The Not-Mundial Initiative: Governance and Ungovernance in Istanbul

The 9th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Istanbul has been upstaged by the announcement of the Netmundial Initiative (NMI) in Geneva. The NMI is an attempt by ICANN’s CEO, Fadi Chehade, to enlist the resources and interpersonal networks of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in finding “solutions” to Internet governance problems. Framed as an “initiative for action” that would implement the principles of the April Netmundial meeting in Brazil, the unveiling of NMI has generated a flurry of critical commentary.

Below, we will suggest that those who have devoted so much attention to fretting over its methods or composition are overestimating its significance for the actual governance of internetworking. At the same time, they are not paying enough attention to the more serious pathologies in the broader “ecosystem,” of which NMI is a symptom.

It is not difficult to understand why the NMI is controversial. There are four distinct causes. First, it appropriated the name of the Brazilian Netmundial meeting and its respected outcome document, even though there is no formal relationship and very little continuity between the WEF crowd (other than Fadi himself) and the actors and institutional methods of the Brazilian Netmundial meeting. For that reason, I like to refer to NMI as the “Not-Mundial.” Just to be clear.

Second, it was formed through a top-down process. Fadi and his allies in WEF hand-picked people from governments, business and civil society to be insiders in the process, instead of forming an open institution. While top-down initiatives are sometimes unavoidable to bootstrap a process, Fadi has relied far too heavily on such methods. The man simply does not understand (or does not like?) open, bottom up processes, perhaps because they cannot be controlled. Last year he created no less than 5 “Strategy Panels” in which groups of luminaries selected by him and reporting only to him were supposed to address some of the long-term issues affecting the future of ICANN and Internet governance. Millions of dollars were spent, but none of them produced anything that had any traction in the broader community. It was the 5th Strategy Panel, on Global Internet Cooperation and Governance Mechanisms led by Toomas Ilves of Estonia and Google’s Vint Cerf, that forged the link to the World Economic Forum. WEF, along with ICANN and the Annenberg Foundation, co-convened that panel. So Fadi has been targeting the use of WEF as a platform of an Internet governance initiative for some time. Surprisingly to him, however, and predictably to the rest of us, the Ilves/Cerf report, produced by a cozy group of insiders, was totally eclipsed by the more open and inclusive Netmundial process, which was not afraid to deal with contending views.

This method of trying to “lead” has a number of known pathologies when used in public global governance contexts. It inevitably results in the selection of people based on their socio-economic proximity to the people doing the selections. Inevitably, it makes others resentful of the fact that they weren’t selected. Communities can be divided and conquered based on their selection or inclusion. And obviously, the selections reflect and reinforce the political biases of those making the choices. True to form, the Not-Mundial is run by a very predictable and usual-suspecty cast of characters, although the absence of Google and other major edge-Internet firms is a surprise. The few privileged civil society organizations included in early Not-Mundial preparations were pleased to be insiders at first, but have since backpedaled, issuing statements criticizing the initiative’s lack of inclusiveness lest they be seen as co-opted – which of course never, ever happens. See also the comments of APC.

Third, the Not-Mundial’s link to the elite WEF, which is built around an annual meeting for a few “world leaders” in Davos, Switzerland, raises the spectre of domination of the “ecosystem” by business and political elites. This too is a legitimate concern, although there is a bit of a Catch-22 here. You can’t have a “multistakeholder” governance system without involving and representing business actors, especially those who operate networks and Internet services. On the other hand there is always a noisy lefty faction among states and civil society who think that any business is per se illegitimate, and any sign of their presence is an indication that the whole system is corrupt.[1] If the purpose of Not-Mundial was to strengthen corporate engagement in good faith governance negotiations with other stakeholder groups it would be good, but the Not-Mundial we have threatens to elevate and isolate the “leaders” from the rest of us.

The fourth and most important worries about Not-Mundial relate to its effects on the UN Internet Governance Forum. In an astute blog post, Jeremy Malcolm of EFF claimed that “NETmundial Initiative carries forward [Fadi’s] vision, to establish an equivalent institutional framework for broader Internet public policy issues as already exists in ICANN for narrower issues of naming and numbering.” But why, exactly, do we need this thing when the IGF already exists? Wasn’t the IGF supposed to be the forum for broader internet policy issues, the aggregator of multistakeholder dialogue, the place where stakeholder groups come together, learn about each other’s concerns and hatch solutions? Malcolm doesn’t mince words about this: he believes that the IGF is a bust and perhaps the Not-Mundial should replace it:

The Internet Governance Forum has proved itself, time and again, to be both unwilling and unable to shoulder the responsibilities expected of it by the Internet community, and required of it by its mandate in the Tunis Agenda.

Unlike Malcolm, the Not-Mundials are insisting that their initiative actually builds upon the IGF. According to Chehade’s 18th August blog post:

The Initiative’s work will not serve as a substitute for the IGF, but rather complement its efforts by formulating solutions, engaging in capacity development and broadening participation in Internet cooperation. ICANN’s commitment and contributions to the IGF shall remain a priority.

But how is it complementary? His explanation warrants close scrutiny:

The Initiative seeks to complement the activities of the IGF by helping to engage a more interdisciplinary and cross-sector array of ministries, industries, academic disciplines and others in discussion on specific policy challenges that would benefit from additional leader-level conversations. These discussions are not intended to replace but rather to supplement the highly inclusive, grass-roots discussions taking place in IGF venues.

In other words, “additional leader-level conversations” are needed to supplement those “highly inclusive, grass-roots discussions.” This sounds suspiciously as if the “leaders” who go to WEF are creating an escape route from the IGF coalition that allows them to go off and work by themselves, free of the riff-raff, when they want. If that’s not the intent, then why not bring more of the corporate “leaders” and ministers into the IGF?

What this all signifies, really, is that something called “Internet governance” has gained enough recognition to generate what Sam LaFranco called a “land rush” of actors trying to position themselves as “leaders” or visible players in it. This means that vested interests already in the game need to stay on top of developments. A growing number of these people make their living this way. A lot of the clamor surrounding the Not-Mundial is not about real governance or policy, but arguments over who gets face time on the global stage. It’s not about governance or contending policies. It’s about who capitalizes on the perceived demand for governance. It’s about who gets the media coverage.

The irony is that none of these initiatives are actually establishing any new forms of governance authority over the internet. In fact, their clamor and jostling is based on a concept of “Internet governance” that is both disconnected from real political authority and an anachronistic throwback to older forms of communications regulation via national legislation and policy making. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think Internet governance is the way to extend broadband to the masses; secure human rights; and eliminate inequality among nations, genders and classes. Or at least, it will generate thousands of words about how important it is to do these things. In the meantime, states like Turkey (and China, and Russia, and the UK) continue to censor and filter the internet, the U.S. continues to build its cyber-weapons arsenal, and individual network managers and platform providers continue to implement thousands of distinct policies based on a complex variety of market, political, legal and cultural factors.

If you watched the debriefing given by the Not-Mundial’s founding partners, you saw a somewhat tedious invocation of the standard rhetoric about the wonders of the internet and the virtues of multistakeholderism coming from a predictable cast of characters. Experienced observers should suspect that this grouping will have about as much impact on Internet governance as the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission has had on broadband development. A lot of big names, a lot of important people. No major change. People who have no real ideas, and no real need to change things, tend to not accomplish much. The sums of money at their disposal are pretty large if you’re in the publicity business, but pathetically small if you’re in the business of constructing and operating networks.

The bigger problem is, we are not even having a dialogue about whether we need new forms of governance authority at all. Nor are we having a conversation about how to make sure that efforts to “govern” the internet don‘t damage the freedom and openness that made it succeed in the first place. The Internet governance bandwagon has started rolling so fast that everyone is assuming that these commissions and panels and initiatives and Forums actually do governance; that we know what governance means at that level; that Internet users will benefit from cosmopolite politicians promising to deliver massive benefits at no cost in the name of governance.

That’s one reason why the emergence of an “Ungovernance Forum” by Turkish activists disgruntled with the IGF, and with their own government’s repression of Internet-based expression, was so refreshing to see. Here we see a defection from the IGF coalition from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Instead of high-level leaders defecting into WEF, we see the grass roots victims of bad local governance taking a critical stance toward the whole concept of Internet governance and questioning the relevance of these bloated and self-referential global dialogues to their own situation.

Most of the real solutions to Internet problems are happening in ways that mirror the Internet’s architecture. They are networked, distributed, ad hoc. The most valuable initiatives are not taken by political or business “leaders” selected and blessed by other leaders, but by actors with a real stake in the outcome, real skin in the game, acting on their own initiative. The concept of Ungovernance has legs.

 

[1] A group called the JustNet Coalition has declared that multistakeholderism is “a new, post-democratic form of governance which gives big business a major, institutionalised, political role and authority.” This is shocking, you see, because in all of human history up to now, big business has never had any role in any form of governance or regulation.