Created in a burst of exuberance about the contributions of multi-stakeholder dialogue to Internet governance, the UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF) has gradually lost its momentum. The 2002-2005 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) created the IGF to overcome national governments’ inability to agree on global Internet governance. It promised to bring governments, business, the Internet technical community and civil society together into a nonbinding forum to discuss policies and practices, thus fostering greater understanding and consensus on Internet policy issues. The idea seemed innovative and hopeful at the time. In fact, the IGF was successful at creating and sustaining a multi-stakeholder dialogue. Moreover, making it part of the UN was the key to getting engagement from governments who would otherwise be hostile to the new institutions and freedoms created by the Internet. But we can no longer avoid facing the fact that dialogue by itself has not overcome or resolved the two fundamental political questions posed by the WSIS.
It is important to restate what those two questions were: 1) Whether Internet governance should be transnational and private-sector led, or instead be put under the authority of territorial nation-states and intergovernmental organizations; and 2) Whether the U.S. would continue to hold a privileged position in the overall system of global Internet governance through its control of IP addressing and domain names – and if not, what was the alternative? Those were the conflicts that motivated the creation of IGF. Any discussion of the IGF’s future that fails to acknowledge the centrality of those problems is not a complete or honest discussion.
The IGF is floundering because governments who were dissatisfied with the Internet’s current system of governance, which is based on organically developed private sector institutions, feel disempowered in the IGF format. Several important developing countries revealed their lack of confidence in the IGF when they proposed to create what was in effect a more state-dominated substitute for the IGF, the UN Committee on Internet Related Policies, last year. Even some civil society groups, who may not favor reverting to a governmental approach, are frustrated with the lack of substantive policy discussion and negotiation in IGF. And the IGF certainly won’t lead to any change in the special status of the US government. Indeed, even dialogue on that topic is difficult in IGF: a perfect example was the 2010 Vilnius IGF main session on critical internet resources. Chris Disspain, an Australian country code top level domain operator who now serves on the ICANN board, deliberately stifled discussion of the IANA contract when the topic was brought up.
Those who defend the IG status quo tend to assert that the IGF is working fine. But why don’t these defenders actually use the IGF to do anything important? The IGF is not used by the U.S. or any other major governmental powers to propose new initiatives or strike new bargains with other governments, business or civil society. For example, why didn’t the US government give the IGF a role in reviewing ICANN when it was drafting the Affirmation of Commitments? Why didn’t Western governments consider the IGF as the place to hold a summit on cybersecurity? Nor do businesses really utilize the IGF for anything important. The technical and operational people go to ICANN if they are focused on domain names, to RIR meetings of they are focused on IP addressing, to IETF if they are focused on standards, and to organizations like NANOG if they are interested in the policy and operational problems facing Internet service providers. The corporations make most of their deals in private, understandably, but when they disagree or take policy initiatives into the public sphere they are more likely to sponsor their own conferences or to focus on national governments than use the IGF.
Thus, the basic political bargain underlying the IGF threatens to unravel. Obvious attempts to pre-empt discussion or divert attention, such as that exhibited by Disspain two years ago, are foolish. They will lead to the exit of many states and of civil society advocates interested in tackling real problems in Internet governance. By resisting focused policy discussions the status quo defenders threaten to destroy the IGF. Would they rather have the dialogue on those two key problems shift to the ITU?
The need to work on the IGF’s problems has not gone unnoticed. A working group was formed two years ago by the UN’s Commission on Science and Technology for Development to “seek, compile and review inputs from all Member States and all other stakeholders on improvements to the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), in line with the mandate set out in the Tunis Agenda”. This working group (the membership of which was heavily dominated by governments) came up with some recommendations in March 2012. On July 24, the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council adopted a resolution on “Improvements to the Internet Governance Forum” which endorsed those recommendations. The report is attached here: Report of the Working Group on IGF
The IGF Improvements report holds a small glimmer of hope for the IGF, but only just. The glimmer of hope stems from the report’s recognition that the Forum needs to focus more on tangible outcomes that address substantive policy issues. This has been strongly resisted by many of the business interests, the US government, and others happy with the IG status quo. The idea that the IGF would actually attempt to get its participants to agree on policy recommendations is anathema to them; they imply that such recommendations would be the first step down the road to a UN takeover of the Internet. But that claim is absurd, given that equal-status multistakeholder participation is enshrined in the IGF’s charter and that the IGF still wouldn’t have any binding legal authority. To many civil society and governmental participants, dialogue that does not aim at specific policy recommendations is a meaningless charade and will eventually collapse due to lack of interest.
The report finds a middle ground, and suggests that the IGF preparation process for each IGF should:
…formulate a set of policy questions to be considered at the IGF, as part of the overall discussion. The results of the debates on these questions, with special focus on public policy perspectives and aimed at capacity-building, should be stated in the outcome documentation. The outcome documentation should include messages that map out converging and diverging opinions on given questions.
This would be a true improvement in the IGF. Another related improvement that was not mentioned by the report would be to focus the IGF dialogues more narrowly on issues that are truly related to global Internet governance and not “anything having to do with information and communication technology.” But implementation of a more focused approach would require strong and visionary leadership, which is exactly what the IGF lacks right now. The policy issues chosen would have to be controversial enough to make discussion of them meaningful and substantive, yet there are still pro-status quo forces within the IGF who will resist that. The IGF has had no high-level executive leadership for a scandalously long period of time. Ever since Markus Kummer departed more than two years ago, the UN has been unable to find a replacement. A vicious circle may develop: without strong leadership, the commitment of donors to fund the activity wavers; then the lack of funds and the lack of a high profile make it harder to attract top-notch people to the Executive Director position.
The report’s recommendations regarding the Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) also had the potential to improve the IGF, but these recommendations were undermined by another one that cancels them out. In a vaguely-worded section, the report seems to imply that stakeholder groups should choose their own MAG representatives, but the concluding recommendation makes it all meaningless:
(d) The final selection of candidates shall continue to be made by the United Nations Secretary-General.
Appointment of the MAG by the UN Secretary-General means that the MAG is not a body that represents and is accountable to stakeholders, but is instead a group of courtiers serving at the whim of a UN monarch. The UN Secretary-General’s choices are subject to high-level insider lobbying by governments and business, and are often driven more by tokenism and geographic representation than by competence and a person’s potential contribution to Internet governance. Worse, the selection process is utterly non-transparent, and in the past has been excruciatingly slow and capricious in its timing.
Much of the other material in the report shows why the IGF is more likely to be headed to that special circle of oblivion reserved for irrelevant UN entities than become the world’s premier space for dialogue and action on global Internet governance. It wants to greatly increase funding for the IGF, but it recommends no change to the funding model. It calls for “strengthening” the Secretariat but without changing its lightweight nature – an act of purely verbal circle-squaring. The WG report repeats the same mistake so many other multistakeholderists make, which is to call for greater and greater participation, while offering participants no real influence over anything – and it is influence that attracts participation.
The report makes the fallacious claim that if the IGF takes on “more topics …related to Internet governance for development” then it will become “more interesting for participants from developing countries, in particular LDCs, thereby encouraging them to enhance their participation.” But “development” has been a centerpiece theme of the IGF almost from its beginning. If the participation of people from LDCs is still too low, it is not because there hasn’t been an effort to address development-oriented issues. There is a deeper problem with this argument. People from LDCs are interested in actions or policy changes that might enhance development. They are not interested in talking about development per se; most of them are not part of the development industry. Conferences that talk about development are of interest primarily to a tiny set of subsidized NGOs and government agencies that trade in development programs and development rhetoric. The idea that linking the IGF more strongly to that culture is going to save it seems way off target. Unless the IGF actually does things which have a tangible impact on economic growth of the Internet sector and the distribution of Internet resources there is no reason why people from LDCs will suddenly start participating.
In short, the IGF is at a crossroads. While there is material in the IGF Improvements report that shows that at least some people are aware of the need to take decisive action to salvage this still-young institution, there are also strong indications that it will go on repeating the same mistakes. IGP will definitely participate in IGF 2012, it is too early to give up on it. But the clock is ticking.