IGF 2015: Running in place

The Internet Governance Forum, held this year in the Brazilian beach resort town of João Pessoa, completed its 10th annual meeting Friday November 13. The IGF Secretariat claims that nearly 5,000 people attended. Moreover, it looks as if its existence will be continued for another 10 years when the UN meets in New York later this year. Vint Cerf declared it “the best IGF ever” in the closing open microphone session. But how good is “best?”

Video from Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center provides an overview of the environment and some comments from IGF 2015

If one is talking about the meeting rooms and session halls, the efficiency of administration and helpfulness of support staff, Cerf’s claim is right. It was an excellent event. If one is talking about the nature of the dialogue the IGF fostered and its contribution to global Internet governance, it is another story. Substantively, this IGF was not significantly better – nor was it significantly worse – than the others. Therein lies the problem. It’s hard to find people who believe that the IGF is making a critical contribution to Internet governance, but it’s also hard to find anyone who is committed to getting rid of it. IGF dances along the edge of relevance and irrelevance; no one quite believes that its potential as a transnational forum is being realized, but most people (including us) still believe the potential is there.

Numbers up, but…

It seems as if there is demand for the IGF. The number of pre-events has exploded; what started with the academic annual symposium of GigaNet in 2006 is now, in effect, another full day of 5 or 6 parallel events. There were a record number of workshop submissions, and as usual some of them were good and some were not. If so many people are using the IGF, it must be useful for some purposes.

IGF workshops are still a relatively open, diverse area for airing ideas, but the proposal and selection of workshops is starting to be concentrated in a few organizations such as the Association for Progressive Communications, the Internet Society and ICC BASIS. If the tightly-knit network of people involved in these organizations get together with an intergovernmental organization on a proposal they can instantly claim to be covering all major stakeholder groups (civil society, technical community, business and government) – and it doesn’t hurt to have 4-5 members of their organizations on the MAG. APC did two pre-events and was involved in a dozen workshop proposals, almost all of which were accepted, an astounding dominance of the program. (And the MAG’s decision to privilege “new” applicants doesn’t seem to have affected this at all.)

But while IGF’s potential to raise the profile of a well-organized NGO is unparalleled, what about its effect on Internet governance? Oh yeah, that.

Here is a symptom of the problem IGF faces. What is the biggest global Internet governance issue going on right now? Surely, it is the IANA transition and the related movement to make ICANN more accountable. Yet the 2015 IGF did not have a single workshop on ICANN’s accountability reforms. Not one. And while it had two workshops on the IANA transition (see discussion below) inexplicably, the transition was not the topic of a main session. At least two workshops on accountability were proposed, but they were vetoed by the IGF program committee, known as the Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG). Who knows what motivated these vetos? Sheer ignorance is a possibility: the MAG has ballooned into a 50-person committee and too many of its members are not that active, having been put there for purely ceremonial or representational purposes. There may be two or three MAG members who really don’t want there to be open, uncontrolled discussions and debates about ICANN issues in the IGF. There is also a tendency to think of IGF sessions as a form of entertainment which leads the MAG to avoid “old,” continuing issues even if they are important.

IANA transition workshops

Thanks to DomainMondo for extracting IGF video

The two workshops about the IANA transition that did make it into the program make for an interesting contrast. One was organized by people embedded in ICANN’s cross community working group on Internet governance and heavily promoted by ICANN staff. The other was organized by us (the Internet Governance Project). The ICANN-based workshop, which was supposed to focus on the IANA transition as a case study of multistakeholder process, was ranked in the top 15 by the MAG, and given a larger room in a plum time slot Thursday morning. The IGP-organized workshop, which focused on the substantive issues raised by the IANA transition proposal, was ranked very low by the MAG, and its evaluation included comments like “what does this [the IANA transition] have to do with Internet governance?” It was pushed to the last day of the event and put in a smaller room.

Yet when it came down to results, the two workshops were like night and day. The ICANN-organized workshop had too many speakers, the discussion was not well-structured and its audience dissipated. Worse, it failed even to mention, much less debate, the major process controversies surrounding the accountability process. The fact that the ICANN board rejected the output of the CCWG on Enhanced Accountability and caused a scheduling crisis in which we are still mired was never even brought up in a workshop that was supposed to assess multistakeholder process.

The IGP workshop on the other hand, was standing room only, held the interest of its attendees the whole time, and succeeded in airing the controversies as well as consensus points around the ICG proposal. It left significant time for a vigorous set of audience questions which led to some interesting exchanges about the relationships between the different operational communities, jurisdiction, root zone maintainer, and others. Alain Bidron, head of naming and numbering at Orange, said it was the best workshop at IGF.

The point of making this comparison is that the MAG has an abysmal record of recognizing which proposals will end up being good workshops and which will not. The MAG not only has the wrong composition, its evaluations lean too heavily on who is closely connected to people in the MAG and on bureaucratic formulae, such as artificial diversity criteria stakeholder balance and – frankly – whether certain people on the MAG like or don’t like the proposer.

Reforming main sessions – will it even happen?

Suppose the ICANN accountability or the IANA transition had managed to make it into a main session. Still, we would not be optimistic about its content. ISOC, ICANN, and the mainstream business interests would almost certainly ensure that such a session would be full of happy talk about the triumph of multistakeholderism rather than providing a critical assessment with all points of view. The promise of the IGF is that it could provide a kind of independent (nonbinding) oversight of Internet governance arrangements, but it is difficult for it to do so when the MAG is so tied to the status quo institutions.

Indeed, the continuing problem of what to do with main sessions was one of the most depressing things about the João Pessoa IGF. More than any other institution, IGF brings together most, if not all, of the Internet governance community and gives them a chance to work together on the hottest, most important and most interesting topics. But main sessions consistently fail to do anything with that enormous social capital. They are usually lightly attended and have become increasingly less significant parts of the program to attendees. This is very odd, when one thinks about it. Thousands of people who are most committed to Internet governance come to a single place because they are part of a community interested in the same thing, and yet when we get them into the same room we don’t know what to do with them. Main sessions have become nothing more than gigantic, inflated workshops, with 20+ speakers, taking 3 hours instead of 90 minutes. It is a major waste of human resources and time.

I was put on the main session on cybersecurity. The people who were slated as speakers were all very good. The people who moderated the panel were very good. Some of the comments were useful and informative. Nevertheless, the session as a whole was aimless, an undirected collection of generic topics and observations about everything from best practices to the need for international treaties to multistakeholder collaboration to encryption to Gamergate.

The solution to this problem is clear: make the main sessions into a NETmundial-type interaction where people work on coming up with common solutions to a well-specified problem, or work on common texts with recommendations around a well-specified issue. Many commentators are echoing this theme, calling for “output” and “recommendations” from the IGF (see for example the video at the top of this article). Suppose that a main session had been devoted to assessing whether the proposed accountability reforms of the ICANN CCWG were adequate and if not, which additional reforms would be capable of fixing the problems. The IGF main session would try to reach consensus conclusions which could be passed on to the CCWG (and the NTIA) in the form of a recommendation. Not everyone at IGF would be interested in participating in such an interaction, of course, but a lot more would be willing to attend and participate than currently wander into (and out of) existing main sessions – because their participation would matter. Or suppose that instead of having a general and purely educational discussion of whatever cybersecurity issues happen to come up, that the IGF had fostered a debate on a clearly defined, globally relevant governance proposition, such as whether an international treaty is the best way to address cybersecurity problems. The possibility of the IGF making a recommendation either way would focus people’s minds, and improve the quality of argumentation and dialogue, not to mention attract more participation and attendance.

We will know that the IGF is beginning to fulfill its potential as an Internet governance forum when people come out of its sessions with the same sense of accomplishment that they had when they left the NETMundial meeting of April 2014. Some final video thoughts: