The 2023 IGF in Kyoto, Japan is now complete. Running from October 8 to 12, the event renewed our sense that the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is a valuable site of community-building and networking in the IG community. But as always, it is still haunted by questions about its future, its utility and its role in the broader digital ecosystem. This Forum confronted several issues:
- What is IGF’s relationship to the Global Digital Compact (GDC), a UN initiative pushed by the UN Secretary-General’s office?
- Do we want to talk about Internet governance or are we shifting to digital governance?
- Do those interested in digital governance need a separate forum or should they continue to convene in the IGF?
In addition to those new questions, this IGF raised again the big question:
- Is the IGF a policy-making venue for the whole IG community, or is it simply a place where those who want to cooperate can forge connections and work together when possible but choose to go separate ways when preferable?
Hybrid organizational form
The IGF is haunted by these questions because of its hybrid nature. It is a peculiar combination of a private sector- and civil society-led multistakeholder community and the world’s most universal multilateral institution: the United Nations (UN). The UN is run by member states and does not formally share decision-making power with the multistakeholder community.
Internet governance as a process has its roots in the IETF, ICANN, the regional IP number registries, and other nonstate actors. The IGF, in contrast, is embedded in UN bureaucracies and budgets, and the UN is run by state actors. IGF was supposed to be the meeting place of state actors and nonstate actors, with both having equal status. It was birthed by the Tunis Agenda, the official outcome of the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society, held from 2002 – 2005.
As a WSIS outcome, IGF underwent a review and had its mandate renewed by the UN General Assembly for five years in 2010 (2011-2015) and again in 2015 for another ten years (2016-2025) during the WSIS+10 review. The question of extending the IGF’s life again will be a critical aspect of the upcoming WSIS+20 review process in 2025. Some are saying that WSIS should be ended; others want to continue it. Although it was created by WSIS, the IGF’s fate does not depend on renewing the WSIS process. The WSIS+20 review could decide to renew the IGF but not WSIS, or it could renew the WSIS process and end the IGF; or it could end or renew both. Most civil society and private sector organizations support the renewal of the IGF, seeing it as a valuable site of community-building and networking in the IG community. Some of us would like to see WSIS end. In reality, its work is over, and some aspects of the Tunis Agenda are no longer valid, such as its attempt to confine stakeholders to different “roles.” The community has in fact rejected segregated roles since 2014, but a few states still want to assert that.
Initially implemented as a multistakeholder institution in which all actors – governments, civil society, business, academics, and technicians – held equal status, increasingly the IGF feels like a multilateral institution with its own caste system. We now have the segregation of “VIPs” from ordinary attendees in seating arrangements in crowded sessions. We have a special IGF “High Level” sessions reserved for Parliamentarians or other government officials. Governments control half of the seats on the Multstakeholder Advisory Group (MAG), which programs the IGF. The UN Secretary-General’s office created The Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology, which coordinates the implementation of the Secretary-General’s Roadmap on Digital Cooperation. The Tech Envoy is also supposed to advance work towards the Global Digital Compact, about which more below. There is also a “Leadership Panel” of 10 Ministers or Organization heads plus 5 ex-officio members drawn from governments, the MAG chair and the Tech Envoy. The Leadership Panel reflects the IGF’s confusion about its policymaking role: it was an attempt to make the IGF more “influential” on policy by getting some big-name people to speak for the Forum as a whole. The Leadership Panel had some support from nonstate actors within IGF, but it is mainly a response to pressure from the UN SG’s office to assert leadership in digital policy-making. The result of this pressure is…more hierarchy.
The Global Digital Compact
In September 2021, the United Nations Secretary-General released his report Our Common Agenda, which describes itself as “an agenda of action designed to accelerate the implementation of existing [UN] agreements, including the Sustainable Development Goals.” It covers a very broad range of issues. It proposes to “update governance arrangements to … usher in a new era of universal social protection, health coverage, education, skills, decent work and housing” and “new ways of measuring economic prosperity and progress.” It calls for universal access to the Internet by 2030, and calls Internet access “a basic human right.”
Working through the Tech Envoy’s office, The Common Agenda proposes a Global Digital Compact, which will “outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all.” The GDC is expected to be approved at the Summit of the Future in September 2024, through a special track devoted to technology. But as one observer said, the GDC could be a very high-level statement of principles that is two pages long, or it could be much longer – and more contentious.
One thing we don’t like about the GDC is that it is an agenda being set from the top down, largely by the UN itself and its member states, rather than by the multistakeholder community in the IGF. WSIS and IGF are supposed to be separate from the GDC, and there is in fact no formal linkage between them. However, the UN Tech Envoy’s office and the IGF’s MAG have increasingly tied the IGF’s agenda to the GDC discussions. For example, the IGF main session on “GDC and Beyond: A Multistakeholder perspective” included Amandeep Gill, the Tech Envoy, who tried to frame the GDC as the agenda-setter for the entire IGF. The IGF’s discussion of the WSIS+20 process says, “The WSIS+20 and IGF+20 consultation will be informed by the proposed Global Digital Compact, to be adopted at the Summit of the Future in 2024.”
As part of the GDC push, The Tech Envoy wants to create a new Digital Cooperation Forum (DCF). In advocating for this, Mr. Gill has tried to draw a distinction between “digital governance” and “internet governance.” It is correct that the former is subsumed by the latter. It should be clear to everyone now that the Internet is just one part of a broader digital ecosystem that includes data governance, software applications, and the production and distribution of computing devices. IGP reflected and promoted this change its Annual Workshop last year, which was entitled “From Internet Governance to Digital Political Economy.”
But Gill’s idea for a new Forum is not a theoretically-grounded attempt to make the definition of the IGF’s subject matter more rational and up to date. The primary motive for the DCF proposal seems to be internal empire building by the Tech Envoy. The community formed around the IGF can and already is turning its attention to broader digital governance issues. (This year’s IGF was obsessed with the “governance” of Artificial Intelligence, with countless, often poorly uniformed sessions on the topic.) But starting over again by duplicating the forum would set us back years. No stakeholder constituency is calling for a new Forum, and it is hard to find any supporters and participants of IGF in business, civil society and government who want to create a new Digital Cooperation Forum. A new Forum like the GDC would divide the community and, worse, it would not share the multistakeholder heritage of the IGF. It is unlikely that a new DCF would give civil society and private sector equal status in its programming and operations. The GDC might also re-negotiate WSIS-era language about things like free flow of information, which would probably get worse.
Simply extending the IGF’s mandate beyond 2025 would provide an opportunity for continuity and progress by reorienting the IGF toward a multistakeholder approach to global digital transformation.
The IGF cannot make policy!
The biggest problem facing the IGF is that too many people want it to be a policy-making organization. They present grand declarations about how it can solve the digital divide, eliminate gender inequality, extend benefits to everyone. They seem to believe that a UN Forum focused on the digital transformation can become a world government powerful enough to right every social wrong, protect individual freedoms and generate full equality. In reality, neither the UN nor the IGF can ever make binding policy for the entire digital transformation, nor would anyone in their right mind want them to try. The scope of issues raised are too broad, the stakeholders involved are too diverse, the national interests too conflicted. Leftist civil society organizations who purport to speak for the global South are the worst in this respect. One of them called for the entire digital economy to be controlled and taxed to redistribute wealth. Her vision of the UN system, in other words, was that of a socialist-communist nation-state writ large. This is not just an impossible fantasy, it is a destructive one.
The global Internet worked because it was based on cooperative, mutually beneficial relationships. Likewise, the IGF can only work as an informal networking forum where like-minded parties can cooperate voluntarily and all parties can learn about and debate the different policy positions. This vision of its role is perhaps less exciting to those who dream of becoming philosopher-kings with the power to right every wrong in the world, but it is the only viable path. Civil society organizations would learn quickly how dangerous any concentration of power over the digital world would be. Even with nation-state power fragmented, governments are one of the biggest constraints on Internet freedom: they are implementing internet shutdowns, arresting dissidents, blocking access to disfavored applications and services, promoting influence operations, imposing network fees on Internet applications and services, and trying to break encryption. The recent conflicts in Ukraine and Palestine are reminders of how much the world is still riven by ethnic and religious differences; the geopolitical competition between the US and China shows how economic and military interests can lead to the breakdown of massive amounts of trade and cooperation. The idea of the UN as the basis for a global government capable of regulating the digital ecosystem and redistributing its wealth according to the dictates of some forum founders on these realities.
The limitations of intergovernmentalism were displayed at the end of the Kyoto IGF. The Secretariat announced the choice of the next host of the 2024 IGF: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. True, the IGF needs host governments capable of absorbing its costs, but KSA is also the state that just sentenced a man to death for a few Tweets. At the IGF, someone attempted to object to this choice from the floor, but criticizing a member state is apparently against the UN Code of Conduct.
The IGF was founded on a bargain – not entirely a Faustian one – between the multistakeholder IG community and the multilateral system. This formal relationship has some benefits, but only if the role of the IGF is confined to networking, education and voluntary cooperation: higher ambitions for the Forum will undermine its whole rationale and create a power struggle for the illusory power to “set” digital policy. The IG community needs to resist the creeping multi-lateralism and hierarchy that the UN connection brings with it, insisting on equal status for all stakeholder categories and fully cooperative and voluntary modes of developing its outputs.