

photo of Susan Chalmers
Susan Chalmers

She completed an LLM at Auckland University after she heard the country was "a friendly, beautiful, and socially progressive place, with little corruption".

"The GFC was dire. In some cases I was applying for the same job that experienced attorneys were applying for. It was getting heavy – receiving rejection letters in the mail all of the time, so I decided to make art out of it."

While writing her Master's thesis on the Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Act 2011 she took up a position as the Policy Lead at InternetNZ.

In her first two months of work she was sent to Nairobi for the Internet Governance Forum (IGF).

"I had no idea about Internet governance when I started. It's so dynamic and complex because of the different stakeholders, their motivations, the power structures they build up or rail against (diplomatically, of course). Everything is new in this realm. And it is important to all of us, yet obscure at the same time. It's admittedly intriguing as a line of work.

"Suffice to say it was overwhelming. You've got all these different stakeholders and you're dealt with the task of trying to understand what they are driving at, what the terms of art they are using mean, what it means when they use them in the dialogue, for example.

"The IGF is run by the United Nations, but at the IGF you're not dealing with negotiation or treaty-making processes, which is what normally happens at the UN. At the IGF, everyone participates on 'equal footing.' It's a conversation about Internet issues that leads to more conversations in different Internet governance ecosystems at regional and national levels. The idea is that governments, the private sector, civil society, the technical community and academia might work together to make better informed decisions when it comes to policies affecting the Internet."

Trying experience

Susan recalls her most trying experience while at InternetNZ, which was engaging in the legislative process for the Government Communications Security Bill and Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Bill.

"That was challenging, and, to be honest, frustrating.

"When you have institutions like the Privacy Commission, the Human Rights Commission, and the Law Society, (and [InternetNZ]) all casting rock solid arguments against the legislative proposal, and nothing really changes, then it feels like it was out of the country's hands from the start.

"When … I [was] giving evidence before the select committee, when the Prime Minister started taking us down the 'what if your neighbour is making a bomb' line of reasoning, well I worked very hard to keep my face still. Doesn't really happen in New Zealand, does it? The whole thing took a lot out of me."

After spending three years away from home, and wanting to work on other Internet governance projects, Susan left New Zealand to return to the United States and set up a consulting practice in early 2014. But she then returned to New Zealand that September, and set up her business in Wellington.

"I love my hometown – Kalamazoo, Michigan – and I got to spend time with family, but Wellington was a better place to do business. I also missed my kiwi friends and colleagues."

Already, Susan has been invited to speak on Internet governance and trade at events across the globe, including New York's Columbia University and in Accra, Ghana.

She is leading two different processes at the IGF – a discussion on Internet Protocol version 6 and another on Network Neutrality – and she continues to work on building an online archive of IGF discussions to increase public access to knowledge. The project is called the "Friends of the IGF."

On the cusp

"We – you and I – were born before the commercial, residential Internet existed. Ex ante. Now we're on the cusp, and everyone born today comes in ex post.

"We are the people who are making decisions that will shape their future. I don't know if lawmakers think about that very often. People tell me not to hold my breath, but I want politicians to acknowledge that the greater good might demand something different than the existing business models and structures they are familiar with, and which pay, in some form or another.

"The Internet does two things really well – disruption and convergence. This gives rise to uncertainty and vacuums, which people fight to fill. It's important to stop and think about how to make socially positive policy when writing law for the Internet – and to make sure the law is written in a way that is mindful of the Internet's realities. We have to think harder and learn new things."

Susan is now bidding farewell to her second home to take up a position in Washington DC that will see her continuing work in Internet governance.

"I want to give a hug to New Zealand. I know it's been said a million times, but New Zealand is a beautiful country and it has beautiful people. It's a home away from home and I hope to one day return."

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