Will the UN kill the IGF?

The UN Internet Governance Forum was the most important product of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). It was supposed to serve as a bridge between the private sector-based Internet governance institutions (such as ICANN, IETF, ISOC, and the RIRs) and the world of national governments and the United Nations, a meeting ground where stakeholder silos would dissolve and fruitful dialogue would take place.

The multistakeholder basis of the IGF, however, may be breaking down. The UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) seems to be claiming authority over the IGF as its own project. WSIS instructed the UN Secretary-General to convene the IGF, and for most of its existence the IGF has at least pretended to be something that the Secretary-General cared about.  Over the years, however, senior UNDESA staff have taken over the Secretary-General’s role in appointing members of the multi-stakeholder advisory group (MAG), and as the UN representative at IGF meetings. Now the department seems to be trying to take over the Forum.

The UNDESA logo is now on display on the IGF website, and a welcoming message: “Welcome to the United Nations | Department of Economic and Social Affairs”. This did not appear on the front page until 2014. The consequences of IGF becoming a DESA project are largely negative. No one can hold DESA accountable for its actions, the UN bureaucracy is the supreme power. If IGF becomes a UN project it has to abide by all the UN rules. This means that the cumbersome and sometimes dictatorial UN conference protocols, which we have encountered only in a piecemeal fashion until now (often causing some form of censorship), will have to be followed completely. Control might go even further than that, with DESA having a say in the composition of stakeholder groups and possibly even being able to privilege some stakeholders over the others. There are no incentives for DESA to be transparent and accountable and pressure on the giant might not work, especially now that the IGF mandate is for 10 years. So let’s look at a few of the likely problems with DESA’s ever increasing dominance, noting its recent actions to hold a confidential and non-transparent retreat.

The Selection of MAG

The Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) is the program committee for the annual IGF meetings. The selection of MAG members, who are supposed to handle most of the substantive and procedural matters of IGF, is very obscure. The IGF Secretariat announces that the Under Secretary General (USG) issues the invitation for nominations and selects the members, but does the USG really go through a list of nominees he does not know anything about and select them without advice from anyone else? Of course not. It is even doubtful that the USG has any role more than of a rubber stamp on their appointments. But who is the decision maker? DESA employees? IGF Secretariat? A recent announcement about the renewal of MAG membership does not even mention who or which organization did it. It is already bad enough that UNDESA and the IGF Secretariat might have a role in choosing the MAG members, as they can influence the process and only pick people who are not critical of the role of the UN; it is worse that the selection process has no transparency whatsoever.

No Executive Coordinator

Until 2011, IGF had an Executive Coordinator (EC), a person with a high rank who could give the IGF some influence within the UN. After the retirement of the founding EC, Markus Kummer, no one was appointed to replace him. This left a gap in a key mediating position between the community and the UN bureaucracy. For several years the IGF community and MAG kept asking for the appointment of an executive coordinator, but to no avail. First the UN argued that there is not enough money, but now finances are better. IGF has enough funding to appoint the executive coordinator, why is there a delay? One reason is that UNDESA wants to hold the senior position at IGF within its usual bureaucratic framework. It does not want someone working independently in a high-ranking UN position as a part of IGF secretariat. They might argue that they already have a chair for MAG, which can fill the EC position. This is not a real solution, as the chair of MAG has no position, rank or voice in the UN system.

 And Now the IGF Retreat

United Nations Secretariat recently proposed holding a two-day IGF retreat in a suburb of New York city. The retreat, according to the announcement on IGF website, is going to be held in July 2016, only two months after it was announced. It will facilitate discussion about how to improve the IGF following a request by the UN General Assembly in December last year (6 months ago, and now they rush). In that short time frame, which borders on many peoples’ holiday period, stakeholder groups have been asked to designate or nominate potential participants. It is still not clear who is going to select the participants from among the nominees. In a non-transparent process, with yet unknown participants, they are going to make plans about how to improve MAG and IGF! The facilities selected to host the retreat don’t have the technical capacity to allow for remote access. The retreat’s to do list is almost identical with the mandate of the CSTD working group on IGF improvement in 2012.[1] The CSTD came up with a document for recommendations, which was never fully implemented. This might happen at IGF retreat as well. It might just be a show (a bad one) to demonstrate that they want to make IGF better, while continuing with the same slow UNDESA creep towards control.

The sad thing is that UN is not paying for all this, independent donors do. But it is still enjoying its role in Internet policy. A role that is seen as the lesser of the evil and is great for its public relations. It also controls and manages the IGF funding and can allocate funds to activities it perceives as appropriate.

So What?

UNDESA is trying to gain legitimacy by pretending that it is committed to the multistakeholder process, even though it is not. Through the selection of MAG and having a leash on the IGF secretariat, it will dominate the whole process in the long term, especially now that IGF has a 10 year mandate and it is free from the pressure of having to act responsibly and accountably to ensure future renewals. DESA will make allies in its confidential meetings with the strongest stakeholder groups and provide them with incentives to participate in IGF process. They can argue that the retreat’s resulting outcome document will not be final and that they will consult with the wider community, but let’s be honest: how many times have our comments been taken into serious consideration at IGF when they were merely on paper and we did not have a presence in drafting the document? We need an open and transparent process for selection of MAG, with minimal involvement from the UN.

[1] Report of the Working Group on Improvement to the IGF, Paragraph 10. “On this basis, the Working Group agreed to make the following recommendations with regard to specific areas, namely the shaping of the outcomes of IGF meetings, the working modalities of the IGF, including open consultations, the Multi-stakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) and the Secretariat, the funding of the IGF, broadening participation and capacity-building, and linking the IGF to other Internet governance related entities.” Accessible at http://unctad.org/meetings/en/SessionalDocuments/a67d65_en.pdf


7 comments

  1. vint cerf

    Ironically, much of the energy of the IGF concept has come from the spontaneous and non-UN national and regional IGF meetings that have sprung up in the wake of the annual IGF. Maybe all these non-UN IGFs should just band together to sponsor an annual meeting?

    • Louis Pouzin

      Correct. It would cost less than a UN IGF with zero support.
      Louis Pouzin

  2. Mawaki

    This is really bad… Have the nonstate stakeholders ever thought about what they are really gaining with UN/DESA involvement in the IGF enablement at this point and what they would actually lose without it?

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