In Geneva: The Debate About “Debate”

Tuesday the Internet Governance Forum held its consultations about the 3rd Forum at Hyderabad, India. I am sorry to report that there are still intense pressures to sanitize the IGF program and to prevent the Forum from grappling with the real global governance problems. In what was clearly an orchestrated move, key people from multinational business groups, the Internet Society and a few Anglo-American governments tried to change a plan to organize plenary sessions around policy debates. These groups insist on viewing debate of controversial Internet policy topics, and systematic consideration of specific policy proposals, as a threat that needs to be contained rather than an opportunity to make their own case. In the private negotiations over merging workshop proposals into main sessions, there were concerted efforts – also led by Internet Society staff – to limit the morning main sessions to “background information,” “educational material” and “best practice” discussions.

It is well-recognized that the main sessions of the Forum are a failure. The reason is that the programming for these sessions has been totally neutralized by the politics of the IGF’s Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG). The MAG is dominated by status quo oriented representatives of the Internet Society, who are keen to prevent these sessions from becoming anything like a policy-shaping institution. Although governments are more numerous on the MAG, they are also more passive, less well-informed, and perhaps losing interest in the Forum. (Indeed, one new MAG member, YJ Park, commented on the absence of governments from MAG discussions and session programming at the consultation.) And so the Forum annually wastes its most precious opportunity: it brings 1,500 – 2,000 of the world’s most important and well-informed Internet governance experts and advocates into a single room and then subjects them to generic, TV-talk-show discussions that lead nowhere.

There were efforts to change that this year by introducing controversial topics in the morning main sessions and then having interactive debates from the audience around those issues in the afternoon. And yet, at the Geneva consultation a series of interventions by business groups and the Internet society regarding the afternoon debates tried to stop that from happening. You can see the full transcripts here. Marilyn Cade of ITAA kicked off the neutralization effort by asking to change the name of the afternoon sessions from “debates” to “debates and dialogue,” saying “we believe that the term ‘debate’ may be presupposing disagreement rather than different perspectives, and striving for understanding of views.” Chairman Desai responded that “the point is well taken, that the intention is not that we think that there will be some proposing a point and somebody else opposing it. We will be much more complex than that…” Immediately after, Bill Graham of Internet Society said, “the whole concept of an open debate seems to us, in ISOC, to have a bit of a cultural bias, and it isn't — an open debate isn't something, I believe, that…people from all cultures would feel comfortable in engaging with.” Next, the International Chamber of Commerce rose to make the same point, but took it even further. Since there would be plenty of opportunity to “interact” in the planned afternoon “dialogues,” (the word debate had disappeared from her vocabulary), perhaps the morning sessions should avoid controversy and discussion too. “We might want to consider not diluting the momentum of interaction by having too much interaction in the morning, so that a lot of the discussion and exchange can happen in that respect in the afternoon.” Then another business group, the European Telecommunications Numbering Organization, proposed shortening the debates by an hour so that we could continue one of the most boring and criticized parts of the main sessions, the “reporting back” exercises.

In the reaction that followed, various governments and civil society spokespersons reacted negatively to this attempt to eliminate the concept of debate from the interactions. The government of El Salvador insisted that the word debate be retained. My own intervention elaborated on what the term “debate” means: “A debate is a structured examination of multiple arguments and positions regarding [specific] propositions. A debate is a discussion of the validity of the arguments for and against a proposition, [and] a discussion of the supporting evidence for and against a proposition. Now, taking that into consideration, when people say they don't want to use the word “debate,” I wonder what they want these dialogues to be about? Are these to be casual expressions of opinion? I think not. I think we want there to be debates about public policy at the Internet Governance Forum. I think that's what the forum is for.”

These pressures are coming from the Internet Society and its network of business interests and “technical communitarians.” Remember that ISOC strongly opposed the creation of the IGF during the World Summit. Its global leadership still feels as if their own organically developed institutions, such as IETF, the Regional Address Registries, the major European country code registries and ICANN are doing a great job. The status quo, they believe, isn’t broke so there’s no need to fix it. This is a reasonable enough position. I have some sympathy for elements of the legacy self-governance institutions myself, and no sympathy for the now largely-discredited idea that we should revert to classical intergovernmentalism. But I also know that the policies adopted by the Internet institutions are controversial, and that the institutions themselves are bound to change in response to the growth of the Internet itself and the political and economic pressures around it.

Take an issue as controversial – and as vital to the future of the Internet – as the depletion of the IPv4 address space and the migration to a new internet standard, IPv6. The technical communitarians on the IGF main session programming committee tried (unsuccessfully, fortunately) to make the Hyderabad Forum main session on IPv4-v6 transition into a tutorial about the technical and operational aspects of IPv6 implementation. What’s really bizarre about this avoidance behavior is that inside the Internet technical community’s own institutions there are intense and glorious debates raging about all these policy issues. Take a look at the archives of the ARIN public policy mailing list. You’ll see table-thumping debate about whether legacy holders of address space should be pressured to sign contracts with ARIN and cough up any surplus address resources. There are complex, multi-strand and sometimes highly partisan debates about transfer markets for IPv4 addresses; some say they are a simple concession to efficiency and flexibility in an environment of scarcity, others claim we will encourage black markets if we don’t; still others rail against such transfers on the grounds that they are inherently inimical to the communitarian spirit of the Internet, or will make the Internet into a network of Enrons, or kill the migration to IPv6, or otherwise contribute to the decline of civilization.

When these kinds of exciting, stimulating and important policy debates are going on inside of the technical community’s own institutions, it’s fundamentally wrong for them to be trying so hard to prevent those discussions from spilling out into the rest of the world. But that’s what they are trying to do, as far as I can tell.

Wednesday and Thursday the new MAG continues its work on the program. We will report on the outcome.

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