Over a decade ago one of the key outcomes of the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was the request for the UN to convene a forum to discuss (in a nonbinding fashion) global public policy issues related to Internet governance.  The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was born as a result.  The IGF has a very important mission: to enable various stakeholders to discuss Internet governance issues on an equal footing, while not under pressure to come to consensus or a binding solution.  It was supposed to bring together in dialogue those who normally do not talk to each other, free of the typical pressures of multilateral forums, where positions are more entrenched in an attempt to win a negotiated outcome.

Despite the important mission of IGF, year by year it is becoming more irrelevant. The irrelevance is not because of its status as a talk shop. The source of the problem is the agenda setting by the Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG), and the lack of interest of governments and the private sector in attending IGF meetings. The latter problem may be related to the MAG’s control of the agenda. IGF now has a tendency to avoid issues relevant to government and business stakeholders, and a tendency to focus on issues the IGF cannot influence. Some stakeholders have suggested that these problems stem from the IGF’s nonbinding nature. But nonbinding discussions are a feature, not a bug. The problem rests in how the community has distanced itself from the the main issues of global Internet governance, and in the way the MAG decides about the program. The topics considered at IGF are losing relevance to the IGF’s mission.

Whatever happened to Internet governance?

The IGF program is shaped based on individual session requests. These proposals’ connection to Internet governance has become less clear over the years, to the point that the MAG eventually decided to ask the session proposers to describe how their session is related to Internet governance.  Internet governance does not have one definition, but it is generally rooted in the Internet protocols and the way policy, rules, and laws shape global cyberspace. The emphasis on the global is very important. What we can influence at IGF are the global Internet governance processes and perhaps regional and geopolitical practices that affect the global Internet. It is not the right venue for discussing or influencing national laws and policies.

The lack of relevance is especially illustrated in workshops regarding inclusion and development. To be clear, it is in the IGF mission to advise various stakeholder groups to accelerate the affordability of the Internet in the developing world.  But many of the development and digital inclusion issues now being discussed at IGF are not about advising stakeholders about how to make the Internet more affordable.  For example, some sessions will discuss specific countries’ projects about access and connectivity at the infrastructure level. This is a major divergence from development issues related to Internet governance. National governments’ e-strategies and generic Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) issues are not problems that a global multistakeholder community can effectively address.

Some aspects of access and digital inclusion are real Internet governance issues, and there are sessions this year at IGF that highlight them. Subjects such as internationalized domain names, IETF protocols, migration from IPv4 to IPv6, are all access-related policy issues that we can actually influence, and the right actors are present at IGF to discuss them. But year by year we keep distancing ourselves from those kinds of issues. Instead of considering the evolution of Internet governance and how access and inclusion issues that directly relate to Internet governance can be addressed, we talk about ICT development issues that we can do nothing about. The digital divide, financing local infrastructure development, broadband deployment, and similar issues were hot topics at WSIS in 2005 and had different structures created to address them. They should be discussed at the appropriate venues and not at IGF.

There is also a tendency to frame many of the topics under the rubric of “digital inclusion”. Interestingly, many proposals this year discuss the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Blockchain in ICT and Internet development! Although these topics are trendy, they do not belong in the IGF unless they make a clear connection to Internet governance. Blockchain’s positive impact on the society is yet to be known, and its direct relation to Internet governance is mostly lost in the many IGF sessions on the topic. AI touches on all kinds of ICT applications but most of them have nothing to do with Internet governance. Proposals on such topics should not be accepted even if they are characterized as technologies that bring digital inclusion.

MAG and its curious approach to workshop selection

Coming up with conference programs in a highly politicized environment such as the United Nations is not an easy task, especially for an event like the IGF where inclusion and diversity are fundamental and rightly important. Naturally, there were always problems with shaping the program, deciding on which sessions be included and what topics to be discussed. There was always a tendency to give some space to sessions that don’t really engage with Internet governance. But the IGF agenda is now at a stage of crisis. In the early days of the IGF when the globally inclusive multistakeholder concept was still largely unique, and it was gaining popularity, and when people could still remember why they convened IGF, there was some kind of order in the chaos of selection. IGF MAG could accept all of the proposals, merge a few and let the participants decide on the sessions they wanted to attend. MAG in those early years would not dictate the agenda and what should be discussed to the extent that it does now.
But over the time, there was a change. Due to lack of resources and an increase in the number of session proposals, MAG’s role became more prominent in selecting the sessions and in shaping the agenda. That is when it started to get more complicated. Perhaps it didn’t help that IGF works under the auspices of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), and the MAG members are appointed more or less by UNDESA. Within the UN, UNDESA is the agency that “holds up the development pillar of the UN.” Is UNDESA influencing the IGF?
This year, to be more inclusive, MAG asked the public what it wanted to be discussed at IGF. The response is summarized in this document.  According to the summary, twenty-two percent of the respondents wanted to talk about cybersecurity, trust, and privacy; only seventeen percent submitted digital inclusion and accessibility. And the rest was about other topics. The results of the MAG process show a marked bias. Twenty-two percent of the proposals received by MAG were about cybersecurity,  but only twelve percent ended up in the top forty ranked proposals. In contrast, only thirteen percent of the proposals received by MAG were about digital inclusion and accessibility, yet thirty-two percent of the top forty ranked workshops were about digital inclusion. This was highlighted by IGF Secretariat during MAG deliberations:

“But then if you look at the top 40 proposals, there is some deviation from what the most popular themes were in those …two other pools of proposals.  We have as the most represented theme digital inclusion when in the overall proposal pool and the call for issues it was clearly cybersecurity. And then following from that technical and operational topics, emerging technologies, cybersecurity, development, innovation and economic issues, evolution of Internet governance, and then human rights as last.”

How did this happen? This year the MAG’s working group on workshop selection decided to assign each MAG member to a theme that the member had expertise in and was more comfortable with. And they could reduce the number of evaluated workshops by each MAG member because apparently, it’s too difficult for one person to evaluate so many proposals. Some of the deliberations and questions that have been raised about this issue among MAG members can be found at this archive list.

The problem with this method of evaluation is apparent. It prevents MAG members from various stakeholder groups to assess the proposals objectively. Even though the secretariat assigned an equal number of members to each theme (and presumably considered stakeholder balance), some proposals did not have more than three evaluators on the day of the evaluation deadline. The Secretariat asked the MAG to do more evaluation since 13 proposals had only 3 evaluations.

The cure for IGF’s irrelevance 

The Internet community and its various stakeholder groups should have a better strategy to bring Internet governance issues to IGF. IGF is not a conference where you can discuss any topic. For the next IGF, the MAG needs to have a better understanding of what major problems face global Internet governance in 2019, before sending out the announcement for proposals for next year’s IGF. They should drop the very poor approach where each MAG member conducts their evaluations based on their preferred theme. MAG members are supposed to be the representatives of their stakeholder group and each theme needs to have all the stakeholder groups present, this can only be achieved if you require MAG members to go through all the proposals.

Until these problems are solved, it is likely that the IGF’s ability to converge stakeholders around global Internet governance issues will continue to decline.

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