Inside the Information Society: The IGF - retreating to advance

Each week, David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week’s blog comments on the future of the IGF following last week’s UN retreat, in continuation to last week’s post.

The United Nations held a retreat last week to discuss the future direction of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Around forty people, from every stakeholder group that takes part in the Forum, came together at Glen Cove near New York for two days, to share ideas, anxieties and aspirations informally with one another.

In last week’s blog I made some suggestions for issues the retreat might well consider. This week, having been in Glen Cove, I’ll set out six ways in which the retreat has influenced my thinking.

I’m not, though, going to give an account of the retreat. A full report will be circulated shortly by the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), which organised it. Everyone concerned with the IGF will be invited to respond using their own consultation processes, leading to discussion at the next meeting of the Forum, which will be in Mexico in December.

So how has the retreat influenced my thinking?

The importance of the Forum

First, it reaffirmed for me that the IGF’s important. It’s important, to my mind, because it’s unique in two important ways. It brings people together – from all stakeholder groups, both technical and public policy – in a single IGF community. And it doesn’t force them to agree common positions. Those who take part in the IGF are better equipped to participate effectively in other fora where decisions do get made as a result. Internet decision-making would be worse without it.

The value of retreating (stepping back)

Second, though, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect, or even close. Last week, I set out my concerns about the depth of stakeholder participation and the risk the IGF might end up as an echo-chamber of Internet insiders. The retreat showed me that others share those fears.

But it also demonstrated a way forward. The UN renewed the Forum’s mandate last December for ten years. That puts a responsibility on the IGF community. It shouldn’t rest content that the IGF has been renewed. On the contrary. Mandate extension requires it to review, revise and reinvigorate its Forum.

The retreat, organised by DESA and regarded with suspicion by some Internet insiders, was a step in that direction. It showed how valuable it is for stakeholders from diverse backgrounds to take a root-and-branch look at what they’re doing, few holds barred, informally, in depth, exposing concerns and differences that don’t normally get fully aired. How necessary it’s become for Internet insiders to step back from something that they’re very close to and make sure it’s fit for purpose, now that they know it’s sure to be around awhile.

The retreat that’s just happened shouldn’t stand alone. The IGF and the Internet community would benefit from similar in-depth discussions within stakeholder communities, and within national Internet communities. I hope they replicate it.

That’s a process matter. My four remaining points concern the substance of the IGF and the ways it works.

From event to ecosystem

First, the IGF’s no longer just an annual event; it has become an ecosystem. As well as the global Forum, around sixty national and regional IGFs now take place each year. There are intersessional activities, from so-called ‘dynamic coalitions’ (whose record is mixed) to more recent ‘best practice fora’ concerned with challenging issues like spam.

That ecosystem offers opportunities for many more people to take part – and for valuable interchange between Internet experience at national and global levels. For many people, national rather than global activities will be what matter. Intersessional work could likewise become the basis for many people to participate. The IGF’s management structures and ethos should reflect that change.

Engaging with the world outside

Second, this ecosystem doesn’t stand alone. The Internet now affects every aspect of public policy, and it needs much stronger interfaces with them than the IGF has managed to establish yet. I’ve written previously about the weakness of its interface with the UN’s primary concern over the next decade and more, its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It’s just as weak in other areas. If the Internet is as important as its advocates believe, an Internet Governance Forum must reach beyond Internet insiders.

Efforts have been made to engage with other public policy fora over the years. They’ve not been helped by the Forum’s title: ‘Internet governance’ sounds irrelevant to those in other fields, in a way that ‘Internet public policy’ would not. But, too often, these efforts have seen Internet insiders evangelising to the uninitiated. That’s the wrong way round. If the IGF is to build partnerships in other public policy fields, it needs to listen first, talk later.

A longer timeframe

Third, now that the Forum has a ten-year mandate, it shouldn’t try to live from year to year. Planning its work three, four or five years ahead would enable it to gather evidence, structure debate, generate ideas, build consensus and produce substantive outcomes of the kind some of the Forum’s critics think are missing from its work. It would allow it, too, to assess the long-term trends that are reshaping the Internet and governance requirements, which will require it to adapt its work and workload over the next decade. It needs, in that sense, to be ‘future proof’.

Ten years ago the IGF was an experiment. It’s proved itself, for most stakeholders, worthwhile and ready to mature. Moving to multi-year programming would be one aspect of maturity, but it would require some changes to the Forum’s Multistakeholder Advisory Group (the MAG). At present, MAG members are selected annually by the UN Secretary-General, and their terms of reference focus on the annual global meeting. That inhibits the kind of broader thinking and programming outlined above, and MAG terms of reference will surely need to be rethought.

Secure resources

Fourth, now that the Forum has a ten-year mandate, it shouldn’t have to live from hand to mouth. Funding for the Forum comes through a UN trust fund, from a variety of sources, but it’s barely been enough to meet past workloads, let alone the more substantial one implied by its new mandate. If it’s to work between its annual meetings, build on national and regional IGFs and develop relationships in other public policy arenas, it needs resources – funds, people, and commitment from both the UN and its MAG. And those resources need to be secure.

I gave two reasons earlier why the IGF’s unique. I’ll add a third, which is important here. It has, in many ways, two clients: the UN system and the Internet community. If it’s to serve both it must retain its independence: avoid, especially, becoming financially dependent on other vested interests, including the UN itself. That’s challenging, but it’s not the only organisation facing such a challenge.

In conclusion

The IGF needs to rethink its role and ways of working for the next decade. The retreat the UN organised has made a valuable contribution to that. The Internet community should treat the report of the retreat as a starting point and respond imaginatively. It would help if national and stakeholder communities took a similar in-depth look at what they want from the IGF, nationally and globally, today and over the next ten years.

Next week, before moving on to other themes, I’ll take one more look at Internet governance issues – at how to map what’s going on within the Internet environment.

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