The UN Sticks its Head in the Sand

It's been a bad week for the Internet. Now, to make things worse, the United Nations is turning its back on multi-stakeholder representation in Internet governance.

The Internet Governance Forum was the UN's attempt to come to grips with the new realities of the Internet. It was deliberately set up to overcome the boundaries between governments and inter-governmental organizations on the one hand, and the transnational network of non-state actors who actually operate, develop, use and (for the most part) govern the Internet. The UN's decision to renew the IGF's existence for another 5 years was, we thought, a vote of confidence in “multi-stakeholder governance.” In May 2010, a resolution was passed asking for a Working Group on Improvements to the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to be created to help move things forward. This working Group was supposed to be multi-stakeholder – it was modeled after the original, highly successful WGIG that led to the creation of the IGF. Indeed, the Secretariat of the IGF and the UN asked civil society and business to nominate people who could serve on this working group as their representatives.

Yet on December 10 the UN's Committee on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) announced that the Working Group will be composed exclusively of member states. No civil society or business organizations, no academic or technical representatives will be allowed to participate. The official announcement was posted here. The notice also says that the UN will restrict attendance at its December 17 “public” consultation in Geneva to “entities that have consultative status in the CSTD.” In other words, the UN has regressed to its traditional form of restricting all real participation to governments, and forcing anyone who wants to even attend a meeting to be “accredited,” which requires months of bureaucratic work and allows any member state to object to accreditation for arbitrary reasons. We would estimate that at least 80% of the people who participate in IGF, ICANN or RIR meetings would be excluded by this requirement.

This is a bad decision, one that only very isolated and ignorant governmental representatives could make. Normally when politicians exclude people from their activities they are trying to keep power to themselves. But the UN and the CSTD have no real authority over the Internet; by excluding civil society and business they are simply cutting themselves off from the perspective, knowledge and assistance of the people who do.

The CSTD actions run contrary to the spirit of the UN ECOSOC resolution authorizing it to create the working group. The working group, part of the renewal of the IGF after the end of its first five-year term, was mandated by resolution (2010/2) of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). That resolution makes many references to multi-stakeholderism and the inclusion of “all stakeholders.”

Supporters of a vibrant, open Internet Governance Forum were quick to protest the decision. A letter demanding that the decision be reversed was drafted and has gained the support of the Internet Society, all the civil society groups in the Internet Governance Caucus, the International chamber of Commerce, and several other business lobbying groups. The decision is likely to spark critical comments at the December 14 consultation in New York City, as well.

Among the disappointed critics of this action, there are many who raise, once again, dark talk about a UN takeover of the Internet. But if anything, this incident proves the opposite. The member states who made this decision are cutting themselves off from the Internet, not taking it over. A meeting held by an obscure department of the UN that excludes direct participation from Internet service providers, content developers, academic and technical experts, and policy advocacy groups is not going to be a well-attended meeting, and will not have any impact on anything that happens on the internet.

We already miss Markus Kummer – and formally, he isn't even gone yet.

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