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The global Internet Governance Forum (IGF) begins its fifteenth outing this week – but it’s an IGF the like we haven’t previously seen. Thanks to COVID-19, it’s online and it’s spread over two weeks.

For the record it has four main themes, on data, trust, inclusion and environment, and it will also talk about the impact of pandemic. Last time, I wrote about the positive experience of Britain’s national IGF this year (also online, also spread out). This week, some thoughts about the global IGF: some history, some praise, some criticism, and some questions about how it should develop.

Some history

The IGF was born out of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005. It was part of a compromise between incompatible views about the role of governments, business, civil society and the technical community on future governance of the internet itself and of its policy impacts.

A forum, WSIS delegates decreed, should be established, bright and new. Multistakeholder and global in character. Free to discuss internet governance but with no decision-making powers. A set of guidelines of the things it ought to do while doing this (facilitate best practice, identify emerging issues, build capacity and so on: common UN goals), but no especial plan on how to go about it. To know more, see article 72 of WSIS’ Tunis Agenda.

The year between WSIS and the first IGF was fraught. This was a new venture and many thought that it would fail. Should it deal with just one issue each year, or should it range more widely (as it has)? Should each individual be treated just the same or should it be a dialogue between stakeholder groups? Decisions on modalities like these were not made at the Summit but came later. Then the first event succeeded and its modalities became the status quo.

Some praise

It’s been a significant part of the internet’s burgeoning calendar. Ancient Athenians used to hold what they called ‘probouleutic’ assemblies: places where those people who could vote would go to talk about the issues before they went elsewhere to vote on them. The IGF was meant to play that kind of role, and it’s a valuable part of any good decision-making process.

The IGF has built a network of habitué(e)s, and its habitué(e)s enjoy the vibe. A lot of networking goes on. Over time it’s become less masculine. Civil society participation’s become a little more predominant, perhaps, but there’s a goodly mix of stakeholders, some of whom are influential.

Debates vary in quality, some really excellent, some routine and desultory (which is true of every conference). Workshops are often more interesting than plenaries. As in all big conferences, much useful work is done in margins. In the early days especially there were times when one could sense nuances shifting, ideas emerging that would crop up later at ICANN and in other places where decisions mattered. Less so today because that buzz can happen in many more places.

It’s built more of a year-round profile. There’s a range of intersessional activities on different topics that allow groups with common interests to build agendas for testing at the Forum. These could make the IGF more of a process, less of an event.

Most interestingly, perhaps, it’s spawned more than a hundred national, regional and special IGFs that offer similar networking and informal spaces for discussion by more people in more places – like the British IGF I wrote about last time. In time those national IGFs might have more impact on how people actually experience their internet than does the global meeting.

Some criticism

The IGF has also had its problems, some because it hasn’t changed as much as the internet has changed around it.

When it began, there were no other spaces like it, where folks with different stakes could burrow into internet issues together. Now, there are dozens, hundreds. One could spend months between them (last year in conference centres, this year online). Its unique selling point in 2006 has gone and, with it, some of those who used to participate in it. What’s still distinctive is its formal role within the UN system (a role that’s next reviewed in 2025).

There’s been criticism, from time to time, that it doesn’t have substantive outcomes, and efforts have been made, a few times now, to make some outcomes more substantive. That’s a difficult line to tread when participation’s self-selecting and there aren’t decision-making powers. To my mind, there’s more value in a forum for genuine discussion than another forum focused on agreeing texts. The search has been for middle ways.

Some have criticised participation. Not enough governments or business people, they suggest. Certainly, governments from developing countries (and those that dissent from the Forum’s multistakeholder ethos) could be more widely represented. Businesses and government representatives tend to come from the supply side of the internet (those who make it, oversee it, regulate it) rather than the demand side (those that use it and depend on it). Few come who fear the internet more than admire it. Most prioritise the internet’s importance.

The UN Secretary-General has talked about the need for IGF (and internet governance in general) to become multisectoral and multidisciplinary as well as multistakeholder and multilateral. I’d also say a UN forum on the internet and on its impact should be as pluralistic as it’s multistakeholder. It needs diverse perspectives if it’s to challenge orthodoxies.

Proposals for change

The IGF’s been running now for fifteen years. Its mandate’s next reviewed in five years’ time. This is a good time to ask how it should change to meet the needs there’ll be in 2025. There are two main reasons now to ask that question.

  • As I’ve said already, there are dozens of new fora that the IGF competes with for attention and participation – some decision-making, others not. The internet has moved beyond needing the IGF to play the role that WSIS delegates were asking for a decade and a half ago (a way of enabling multistakeholder discourse to progress out of a very polarised debate).

  • Three weeks ago I blogged about the six big challenges I see facing the internet today and suggested that old ways of doing things are insufficient. When the IGF began, broadband was what we’d now call narrowband, the cloud was in its infancy and Facebook barely past a start-up. Internet governance, I suggested, needs imaginative rethinking to address its future rather than relying on what’s worked before.

Some proposals to build on the IGF are on the table. A High Level Panel convened by the UN Secretary-General proffered what it called ‘IGFPlus’ as one option for responding to The Age of Digital Interdependence – strengthening its management and capacity to contribute to policy discourse and thereby decision-making. His subsequent Roadmap for Digital Cooperation has set down ways in which that might be done, adding more ‘high level’ input, influence and authority within the UN and internet decision-making systems.

A question of dual identity

There is a question here, it seems to me, of dual identity.

The IGF identity that’s addressed in these proposals is its identity inside the UN system. The IGF was born at a UN summit, part of a compromise on internet governance that could achieve consensus amongst member-states, would be established by the Secretary-General, be managed by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), be reviewed by the General Assembly.

It had a mandate which was set out in the Tunis Agenda. The proposals in the High Level Panel report and in the Roadmap are attempts to define how to fulfil that mandate in the context of today’s different digital environment (the broader subject of both documents). This is obviously important when it comes, five years from now, to decide about renewal of that mandate.

But the IGF, it seems to me, has built its own second identity out of its own experience. It has forged and curated that identity, building on the multistakeholder experience of other internet entities and its (slightly unexpected) success in 2006, evolving its own traditions and modalities.

As the years have passed, and the internet has changed around it, its place within the annual cycle of internet gatherings has changed as well. It’s lost some of its former purpose, as so many other internet fora have emerged. It’s lost some of its early adherents, too, but gained new ones. I still see a good many of the usual suspects from WSIS days when I attend each year but lately (as in internet discourse more generally) there’s been a noticeable change of generations.

The IGF, in short, has generated its own momentum, not at the forefront of debates about the internet, but a space that has a particular mix of people in it, who find it comfortable and valuable, in which they can discuss ideas, share experience, learn from others, find congenial fellow-travellers in cyberspace.

That’s positive and valuable, irrespective of its formal UN role, and it too needs to respond to changing context. I’ll suggest three questions about how this pair of roles might go:

  • Should it be primarily a forum about governance of the internet (which is dealt with in many other places nowadays) or about governance of economy, society and culture as they are affected by the internet?

  • Should it be primarily a forum for internet insiders – those who are professionally concerned with the internet – or a space in which they can meet, learn from, share understandings with those whose expertise and interests are outside the internet?

  • Should it be concerned just with the internet or evolve into something that’s concerned with the digital environment (and digital governance) more broadly?

Those questions aren’t just about the IGF’s role within the UN system but about its value on its own terms for the internet community and the wider community of which the internet community’s a part. They raise challenging issues of inclusion, diversity and plurality, the ability to fill the ‘probouleutic’ role, the relationship between an annual global event and a year-long process of global and national discourse.

They require serious and imaginative thought before the next review in 2025 because the internet is changing fast and renewal relies on relevance. The next year, with lessons learnt from 2019’s online experience, would be a good time to reflect on them.

Read also: APC at the Internet Governance Forum 2020
David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.