The Internet Governance Forum (IGF), held under the auspices of the United Nations, is mandated to facilitate discussions of global Internet governance stakeholders through its annual meetings and other activities. The Internet Governance Project has been involved with IGF since its inception and found it for many years a relevant and important forum. It is clear from the Paris 2018 annual meeting that while IGF had lost its prominence, it might actually be revived in the future – but not for good reasons. This blog is a call to action for the Internet community. It is a warning to be more strategic when participating at IGF so as to prevent multistakeholder Internet governance processes from becoming multilateralized.
The Lord Speaks, the Commoners Oblige
The opening ceremonies of IGF have usually been uneventful. But this year, there was a surprise for IGF attendees. The president of the host country, France, decided to engage with the IGF community and made a long opening speech. A political figure making a long speech at a UN conference is not much of a surprise. But what the French president said did not resonate with many and was not aligned with the spirit of the IGF community. Most of the time such speeches are boring and have no specific message, or are just in line with what the Internet community thinks. But this time, Emmanuel Macron made sure he got our attention. In a nutshell, the speech left the impression that cyberdoomsday has arrived.
The president said the Internet is an unmitigated disaster and only governments can save us from it:
Today, when I look at our democracies, the Internet is much better used by those on the extremes. It is used more for hate speech or dissemination of terrorist content than by many others. This is the reality and we must face up to it.
To avoid the atrocities being committed by the Internet, the president suggested that regulation is an answer – perhaps the best answer. Regulation can combat fake news, stop copyright infringement, put in place a taxation system and fight online child abuse. The president also suggested that the Internet Governance Forum should be attached directly to the UN Secretary General with its own secretariat and in a way called for IGF to play a bigger role in facilitating government participation and making policy recommendations.
Reactions to the speech were mixed. Some members of the Internet community loved the fact that the president had an agenda and it was great that a president paid attention to IGF and prepared a speech for us. Others said, this is Europe; we like regulation and his presence gave prominence to IGF and might actually prevent its death. Some others thought that this was actually an outrageous speech and did not consider most of the Internet community values: the values the Internet was built upon.
It is doubtful that the speech was purely a political speech that was not well thought out. Considering the Paris Peace Forum that took place before and during IGF 2018, there is obviously a strategy and an agenda by France and other nation states about our digital future. But wherever Internet Governance Forum is happening, it has to retain its global nature. It does matter that France has a nationalistic view of governance of the Internet and is trying to infuse it into our Internet governance norms and processes. It does not matter that France is a democratic country. We all know how democratic countries can be friendly with undemocratic countries and compromise democratic values to reach their goals. Do we want that for Internet governance?
Transnational IG vs. Multilateral IG
The French secretary of state for digital affairs, Mounir Mahjoubi, made a speech at the closing ceremony that emphasized strengthening the multilateral aspect of IGF. This might simply mean more government participation is needed in this forum, which is fine. But if it means that the outcome of IGF might become binding, or that governments will be more equal than others in the forum, then it is not acceptable. The risk of subordinating Internet governance to multilateral relations is real. A multilateral approach to Internet governance, especially with the rise of cybersecurity threats can happen. As IGP affiliate Professor Hans Klein stated at the Forum, the source of many problems on the Internet is oftentimes state actors.
The risk of moving towards multilateral Internet governance is not new, but in the past non-state actors were able to prevent the multilateral approach to Internet governance by attending the relevant forums, making sure their role is effectively mentioned in governmental documents and agenda such as the Tunis Agenda. Can we continue that path?
At IGF, stakeholders’ chaos has gotten to a point that it seems the community has forgotten its mission or has been captured by aliens who do not speak IG. Stakeholders wander around, discussing topics unrelated to Internet governance. I made some points about that during the closing session.
The wanderers do not think about how to use IGF to strategically influence debates with other stakeholders or start a new Internet governance debate. Talks about creating new Internet governance institutions do not happen at IGF anymore. They happen in other forums such as the Paris Peace Forum, which is not as inclusive as IGF, and then the French president brings the outcome of that forum to IGF to operationalize. As we talk about artificial intelligence and smart cities, some stakeholder groups outside of IGF re-shaped our mission. The IGF’s agenda setters and program committee (MAG) are not really representing us, and are not taking our mission seriously at IGF.
If governments define and shape the mission of IGF then after a while Internet governance might not be happening outside of the sovereign state system. This does not necessarily mean exclusion of stakeholder groups, but it does mean that states will be the main decision makers in the Internet governance ecosystem. The IGF secretariat’s independence from UN bodies was always very important for the Internet community. Even when it was suggested to move the IGF Secretariat from Geneva to New York, there were objections. Lets not forget that Internet governance values are at stake. The Internet evolves but the values of openness, interoperability, transparency, multi-stakeholder and bottom up governance processes should not be compromised.
IGF has become mundane and has lost its importance for some. But if the political figures start thinking about turning IGF into a tool to regulate the Internet or legitimize multilateral processes to govern the Internet, then we need a plan. All the stakeholder groups need to come up with a plan of what they want to discuss, how they want to engage the community and if they envision other non-governmental institutions that can be discussed at IGF. We need to start now before we end up with a government-driven Internet in the name of fighting fake news, protecting copyrights and protecting children.