Internet Governance Forum – Governance Debate


We have long been a fan of the Internet Governance Forum as a leading experiment in inclusive multi-stakeholder engagement at the global level. In our last newsletter (11 December 2017), we wrote an anticipatory commentary on the 12th IGF, which was meeting in Geneva from 18 to 21 December 2017. We had the opportunity to mingle with IGF delegates and to attend a few of the over 230 sessions that were held over five days (the official four days but also an extra day “zero” on 17 December to help deal with the overload). As usual, we came away with the impression of multiple voices – or sounds, as it were, like the warming up of an orchestra before the conductor comes on stage.

There were three important sources of reporting this time – the organizers of the IGF Forum itself who have provided transcripts of many of the sessions; the Diplo Foundation, which worked closely with the IGF organizers but also did some consolidated daily reporting; and IP-Watch, which showed an unusually in-depth and transparent interest in the operations of this Forum. Most of the latter’s reporting is password-protected, but there is an unusually informative “encyclopaedia” of terms accompanied with insightful analysis of the full cacophony of this IGF. We encourage our readers to cull through these sources for a full accounting of the IGF.

We limit ourselves here to a few reflections on its “governance” function. As we noted in our previous commentary, we were intrigued that the overall theme of IGF12 was “Shaping Our Digital Future” but that the opening plenary for the event was titled “Shaping Our Future Digital Global Governance”. We made sure to check this one out. We are accustomed to IGF participants reaffirming the mantra of multi-stakeholderism, but this has always been in the context of an open, governance-free Internet. So the choice of specifically featuring a governance debate in the opening session did signify changing circumstances. Yes, there were references, including the intervention from UNOG Director-General Michael Møller, that the pace and scale of technological innovation requires a different form of governance that is both people-centered and inclusive. But that was not much different from what we have been hearing from the 2030 Agenda and merely scratched the surface at the beginning of the debate.

Before going further, though, we should point out that the topsy-turvy uncertainties of a changing world order in 2017 have alerted us to a dramatically changed environment for which traditional governance approaches are no longer working. We heard a similar message, for example, from our friend Francis Gurry, the WIPO Director-General, at another event recently, who added the insights of increasing complexity and asymmetry to the speed with which innovations are influencing technology generally, including the Internet. Mr. Gurry also pointed out that there is an “enormous” privatization of everything that challenges our sense of the distribution of justice, while at the same time the worst “hackers” of cybersecurity are governments. Even though there are pressures to “institutionalize” the governance of the IGF, to give it a “structure”, we need to think more transformatively about how the open and free-flowing nature of the Internet can be strengthened through a multi-stakeholder collaboration that does not necessarily lead to a structured, institutionalized format.

From that opening session, we were most impressed by the vision shared by none other than Vincent Cerf, one of the early innovators of this digital world. Increased multi-stakeholder collaboration can evolve through the IGF, he said, around safety, security, reliability, stability and privacy practices such that the growing billions of Internet users will have increased trust in the system (the implication being that there is a lot of mistrust today). An underlying concern is the challenge of how to hold violators accountable in a borderless world, while still defending against the dangers of fragmentation of the Internet.

Others on the opening plenary gradually articulated the need for a normative and legal framework based on existing human rights laws and merely adapting them to the Internet world. But an excellent insight from Kathy Brown of the Internet Society pointed out that adapting existing laws and norms in a borderless digital world does require a different set of tools. The multi-stakeholder participation, she argued, will need to be part of a different kind of collaborative decision-making. It was this recognition that the IGF is moving into uncharted territory that may evolve into a unique multi-stakeholder policy format that impressed us about this free-flowing plenary discussion.

The IGF is still, nonetheless, a non-policy setting exercise, even with the plethora of Best Practice Forums and Dynamic Coalitions that are developing channels for policy convergence on many topics. But the issue of whether to put in place a global structure is now more than ever on the table. We note, furthermore, that the Swiss leadership of this IGF chose to issue a set of statements that reflect an unofficial understanding of a “rough consensus” on selected issues that were addressed during IGF sessions. We draw these from the IP-Watch report as follows:

Our own review of these statements suggests that they cover issues like data protection, governance processes, fake news and content accountability through transparency, mobilizing to reduce the digital divide, advancing rights in the digital world, coping with safety and cybersecurity, advancing gender equality, managing the digital impact on jobs and facilitating digital literacy in the long run.

How the IGF will evolve going forward may be immediately challenged by the fact that there is no host yet identified for the next 2018 IGF. We understand that there are four or more candidates for 2018, even though Germany has already reserved its role to host the 2019 IGF. One rumor is that Hong Kong China is in contention for 2018. We would speculate that the strong Chinese presence that we saw at this Geneva IGF (including a considerable number of booths) is indicative of their interest, but we also wonder about the complications of a host that has a somewhat questionable normative record. In that regard, it is also noteworthy that the US delegation to this IGF was significantly smaller than in past IGFs. This might be a symptom of the threats of fragmentation from the current US Administration, but we also recognize that the IGF is not intended to be an inter-governmental forum. And, of course, the more prominent concern is the under-representation of participants from developing countries.

From the CMMD Geneva Observer 31 December 2017

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