The UN and the Future of the Internet Governance Forum

Guest blog post by Farzaneh Badii, University of Hamburg

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is more than just a forum for the exchange of ideas and for networking among Internet operators, policy makers and advocates. It is the only institution that aggregates, openly and inclusively, the entire multistakeholder community. Or at least, it has the potential to do so.

The IGF mandate was initially for five years. It was renewed for another 5 years in 2010. But the IGF mandate ends in 2015. That’s next year. What would happen if the IGF went away? Though there is no sign that the future of the IGF is in danger, so far there is no word from the UN asking for input on the renewal of IGF.

Some participants at the 2014 Istanbul meeting have petitioned to ask the UN General Assembly to prolong the IGF’s mandate for an indefinite term, and to do so as soon as possible. The request for an open ended mandate and the extension of the mandate as soon as possible might be due to the general perception that the IGF extension is threatened, which as indicated in the petition may affect the IGF initiatives, dynamic coalitions and sustainable fundraising.

No big threat

Is the extension of IGF mandate really threatened? Feeling threatened by other processes, especially intergovernmental processes such as ITU, is one of the side effects of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) debates. Allegedly, there were proposals submitted to ITU which related to the governance of the Internet.[1]

But the UN General Assembly has declared that IGF is a successful forum that needs refinement. In its resolution in 2013, the General Assembly recognized the importance of the Internet Governance Forum and its mandate. It also re-iterated the importance of the enhanced cooperation working group and acknowledged that both processes are complementary. Moreover it recognized IGF meetings as successful and welcomed the offers for hosting future IGF meetings. It also welcomed the attempts of IGF initiatives to bridge gaps in information and communications technologies infrastructure and asked the Secretary General to report on the implementation of the suggestions of the working group on IGF improvement especially regarding the participation of the developing countries.

There is no competing forum that could replace the IGF. There is also a clear division of labor between the WSIS action lines administered by the ITU and the mission of the IGF. The WSIS action lines declare that they do not report on IGF and other initiatives that arise out of WSIS.[2] Moreover, the UN seems to be supportive of the process, and other UN agencies such as UNESCO recognize the work of IGF and promote multistakeholder governance. Due to the positive comments on IGF by the General Assembly, the general acceptance of the multistakeholder model by the UN agencies and no conclusive attempt by the UN to administer the Internet, it seems like multistakeholder Internet governance is here to stay.

Is IGF undermined by a 5 year mandate?

The other objective behind the call for an open mandate on IGF is that (according to the supporters) the “revolving five-year mandate is a barrier to long range planning and investment” and an indefinite extension is needed to address the need for sustainable funding. The Internet Governance Forum Support Association (IGFSA) seeks to raise funding for fellowships at IGF, the IGF Secretariat and other IGF initiatives.

The claim that an open ended mandate is needed in order to raise funds for IGF is not very convincing. There are other UN projects such as the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that have worked on temporary mandates for decades. None of these agencies seem to think that an open ended mandate is needed to improve fundraising. Although they have (just like IGF) faced problems in fundraising, this problem is not associated with their temporary mandate. Having sustainable funding mechanisms might not have anything to do with the temporary mandate but with the modality of raising funds, such as how the budget is planned, where the funding goes and the methods of reimbursement if the mandate is not extended.

The temporary mandate does not affect the work of dynamic coalitions and IGF initiatives either. IGF initiatives have always maintained an independence from IGF. They do not have to be recognized by IGF to work and their work does not have to stop if IGF mandate ends.

Where to ask, nicely

In my opinion, the multistakeholder community should focus on extension of IGF rather than asking the General Assembly for an open ended mandate. The community is ignoring the fact that no one has asked for their input on the extension issue. In 2009, the UN did ask the community what it thought. This year, it has not. Why haven’t they done so this year? No one seems to know. The multistakeholder community should find out why and find the right venue for expressing their support for an extension.

In a January 2014 resolution, the General Assembly declared that it will consider the continuation of the mandate in 2015 and that the secretary general needs to report on the progress and improvement of IGF (paragraph 18).

If it follows the precedent, the Secretary General will ask again for the continuation. At the moment it is not clear how stakeholder groups can provide their input for the continuation of the mandate to the Secretary General. In 2009, IGF Secretariat issued a call for inputs on IGF continuation. Considering that the mandate will end in 2015, a call for input should be issued soon. Or the multistakeholder community can ask the SG for clarification on how to provide input for IGF continuation.

Contrary to what the IGF participants asked for, the General Assembly decision to consider WSIS outcomes in 2015 also means that it is not possible to consider IGF renewal sooner than 2015. The General Assembly in its 68th session A/RES/68/302, has already defined the modalities for reviewing WSIS outcomes in 2015. The resolution indicated that the general assembly meeting will be held in December 2015. In this meeting the continuation of IGF will be considered as well, therefore it seems like the date is set and no call for earlier consideration can change it. However, the different stakeholder groups could contribute to the decision making process by contributing to the CSTD progress report, and by contributing to “the preparatory process for the high-level meeting, [when] the President of the General Assembly will organize informal interactive consultations with all relevant stakeholders of the World Summit on the Information Society, in order to collect their inputs for the intergovernmental negotiation process.”

As to the duration of the extension, it is probably impossible to get an open ended mandate for IGF. The mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) became permanent only in 2003, 60 years after its inception, after a long record of effective work. Can IGF prove such effectiveness in order to be a given a permanent mandate and can it achieve such status so soon?

Moreover, is it a good idea to have an open ended mandate? Those asking for an open-ended mandate claim that it is needed for longer-range funding support, to rescue the IGF initiatives, to save the active dynamic coalitions and to have a multistakeholder process for broader initiatives in global Internet governance. These are good reasons to have the IGF, but they might not be good reasons to have an indefinite IGF mandate. A permanent IGF might mean a less effective process. There have to be incentives for this community to continue being creative and have a certain level of commitment to the process. An open ended mandate might decrease IGF supporters’ level of commitment, something that IGF has been struggling with already. A community that is at ease that this process is going to be there forever may not be very committed.

Concluding remarks

IGF is here to stay. However, we have to make sure that we as the multistakeholder community give our opinion on its continuation. While writing open letters and petitions can be helpful, we also need to gain better insights into UN procedural requirements and find out where we can give our input in order to be more effective. Remembering what happened in the past can also help us find the most effective way forward. Moreover, in order to ensure that IGF is going to stay for much longer than five years, we need to enhance the commitment of the multistakeholder community. IGF is made out of its community and the only way to keep it independent and alive is to keep the community active and committed.

[1] “Proposals to extend the authority of the ITU to address spam, which was alleged to bring Internet content regulation into the remit of the ITU, proposals to alter the environment for interconnection and investment in infrastructure, which could limit access to content in emerging markets proposals outlined in a letter to the UN General Assembly in September 2011 seeking to create a code of conduct for information security.” 

[2] Avoid proposals referring to the outcomes of the Tunis phase of WSIS on the following, implementation mechanism, follow up, internet governance (other than internet issues relevant to action lines), IGF, enhanced cooperation, CSTD. P.23