Taking Stock of the Rio Internet Governance Forum

Reflection on what was wrong and what was right with the Rio Internet Governance Forum is not waiting for the February 25 “stocktaking” session planned by the IGF's Secretariat. Civil society advisory group member Adam Peake has already opened an interesting dialogue on the governance list. I have some opinions about that…

Too much of the energy of the Forum and its participants is being thrown away on issues that are not global in scope, and have nothing to do with global governance of the Internet. We all must pay closer attention to the distinction between issues that are best addressed at the national, local or regional levels and those that truly require global coordination and global institutions. IGF should be restricted to the global. If the truly global governance issues are actually quite narrow and specialized, and don't include the issues that turn you on, so be it. Those who are fundamentally not interested in those issues should find a more appropriate venue for their activities.

(As an aside, one of the reasons we keep coming back to ICANN or CIR issues in IGF and this list is that it is one of the only fully globalized institutional structures and the issues it deals with, for the most part, require transnational agreement. Of course, there are other transnational IG issues or issues that have potential to be transnational: content regulation, security governance including some aspects of surveillance and privacy, and so on.)

Just as we must carefully distinguish between global and lower-level issues, we ought to distinguish more carefully between what is actually an Internet governance issue and issues that are more generally about ICTs. True, the Internet has become the dominant platform for most digital ICT activity, but there are many, many ICT policy issues that global governance of the Internet cannot remotely affect — including, by the way, the financing and construction of physical infrastructure. (This is not to say that policy entrepreneurs cannot devise new, innovative ways to use global governance mechanisms to support physical access, but let's not expect the tail to wag the dog.)

The disappointing thing about IGF 2 was that the dialogue was so cluttered with things that do not require or will never get international coordination or agreement that it was impossible to focus on the things that do.

Another key point looking forward has to do with workshops, and their relationship to plenary sessions.

First, workshops should not be ghettoized. The free speech advocates should not all be in one room boosting each others' egos while the avid content regulators discuss how to control Internet publication in the next room, with the two groups in complete isolation from each other. Both workshops that IGP organized made a point of trying to cover the relevant spectrum of views. I discovered, to my shock, that that was the exception rather than the rule. Workshops must be diverse, and diversity of policy viewpoints is far more critical to IGF's mission than the geographical or nominal “stakeholder” diversity that seems to command so much support, and is often little more than tokenism. IGF's MAG and Secretariat should make sure that panels include representatives of the distinct, clashing views that are defining the parameters of Internet governance debate.

Second, workshops and plenary sessions should not compete with each other for attention. Workshops should be satellites that revolve around and feed into all-inclusive plenaries where ideas are synthesized and outcomes are deliberated and discussed. The more I think about the fact that IGF had tons of workshops going on at the same time as plenary sessions, the dumber it seems. But it's clear why the plenaries are withering. If they actually are intended to be more than TV talk shows and do something, they present an organizational and political problem of enormous magnitude. Who gets to speak, how are motions made, how is consensus or even rough agreement found? But as difficult as this sounds, it presents an opportunity for further structural innovation which the IGF should embrace.

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