It’s been said that a week is a long time in politics, but in the world of internet governance, a week can be a lifetime or a nano-second, depending on your perspective. I must admit that during the past week at the third meeting of the UN Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation, I experienced both forms of time distortion.
This was to be the last meeting of the working group which began its work in February 2013. Its task was to make recommendations “on how to fully implement [the WSIS] mandate”. The working group report will be an input to the overall review of the outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society in 2014.
Since the meeting last November, a subgroup (the Correspondence Working Group) has been working, under terms of reference from the WGEC, on further research and analysis about the possible gaps in mechanisms for dealing with internet related public policy issues.
The week began optimistically, under the able guidance of the Chair, Peter Major. There was some useful information sharing, many recommendations were tabled and there was eventual preliminary consensus on several of them. It was a good beginning. However, and perhaps inevitably, we did not get to meaningful debate on the real issues, namely, those raised in all the submissions in 2013. Instead, the conversation just continuously steered back to 3 issues:
- whether there should be a new government only mechanism;
- “enhanced cooperation” – it’s meaning and the whether or not it had been fully implemented or not; and
- the juxtaposition of democracy VS multistakeholderism – for an engaging summary on these see also Avri Doria’s blog post on the meeting.
It soon became obvious some working group members had rigid positions from which they did not seem willing to move. This meant that at times the granular nature of drafting by committee was eye-watering, especially by 9pm on Wednesday night. But the Chair’s desire for consensus kept him optimistic and when by Friday it was clear more work was needed, the discussion quickly moved to next steps: a further meeting and some more work by the Correspondence Working Group. It might have felt as if progress stalled.
But there were some significant steps forward. First, in relation to the need for a new mechanism: although views on this were initially characterised as being only two (for or against) in fact there was a range of views and several proposals for how enhanced cooperation could next evolve. For example, the idea of some kind of a platform (maybe in CSTD maybe elsewhere) for sharing information and resources, gained a lot of interest. By the end of the meeting it was clear the destructive binary of winning or losing on the concept of a new mechanism, had moved to a more inclusive acknowledgement of diverse views and diverse options for the way forward.
Second, the debate about the IGF was more positive. There were explicit acknowledgements of the IGF and enhanced cooperation as complementary processes. While criticism of the IGF was still made, it was much less on a purely philosophical basis and there seemed more acceptance that it filled a particular role. And even more promising was to see a draft proposal that the IGF have some ability to make recommendations – such a step seemed impossible even a year ago. So, overall, I feel somewhat optimistic.
However, elsewhere the complex wheels of power between governments continue turning and I feel the Tunis Agenda is like one of those ships stuck in a political ice flow which is slowing going to crush it. For example, during our meeting, China issued a statement on behalf of the G77 group of countries, calling for a new UN Summit on the Tunis Agenda. While I do wonder if we need to move beyond the Tunis Agenda, I do not know how that can be done in a way to advance civil society interests or to ensure they are able to participate as equal stakeholders. But those are issues for another day.
A particular highlight during the last meeting was the excellent presence of civil society observers in the room including: Anja Kovacs, Sam Dickinson, Matthew Shears, Joana Veron, Lea Kasper and Deborah Brown. They kept tweeting, sharing ideas, talking with other working group participants and supplying quips and critical comments. There were also a small number of remote participants, including Nnenna Nwakanma – but we need more.
So, while we did not complete our work, we did make some progress. We have not given up and we will be back in May.
Links to meeting transcripts and documentation: