Inside the Digital Society: A different year for the Internet Governance Forum

Last week I wrote about the need for us to think differently, and look towards the future, when the UN system reviews the twenty years since the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). This week some thoughts on this year’s iteration of one of WSIS’ major outcomes, the Internet Governance Forum or IGF.

I last wrote in this blog about the IGF after last year’s event. It’s worth revisiting that blog today because, this year, the IGF will be virtual, and because, like every other aspect of WSIS, we ought to think now about what needs to be in that review.

Achievements …

Back in December I noted how the IGF has evolved over the period since WSIS: now more than an annual conference, also including intersessional work and national and regional IGFs.

I identified three achievements in particular – its role as a discussion forum, its multistakeholder engagement, the range of subjects that it covers – but thought that each requires improvement.

and challenges

And I suggested four challenges that it needs to meet before the UN General Assembly considers its mandate renewal during that WSIS review in 2025:

  • Inclusion: ‘Multistakeholderism of the like-minded,’ I said, is insufficient. Most people at the IGF speak fluent Internet (and fluent English). Some countries, business sectors, areas of civil society are largely missing. There are few there who’re critical or anxious about the internet’s impact on economy, society and culture. A UN forum should be comprehensive.

  • Adaptation: The internet has changed enormously since WSIS. It’s now a grand commercial venture. Thousands of other discussion and decision-making fora are available. The IGF’s place within that pantheon needs to change too if it is to remain relevant.

  • Impact: Successive UN reports have urged the IGF to come to more substantive outcomes which would make it more attractive to government participants. That’s difficult, as negotiated outcomes were deliberately excluded from its mandate, and fit more easily in other, less amorphous places – but was reiterated in the UN Secretary-General’s recent High Level Panel’s report.

  • Sustainability. Should the IGF be renewed again in five years’ time? If so, what does it need to do to guarantee renewal? And what should be its forward-looking purpose? Its future cannot be its past.

Recently the UN Secretary-General issued a Roadmap for Digital Cooperation including ideas for developing the IGF: a new high-level body to enhance the Forum, a more focused agenda, ministerial or parliamentary sessions, more intersessional work, and greater visibility. Steps that aren’t particularly radical but will form part of thinking up to the review (and steps that are disliked by those who want to keep the IGF as much as possible the way it is).

A COVID IGF

This year’s IGF is going to be different. First, how? Then, what might that mean for those challenges above?

The IGF is going to be virtual this year. The COVID crisis means it can’t be held in Poland as was planned (but will go there next year). Instead, its plenaries and many, many workshops will transfer online.

It’s also going to be built around four themes, a bit more focused than in previous years. Those four are data, trust, inclusion and environment: the first three most familiar from the past; the latter less so.

What’s going to be missing most is networking. I’ve been to every IGF so far (fourteen of them). Like almost everyone, I spend much more time talking to people outside sessions than I do inside them. That’s the way of international conferences.

Challenges of a COVID IGF

There are some obvious challenges arising here.

Remote participation’s been a part of every IGF but, let’s be frank, been hard to manage. Most sessions have included some input from remote participants but that’s often felt an afterthought, with sessions focused on speaker-heavy panels in the conference room.

This time, remote participation’s going to be all we’ve got. There’s much more experience of how to handle that around than there was a year ago, thanks to our working lives these last few months. ICANN, for one, has held a virtual conference of the size of IGF (not without problems, including ‘zoom-bombing’). There’ll be some experience from national IGFs – I’m on the organising group for mine, in the UK – though they’re much smaller and much less diverse in content.

It’s a massive challenge still. Networking’s particularly difficult. Those who’ve been to IGFs know how, in many sessions, many ‘participants’ are focused on their emails – sometimes working, sometimes planning dinner – rather than on panels. Online sessions require concentration. How does a virtual IGF get people to stay focused? How does it replicate tea-breaks, corridors and raucous dinner dates?

Three challenges in particular, then: two for now; the other, partly contingent, for the longer-term.

  • The IGF Secretariat’s notoriously underfunded. Switching from a physical venue to a virtual one doesn’t require fewer resources. If it’s to be done well it needs experience from elsewhere, a lot of careful thought, and active event management. There’s not a lot of time to put all that in place.

  • The IGF’s notoriously complex: lots of sessions organised by different people, supposedly (at least) feeding into one another, into plenaries, and into some sort of final outcome documents. I doubt that will be easier in an online Forum; it will certainly throw up new difficulties. And running an IGF on site relies heavily on hosts. This time there won’t be any.

  • Making it work’s going to be crucial to the future of the Forum. If it works well, it could point to new ways of doing things? (Do we always have to travel? Can more of us participate effectively online in future?) If it doesn’t, will regular participants start opting out (to save money, to save time)? Will a groundswell of Forum scepticism grow as a result?

And opportunities

But there are opportunities as well, including ways to address the four challenges that I explored in last December’s blog. Going virtual, as we’ve all found this year, enables us to try new ways of doing things, and some of them may be improvements. Four suggestions.

Inclusion

Take inclusion, for example. How will this year’s IGF be marketed? Will the focus be on keeping usual participants on board, or will the chance be taken to encourage a much wider group to sample what the IGF can offer? People who have different perspectives, for example – particularly those who see themselves as users of the internet, rather than as makers. People who can’t afford the plane fare and hotel bills that are available to those that currently participate (especially big companies). It would be good if these could join the conversation.

Remote participation’s obviously crucial here. The opportunity’s to try to make it as equal and open as possible, while continuing to foster discussion and ideas. This requires many things, from skilful moderation to language interpretation. Got right, they could make a lasting difference. They need planning well ahead.

Diversity of view

Diversity of view can also be introduced to panels more easily online. I’ve long argued that the IGF’s plenary sessions should listen more to those whose policies and programmes are impacted by the internet – experts and practitioners in development, environment, education, employment etc. – as well as those within the internet who have a view on them. It’s been difficult, though, to entice people from those fields to an IGF meeting in another continent for a fifteen-minute speaker slot. Much, much easier to invite them in online.

Intersessional dialogue

Better still, that dialogue could be encouraged in the run-up to the Forum. The IGF already does a good deal intersessionally: not just its national and regional IGFs but also ‘best practice fora’, ‘dynamic coalitions’ and the like. There’s little time to do this now this year but an innovation that I’d like to see would be informal online dialogue between leading practitioners in those other fields and usual suspects from the internet – about what those fields need from the internet, want from the internet and fear from the internet.

Three or four online dialogues like that in the run up to November’s meeting could help dynamise the latter, and help to establish the IGF as a more substantive player in an interdisciplinary world of public policy rather than just in the internet. It may be too late to do it this year. It would not be too late next.

COVID-19

There is one obvious area for this year’s IGF to validate itself that way, which is COVID itself. COVID has demonstrated ways in which the internet can help sustain activity during a crisis, and also the limitations to how far it can do so. It has raised important issues, not least concerning public health and data privacy protections, information and disinformation. It’s been suggested that digitalisation’s been boosted in the longer term by COVID crisis. (Within limits, I would say.)

So what’s actually happened? What’s implied? What’s appropriate, looking forward? What needs to be avoided? What do we know? What can be surmised? What do people outside the bubble of the internet think, hope for or fear?

If IGF 2020’s to be considered relevant by those beyond the internet, it should front up the internet and COVID – not as a way of thinking about the internet itself but as a dialogue with those whose focus is on public health (and therefore, by extension, on public policy in general).

But can it be done?

One problem here is that the IGF’s organisational parameters are limited. The Secretariat’s under-resourced, as mentioned. There’ll be no help from hosts.

The Multistakeholder Advisory Group of UN appointees that’s responsible for organising the Forum (the MAG) has established its own way of doing things, which isn’t very flexible. It’s been slow to innovate and the need for consensus between different stakeholders and geopolities makes innovation difficult. The structures that it uses, for example for deciding workshops – though they’ve evolved – are actually quite rigid and were well underway before the COVID crisis really hit.

The future

This year’s IGF is bound to be experimental. Some things will work well; others not. Here are three things that I'd anticipate.

First, most participants will want to revert to meeting physically next year. They’ll want the camaraderie of networking, which adds to the value of the work done at the Forum as well as space for social chit-chat. There’ll be much backslapping (assuming that’s then COVID-safe) in Katowice 2021: “we made it,” folks will say, “we’re back again; how grand.”

Second, lessons should have been learnt by then about remote participation and ways to build more genuine dialogue between those in the room and those online. This is, after all, an internet forum. If anything should be able to enable relatively equal participation at a distance, it should. So far it hasn’t. Next year should be better (which may make more people keen to participate online rather than traveling).

Third, this year’s experience will be a big test for the future. If online preparation and engagement are successful and can be built on in the next few years, that could be very positive for the future of the Forum: reinvigorating it, extending reach, finding a more sustainable place for it within the pantheon of annual internet events, locking it into the wider range of UN discussion and decision-making.

But if it’s not successful in adapting this year that could undermine its future. Participants who are discouraged this year may not come back next. Critics of the IGF – and there are many – will be bolstered. Renewal in 2025 is far from guaranteed.

The strangeness of this year makes it a test, too, for the ideas in the Secretary-General’s Roadmap. A successful virtual meeting will suggest the IGF can find ways to reinvigorate itself; a less successful one might be taken to imply that UN headquarters should take it more in hand.

In conclusion:

So three big tests for the IGF, and for its MAG, this year.

The first is to make the best, and preferably the most, out of the enforced transition to an online Forum. That’s going to be difficult and will require imagination, flexibility and innovation (a word that’s often used by an internet establishment that’s proved institutionally rather conservative).

The second is to observe carefully what happens. Who participated? What did they think of the experience? What worked and what did not? How different were things for them from years gone by? What will they want to do next year?

The third’s to build on 2020’s odd experience. To meet the challenges, take the opportunities, learn from them, and make the IGF fit and relevant for the next decade. That’s what the MAG needs to show it’s done when the UN meets to decide the Forum’s fate in five years’ time.

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.
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