Are we re-booting all Internet governance? (Or just releasing a lot of hot air?)

It’s 2004 again. Ideas and proposals for the reform of Internet governance are now flying all over the place, just as they did at the outset of the UN Working Group on Internet Governance.

At the recently concluded  Seoul Conference on Cyberspace, a memo was circulated calling for the creation of a “Commission on the Future of Internet Cooperation.” The commission, the confidential memo said, would consist of “civic leaders, ministers, CEOs and technical pioneers.” Its purpose will be to “provide new ideas for transnational and multistakeholder proposals for Internet governance.” According to the leaked document, the group is supposed to begin work in October and conclude its work with a presentation at the World Economic Forum in January 2014.

We do not know the current status of this proposal; it is not mentioned as part of the official output of the Seoul Conference. The idea may not even have been accepted by the assembled leaders. But if, as the document stated, work was to begin in October it would need to be created very soon. If efforts to create this commission are indeed underway, why doesn’t anyone know about it yet? Who will choose these “civic leaders,” etc.?

While the formation and fate of this commission remain shadowy there is little doubt about where the proposal came from. It is another brainstorm of Fadi Chehade, the President and CEO of ICANN. In what has become a one-man crusade to re-shape Internet governance from the top down, Chehade has already created 4 “Strategy Panels,” one of them devoted to “ICANN’s role in the Internet Governance Ecosystem.” At the end of the page announcing these 4 panels on ICANN’s web site, it says “The 5th panel originally identified will be refocused and is expected to be forthcoming later this year.” My guess is that we now know what the 5th panel is. (NB: We should probably not confuse the 5th panel with a 5th column.)

These are not really expert panels – very few of those selected are experts in subjects related to institutions and global governance. It would be more accurate to call them panels of the proximate (to ICANN staff), the prominent and the unobjectionable.

While we have serious qualms about this particular style of reform, there are some good things to be said about Fadi’s latest initiatives. We are sympathetic to the ideas of fostering Internet cooperation – as opposed to Internet governance – and we approve of its emphasis on transnational – as opposed to international or intergovernmental – approaches. Furthermore, the energy and initiative displayed by Chehade makes for a useful contrast with the paralysis of the US government and the sluggish, ponderous tone of other governments.

Speaking of the ponderous, at a Bali Internet Governance Forum pre-event, Chehade and representatives of the technical community began to provide more detail about what would happen at the planned Brazilian “Summit” meeting in April 2014. According to an description of the meeting sent out by Access’s Jochai Ben-Avie, Brazil and ICANN are proposing an oddly corporatist approach to representation at the meeting:

To ensure multistakeholder and global participation, there is a proposal that each country will have three representatives to the conference (one each from government, business, and civil society) — to “create a mini CGI in each country.” It was not discussed how these people will be selected. Additionally, the heads of all the I* organizations and international government organizations will be invited. A question was raised about how the technical community would be represented, and the response was not clear whether technical community reps would be considered for some of the national civil society spots, or whether they would be represented by the heads-of-organizations representatives. The plan is to have 800-900 people present in total, but there will be large screens set up to facilitate remote participation from stakeholders and users from around the world. These details will be announced in 2-3 weeks in Brasilia, but Paulo Bernardo will also make some comments on Tuesday morning at the IGF.

There are two things drastically wrong with this approach to the meeting. First, why is representation of civil society and private business, both of which are transnational, being organized on a nation-state basis? Second, imagine this: One representative of civil society and the private sector for each country! Civil society is conceived not as a pluralistic arena in which hundreds or even thousands of groups are free to articulate and advance diverse proposals and interests, but as a unitary stakeholder group with homogeneous interests. That’s wrong. Business, likewise, is seen as a single category: there is no difference between Amazon and the local second-hand bookstore; between IBM and a three-person IT consultancy. That’s insane.

But this proposal reflects the inherent failings in the “stakeholderism” that underpins so much of our discussions of the so-called “multistakeholder model.” There has always been an unfortunate link between the concept of multstakeholderism and the corporatist mindset of the 1920s and ’30s. One academic defines corporatism as

The basic idea … that the society and economy of a country should be organized into major interest groups (sometimes called corporations) and representatives of those interest groups settle any problems through negotiation and joint agreement.

These top-heavy systems of collective representation are the opposite of the Internet’s spirit of permissionless innovation, open entry, diversity and competition.

If you want a taste of what these formalistic approaches to representation will produce as output, one need look no farther than the Seoul Cyberspace Conference with which we opened this article. The official output of the Seoul meeting is the largely meaningless but harmless “Seoul Frameworks and Commitments.” The Seoul framework called for such things as “enabl[ing] more people to have access to broadband Internet so that the world economy will become more integrated” (wow, bet they had an intense debate on that one); the 87 nations agreed “that they will come up with measures to promote cyber security” (how impressive!); they recommended cracking down on cybercrime “without compromising the private lives and freedom of individuals” (easy to say, isn’t it?)

The meeting in Seoul was the third annual attempt by governments to create a more formal and state-dominated place where the future of Internet governance can be discussed. In effect, it is the state-centric version of the UN Internet Governance Forum.

Just as in 2004, we are overwhelmed with discussion of where to talk about Internet governance and who should be represented, but there are very little substantive proposals. Indeed, these grand but futile attempts to bring the entire world together to talk about all governance of the entire Internet seems to be crowding out consideration of much more specific – and achievable – proposals for reform , such as our own blueprint for the reform of ICANN.

2 comments

  1. Cecilia Prodanescu

    Internet is a precious resource. It is normal to have regulations about its use. It just hope we will not get to a point when internet will became a reason for conflict. Tendencies of internet control may appear in certain condition. So we have to be very careful about it.

  2. Pingback: IGF 2013: Surveillance and the Future of Internet Governance « Center for New Media and Society