The Start of a new Beginning: The Internet Governance Forum on its Road to 2025 Thumbnail
Internet Governance 1 April 2016

The Start of a new Beginning: The Internet Governance Forum on its Road to 2025

Wolfgang Kleinwächter
By Wolfgang KleinwächterGuest AuthorProfessor Emeritus at the University of Aarhus

Next week in Geneva the first meeting will take place of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) Open Consultations and the Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) since the mandate of the this forum was renewed for a ten-year period.

Chaired by Lynn St. Amour, this meeting will mark the start of a new beginning. Last December, the 70th UN General Assembly extended the IGF mandate until 2025. With a clear perspective for the next ten years, the IGF has now the unique opportunity to take courageous steps forward.

So far, the IGF is a success story. Today, the IGF is the largest, most recognized and most respected annual meeting of the global multistakeholder Internet community. There is no other place in the world where ministers, CEOs and leaders of the technical community and civil society are discussing key issue on Internet policies on such a high level and an equal footing.

From scepticism to success

In 2005, when the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) agreed to establish an IGF, there was a lot of skepticism. The IGF wouldn´t be anything more than another UN talking shop, a new bureaucracy, a tiger without teeth. Some preferred the establishment of an intergovernmental Internet council. Other argued it would have been better to leave the discussion where the expertise is: in the private sector and the technical community.

But the argument, that before decisions can be taken there is a need to discuss and understand the complexity of the multidisciplinary Internet issues with all its political, economic, cultural, social, legal and technical implications in an environment where all stakeholders – governments, private sector, civil society and the academic-technical community – are involved on equal footing, prevailed.

The UN Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG), which developed the proposal, was very careful in designing the innovative mechanism not as a “negotiation body” but as a “discussion platform”, convened but not owned by the United Nations. This gave the process both legitimacy and flexibility.

The IGF is rooted in the UN system but can go beyond traditional UN policy-making procedures and explore new forms of enhanced multistakeholder cooperation. The plan was that the IGF should identify issues and frame a multistakeholder discussion but leaves the decisions in the hands of somebody else.

The expectation was that such a discussion would enlighten other parties in the Internet governance ecosystem and to enable them to start negotiations, where needed, and to take decisions, based on a better understanding of the complexity of a given issue. With other words: Discussion should be centralized and include all stakeholders, but decision should be decentralized and delegated to institutions which have a political or legal mandate by their governmental or non-governmental stakeholders.

In 2005 this was an innovative idea with a lot of uncertainties. In 2016 we know that this works. The idea, to have a high level meeting every year without the pressure to agree on language at the end of the meeting, opened mind and mouth of all stakeholders. Nowhere else high level representatives from governments or private corporations are pulled into free and frank discussions with technical experts and civil society activists as during the annual IGF week. And indeed, IGF discussions helped to find solutions for some problems.

  • The IGF discussed for years principles for Internet Governance. During the 8th IGF in Bali (October 2013) there was a four hours plenary session on Internet Governance principles. The “Push from Bali” enabled the Global Multistakeholder NetMundial Conference (April 2014) to reach agreement on the “Sao Paulo Declaration” which defined nine universal principles for Internet Governance, supported by all stakeholder groups, a unique document which will remain for a long time the main reference point for reviewing activities in cyberspace by governmental or private institutions.
  • The IGF discussed for years how to enhance access to the Internet. A set of Policy Options for Connecting the Next Billion were developed through the global network of national and regional IGFs, and with the help of over 50 organizations from the public and private sectors. This was a great stimulus to develop strategies to bring the next billion Internet users online as you can see now in plans adopted in 2015 like the Outcome Document of the WSIS +10 Meeting, the ITU Development Strategy or the Future Internet Initiative of the World Economic Forum.
  • The IGF produced a set of Best Practices and policy options on existing and emerging policy issues such as how to establish CSERTs that contributed to enriching other fora discussions such as the Global Cybersecurity Conference that took plan in The Hague last year.
  • The IGF discussed for years Internet related human rights issues. This discussion pushed the UN Human Rights Council to dive deeper into the cyberspace. The reports on freedom of expression (2012) and privacy (2016) in the digital age or the UN resolution (2013), which acknowledged that individuals have the same human rights offline and online, got certainly a lot of inspiration from the IGF.
  • The IGF discussed for years the management of critical Internet resources. During the 9th IGF in Istanbul (September 2014) the need for an enhanced ICANN accountability in an IANA transition was highlighted. Insofar the IGF discussion contributed in a very constructive way to the road to Marrakesh (February 2016) where the multistakeholder ICANN community was able to agree on a package to finalize the IANA transition.

With other words: The IGF has evolved over the years into an observatory, into a clearing house and even into an early warning system. A lot of today´s critical Internet problems has been discussed already years ago in IGF sessions.

To mention just one example: During the 2rd IGF in Rio de Janeiro (2007) the “Internet of Things” (IOT) was raised in the session on “Emerging Issues”. A small group of engaged stakeholders used the flexibility of the IGF mechanism and the 3rd IGF in Hyderabad (2008) to establish a “Dynamic IGF Coalition on the Internet of Things”. In the following years this group produced a number of stimulating papers raising at an early stage issues like privacy and security in the IOT. Similar things can be said to issues as big data, cloud computing or zero rating.

The structural and conceptional gaps

But the IGF also has its weak points, both structural and conceptional, as it was documented in the final report of the UNCSTD Working Group on IGF Improvement (2012).

The IGF structure is still very weak. Its secretariat is understaffed and underfinanced, it depends to a high degree from the good will of hosting countries and the engagement of individuals from different stakeholder groups. And there is an underrepresentation of stakeholders from developing countries. The uncertainty about the future of the IGF was no incentive to become more engaged. With the decision of the WSIS +10 meeting in December 2015 this has changed. But with the option of a sustainable future the IGF has now to find the right balance between strengthening its infrastructure and avoiding the emergence of a new bureaucracy. There could be also a risk of governmental or private sector capture which raises the question of a higher level of accountability for the MAG. To ensure the IGF keeps the trust of the community, enhancing the transparency of decisions on its future and improving its working modalities will be key. The recommendations from the CSTD Working Group on Improvements to the IGF pave the way for these improvements. Could the IGF not learn from the ICANN processes in empowering the IGF community to implement these changes and oversee the MAG in a reasonable and balanced way?

The conceptional weakness of the IGF is a delicate issue. On the one hand there is a growing pressure from all sides that the IGF has to produce more tangible output. On the other hand the IGF has to be very careful not to cross the red line, where the production of output leads to negotiations among stakeholders. The idea to organize “intersessional work” by smaller working groups which produce “Best Practice Papers” is not a bad one. The same can be said to the “Issue Papers” produced by the Dynamic Coalitions. Both paper series can be seen as “output” which does not need a formal negotiation process. The decision making would not move to the IGF, but the IGF would send more concrete messages to other parties of the Internet Governance Ecosystem which have a decision making capacity within their specific mandate. Here more creativity is welcomed and needed.

Such a light weight decentralized approach is underpinned by the fact that over the last ten years nearly 50 national and regional IGFs emerged. All those regional and national IGFs were inspired by the basic principles of the global IGF: Openness, transparency, multistakeholder, bottom up. There are no formalized relationships among all the various IGFs, but like in the technical world, where the TCP/IP protocol links individual networks to a “network of networks” those principles functions as “political protocols” and have created a rather stable and flexible network of discussion platforms which cross-fertilize each other

This is true also for a number of related initiatives as the International Commission on Internet Governance (Bildt Commission), the Global Internet Policy Observatory (GIPO), the Net Mundial Initiative (NMI), the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP), the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise (GFCE), the Internet & Jurisdiction Project (IJP) or the Summer School on Internet Governance (SSIG). During the 10th IGF in Joao Pessoa (November 2015) all those projects had their meetings linked to the IGF which signals that the IGF has become something like the center of gravity in the Internet Governance discussion process.

More Innovation needed on the Road towards 2025

In such a design the political Internet Infrastructure mirrors more and more the technical Internet Architecture. To a certain degree the global IGF functions like a root server with the national or regional IGFs and the various initiatives and commissions as name servers for special domains. And like in the real Internet, the “power” is at the edges, not in the center. The IGF and its connected domains take the queries from the various stakeholders, discuss the issue in a multistakeholder environment and send the result to the other edge of the network where the power resides to bring solutions to problems.

In this context it may be of interest to remember what Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General, said in an Internet Governance speech in 2004: “The issues are numerous and complex. Even the definition of what we mean by Internet governance is a subject of debate. But the world has a common interest in ensuring the security and the dependability of this new medium. Equally important, we need to develop inclusive and participatory models of governance. The medium must be made accessible and responsive to the needs of all the world’s people.” And he added that “in managing, promoting and protecting [the Internet’s] presence in our lives, we need to be no less creative than those who invented it. Clearly, there is a need for governance, but that does not necessarily mean that it has to be done in the traditional way, for something that is so very different.”

The IGF operates indeed in a “non-traditional way”. Ten years ago it was an experiment. It explored successfully the still unknown territory of cyberspace. Now it got a push with a safe future for the next ten years. The 193 UN member states reconfirmed not only the original mandate of the IGF, they invited the IGF also “to show progress on working modalities, and participation of relevant stakeholders from developing countries”. The exploration can and must continue. The new MAG would be wise advised if it would not only concentrate on its daily duties, that is the preparation of the 11th IGF scheduled now for Guadalajara in Mexico, November 22 – 25, 2016, but to reserve also some capacities to look beyond the horizon towards 2025.

NOTE: If you would like to watch or participate remotely in the IGF Open Consultations and MAG meeting in Geneva next week, please see the IGF website event page. The meeting will be web cast / live streamed in both English and French.

Image credit: a view of the IGF 2015 opening session in Brazil. Photo by Internet Society staff.

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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