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The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) met last week, for the fourteenth time. I’m one of the few, I suspect, that has been to every one.

Another of those few, APC’s former director Anriette Esterhuysen, has just been appointed by the UN Secretary General to chair the IGF’s Multistakeholder Advisory Group (the MAG), the unwieldy conference arrangements committee that does much to run the show (see picture).

Some background – because (its fans don’t realise) not everyone knows about the IGF. Some comments on its progress. And some challenges for Anriette.

What is this IGF?

The IGF was born at the World Summit on the Information Society back in 2005. It was a compromise, one half of a pair of new ideas to close the gap between very different views of how the internet ought to be governed. ‘Enhanced cooperation’ – the other half – has failed to build a new framework for multilateral cooperation. The IGF’s been more successful with a multistakeholder approach.

It’s an annual meeting, open to all, attended by around three thousand people from diverse stakeholder groups – governments, business, civil society, the ‘technical community’ – though not from every country or every viewpoint (see below).

It’s a discussion forum, without decision-making powers. The ancient Greeks called this a ‘probouleutic assembly’ – a place where issues were discussed before those who were allowed to vote moved on to places where they could vote but not discuss.

It’s evolved. Plenary sessions are often rather desultory, but they’re surrounded by smaller sessions on a wide variety of subjects: some enthralling, others tedious. There are ‘dynamic coalitions’ and ‘best practice forums’ which work on issues between annual sessions. There’s been a move towards ‘IGF messages’ – not decisions but efforts at consensus – issued at the meeting’s end. There are now national and regional IGFs in around half the countries of the world.

The last two years, too, there’ve been important opening speeches by the UN Secretary-General (which have been quite critical) and by the leaders of the hosts (Macron and Merkel).

Views of the IGF

It’s worth remembering that this was experimental when it started. There were no similar multistakeholder fora. It had no established ways of doing things: those were invented during its first year. Many people, on all sides, expected it to fail, and some wished that to happen.

Its existence is supported now by many, especially in civil society – to which it gives more voice – and among those businesses and governments that want to fend off multilateral governance. But many of its supporters criticise it for lack of ambition or lack of achievement. And it has opponents in principle as well.

My own view’s that it’s been much more successful than might have been expected. It’s a decent forum for discussion, different from academic and multilateral spaces, and pretty good for networking. So what’s to like and what’s to not?

What’s to like?

First, there’s value in a talking shop. If it had more of a decision-making role, it would end up negotiating texts in the way that stifles real debate (and progress) in many multilateral meetings.

Second, the fact that it’s made up of diverse stakeholders, not acting as political blocs but as individuals with different viewpoints.

Third, the range of subjects that it covers where the internet’s concerned – from its underlying technology to the economics of domains to impacts on rights, development and the environment.

These give it potential, which it realises to some extent, but I’ve also reservations with the implications of all three.

So what’s to not?

First, it’s not as wide-ranging a talk shop, in terms of perspectives, as it ought to be. You often hear speakers say, approvingly, that ‘obviously no-one here will disagree with me when I say’ something. At the IGF, there’s a broadly shared consensus about the internet and how it should be governed. People who hold markedly different views tend not to come. Well, that’s a problem, not grounds for approval. Whether you agree with them or not, there are many views about the internet that are not represented. If the IGF is meant to be a global forum, a UN forum, they need to be there and those views should be discussed not sidelined.

Second, it’s not as diverse as it likes to think. The prevailing ethos and the cost of travel and accommodation mean that some substantial countries are poorly represented, however big the part they play within the internet (including China). A lot of governments don’t send representatives to meetings that don’t take decisions. There’s hardly anyone around from businesses that use the internet rather than those that make it.

And third, the range of subjects that it covers raises problems. Like-minded internet insiders are not the only voices that should be heard about the impact of technology on development, environment, governance or rights. They need to hear from those who’ve spent their lives working on those broader themes, but they are rarely present (or invited) to share their experience of how the internet affects those outcomes.

The IGF today’s also extending reach into other areas of the digital society, such as AI, which are not primarily outcomes of the internet. Extending internet governance as it stands into those areas is deeply problematic.

What the Secretary-General said

A few years ago, a UN working group made recommendations on ways of strengthening the IGF. Some have been implemented, others remain in train. The recent UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation recommended putting the IGF on a more sustainable financial footing – it’s lived a hand-to-mouth existence up to now – and tieing its secretariat more closely to the Secretary-General’s office.

The Secretary-General has also had his say on some of the problems I’ve outlined above, last year in Paris, this year in Berlin. He wants to ‘build [the IGF] into a platform where government representatives from all parts of the world – along with companies, technical experts and civil society – can come together to share policy expertise, debate emerging technology issues, agree on some basic common principles, and take these ideas back to appropriate norm-setting fora.’

That’s arguably not so ambitious and not so far from the ‘probouleutic’ role that WSIS had in mind. He also wants the UN’s and IGF’s approach to become multidisciplinary as well as multilateral and multisectoral – bringing more expertise from outside the internet to bear on the internet and all it does.

Four challenges ahead

Let me end, then, with four challenges that face the new MAG chair as she takes on the task of shepherding her crew of fifty stakeholders.

First, inclusion. Multistakeholderism of the like-minded is insufficient. How can the IGF become more inclusive of those who are not internet insiders, and those with different views about its future? Could it, for example, help internet insiders to learn more about the impact of the internet from those outside the tent, as well as explaining what the internet can do for them?

Second, adaptation. The ‘IGF community’ today is different from what it was at its beginning. It has its usual suspects and its newcomers. The proportion of civil society representatives seems to have grown, while that of governments has not. The private sector now is dominated by major global corporations. The internet’s not the only major factor in the digital society today, and it’s only one of many internet and digital discussion fora. What’s the IGF’s place in this evolving digital decision-making ecosystem?

Third, impact. I’ve argued that there’s value in a talking shop, but there are also limitations. There’ve been several initiatives to ‘improve’ it but the IGF has struggled to identify ways of establishing effective outcomes that don’t jeopardise its openness and quality as talking shop. How can its ‘dynamic coalitions’ be made more dynamic, its ‘best practice forums’ more creative, its national and regional IGFs more inclusive, its outcome documents more influential?

Fourth, sustainability. The IGF’s mandate is up for renewal again in five years’ time. There was hostility to renewal on its fifth anniversary, much less on its tenth. How will it fare in the geopolitical context of the next half-decade, which will see many other new initiatives discussing digital development? Should it be renewed again and, if so, what does it need to do to guarantee renewal?

Next week: Some thoughts from one of my most interesting sessions of the week, on employment the gig economy and future work.

Image: Screenshot of video from the session "Bringing it all together" on day 4 of the IGF.

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.