Inside the Information Society: Three challenges for the Internet Governance Forum

Each week, David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week’s blog looks at the challenges for the future of the Internet Governance Forum.

Later this week, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) is holding a ‘retreat’ to discuss the direction and work of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Around 35 people, from different backgrounds, with different experience of the IGF, will talk informally about its future and, maybe, reach towards consensus. Why is this happening, and what’s it for?

What is the IGF?

First, some history, for those who’re less familiar.

The IGF emerged from the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005, part of a compromise on Internet governance to be implemented by the UN Secretary-General. It was set up as a space for multistakeholder discussion of issues around Internet governance, without decision-making powers. You can find its mandate in paragraph 72 of the Tunis Agenda that was agreed at WSIS.

In practice, this has meant an annual meeting with around 1500 or so participants, with plenary and workshop sessions on a wide range of technical and public policy aspects of the Internet. A working group of the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development reviewed its work and made recommendations for improvements in 2012, particularly concerned with the participation of developing countries and the development of more substantial outcome documents. These are gradually being implemented.

The IGF’s evolved over the past ten years. It’s become more prepared to tackle controversial issues like the role of ICANN and human rights. It’s developed a supporting infrastructure of national and regional IGFs that have value both globally and in their own locations. And, in the last two years, it’s begun ‘intersessional’ work, which supports deeper discussion at annual meetings and could lead to more substantive outcomes.

So why have a retreat?

Last December, the UN General Assembly extended the IGF’s mandate for the next ten years. That’s provoked new debate about what the Forum’s for and how it should go about its business.

DESA’s intervention has been controversial. Some in the Internet community believe it’s part of an attempt to institutionalise the IGF within the UN system. Others see it as an opportunity to take a fresh look at how it works and re-energise it for the future.

Where has the IGF been successful?

I’ve attended each of the ten meetings of the IGF to date – not as an activist, but as a commentator, analyst and panellist. Here’s how I’d summarise how it’s done so far.

There were real doubts about the IGF when it began, especially about whether it could bring together different stakeholders in a single forum. It’s been more successful than people expected it to be ten years ago.

It’s built a broad Internet community which is genuinely multistakeholder – it really doesn’t matter in the meeting what your background is – and, just as important, one which reaches beyond the technical community to include public policy practitioners.

And it’s proved successful as what ancient Greeks called a ‘probouleutic’ assembly: a place where people can discuss issues informally before going on to take decisions in more formal meetings. It’s arguable, for example, that the culture of multistakeholder dialogue fostered by the IGF has made it easier for those involved to agree on terms for the IANA transition which is now in train.

That doesn’t mean, though, that nothing needs to change. I’ll pose three challenges to those who will take part in the retreat.

Who ‘owns’ the IGF?

In one sense, it belongs to the United Nations: set up by the Secretary-General, overseen by DESA, with a small and under-resourced secretariat in the UN Palais in Geneva. But in another sense it belongs to the Internet community – with a Multistakeholder Advisory Group of representatives of different communities (selected by the Secretary-General following soundings among stakeholder groups) and a multistakeholder culture, set by its participants, which is very different from the formal multilateralism of UN meetings.

Ideally, the IGF should serve both the UN system and the Internet community (or indeed, the wider world community). Doing both cannot be easy, and would benefit from some fresh thinking.

Who is it for?

Much is made by the IGF’s supporters of its multistakeholder character and, it’s true, it has brought together people from different stakeholder backgrounds far more effectively than WSIS ever did. Stakeholder communities, in this context, are usually thought of as including governments, international and intergovernmental organisations, the private sector, civil society and the academic and technical community.

But stakeholder participation is more complex than this broad division would suggest. Each stakeholder community is itself highly diverse and there’s a growing sense that the IGF needs to broaden stakeholder participation.

  • Developing countries are less well represented than developed countries, across all stakeholder communities and notably among governments.
  • Governments are usually represented by their ICT ministries, with little representation from ministries that use the Internet to deliver public services.
  • Private sector participation comes overwhelmingly from the supply side that provides the Internet, not from demand-side businesses that make use of it (whether big businesses in financial services or SMEs).
  • Civil society comes primarily from individuals and organisations with a strong interest in the Internet per se, while development agencies, faith groups, trades unions etc. are much less represented than in other UN fora.
  • Parts of the technical community, too, are under-represented, such as registries and registrars.

Partly because of this, there’s a risk that the IGF becomes a forum for Internet insiders to discuss Internet issues: a forum for the like-minded rather than one that includes a wider range of views. Many people are anxious or fearful about the evolution of the Internet and the impacts which it’s having on economy, society and culture. If the IGF is to be a global forum on the future of the Internet, it’s important that their views are present too. How can they be brought into the mix?

Where is it going?

My third challenge follows from this. The Internet is becoming more important every year across the whole of public policy. The interface between it and other policy areas is increasingly important, yet the interface between the IGF and those other fields is weak.

I’ve noticed this particularly with sustainable development. Panels to discuss SD at the IGF have been made up overwhelmingly of those within the Internet community, with little or no input from those who work in sustainable development itself. That’s not sufficient for a dialogue. If it’s to build a constructive interface between the Internet and aspects of public policy affected by it, the IGF needs to understand those policy areas far more than it does at present and to reach out to experts in them in order to do so.

Three challenges then, which suggest why it’s important for us to think about the IGF not just for the present, but also for ten years’ time. This week’s ‘retreat’ should be just one of many opportunities to do so.

Next week I’ll comment on ideas emerging from the IGF retreat.

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