Feedback for Taking Stock of Rio

As last year, an online form is available for posting feedback about the Rio meeting. Whilst submissions will probably eventually be archived on the IGF Secretariat’s Web site, in the meantime I’m posting my contribution here: What worked well? Since my previous submission taking stock of the Athens meeting remains online, I will here only address improvements to that inaugural meeting. These include the extension of the schedule to include meetings of dynamic coalitions, the easier availability of more affordable food at the venue, and the much improved quality of wireless Internet access. What worked less well? The IGF has been held back from fulfilling its mandate. It was the consensus of WGIG that “there is no global multi-stakeholder forum to address Internet-related public policy issues.” There still is not, and the IGF shows no inclination to achieve its mandate to fill that void. This must be rapidly and urgently addressed if the IGF is not to become even more irrelevant than it is already widely regarded as being. The problem largely lies in the structures and procedures of the IGF which were never exposed to full multi-stakeholder discussion before being adopted in the first place. They divide into three sub-issues: the disempowerment of stakeholders at the decision-making level, the lack of accountability and transparency of the Secretariat and Advisory Group, and the denial of a deliberative capacity to the IGF. Taking these in turn, it has always been stated by the Secretariat that the IGF is not a decision-making forum, but this is an over-simplification. Whilst is is clear that the IGF has no mandate to take binding decisions, it does have a responsibility to participate in the shaping of decisions to be made at other levels, and this requires that it possess the ability to deliberate and make recommendations. Furthermore, decisions must be made on structural and procedural issues relating to the IGF itself. At present these have essentially been made by the Secretariat unilaterally, with little transparency and no accountability for its consideration of the views of stakeholders. This cannot continue. It is imperative that stakeholders themselves be empowered to make decisions about the IGF, rather than merely to advise. Secondly, neither the Secretariat nor the Advisory Group have been transparent in their operations or their dealings with stakeholders. Examples of the Secretariat’s lack of transparency in arranging the Rio meeting include the decisions that were made, without discussion, to exclude the two-way chat facility developed by the Brazilian Ministry of Culture from use in the plenary sessions, and to include “discussants” as a higher tier of participant in those sessions. Neither has the Advisory Group been adequately transparent, despite having at least conceded the need to post summaries of its closed meetings. Summaries such as, “The group had a first exchange of views of its own role and function and its renewal” are quite unhelpful, and much more is needed. The Advisory Group should follow the lead of other Internet governance institutions such as the IETF by making its mailing list public and by recording and opening its physical meetings to observers. Third, it is a prerequisite of the capacity to make reasoned recommendations that the IGF, at all levels from Advisory Group through to plenary session, be facilitated to deliberate democratically on the policy issues of Internet governance, rather than, as at present, passively receiving prepared presentations with which they have a sharply delimited opportunity to engage. In the context of the IGF’s plenary body, the Speed Dialogues that were originally proposed for the Rio meeting would have been an ideal setting in which to introduce a process of democratic deliberation into the IGF’s proceedings. As it was, however, this opportunity was missed when, in another example of the Secretariat’s lack of transparency, the Speed Dialogues were dropped from the Rio agenda without warning. Did the meeting meet your expectations? If not, what were its shortcomings? Of the many respects in which the IGF has fallen short of expectations, and continued to do so at the Rio meeting, perhaps the most serious has been its complete failure to engage with ordinary Internet users, which can only be done in their native element – online. In stark contrast to other Internet governance organisations such as ICANN, the IETF, the W3C and others, the IGF has developed no online community whatever. The Secretariat has continued to claim that over eight hundred users have registered on its “Discussion Space”, after I pointed out that most of those putative users are spammers with names like “BestSellerOfViagra”, “rolex-buy” and “SexyLolita” who have never posted a message. Considering that, as I write, zero responses to the thread on “Proposals on a suitable rotation among the Advisory Group members” have been posted, the actual lack of engagement of online users with the IGF process is readily apparent. This may be compared to the online community Slashdot, where in a single discussion thread about the IGF that preceded the Rio meeting, 325 comments by scores of individual contributors were posted. This abject lack of connection to ordinary Internet users will not be redressed while the IGF continues to treat them as second class citizens. Consider that whilst over a million dollars was invested in the Rio meeting, the amount spent on the design and implementation of mechanisms for online participation and on developing an online community around the IGF was negligible. Similarly, whilst a series of open consultation meetings were held to settle upon the form which the IGF’s physical meeting was to take, decisions about online engagement were made privately by the Secretariat without consultation (even with the Online Collaboration Dynamic Coalition that was formed for this purpose). The need for the IGF to more tightly integrate the participation of the remote Internet community with its processes has been repeatedly expressed. Even before the IGF was formed, the Cardoso report on the United Nations and civil society recommended that the UN “should experiment with a global Internet agora to survey public opinion and raise awareness on emerging issues.” This requires a far higher priority to be accorded to online community building than has occurred to date. Although the investment of resources in online participation is required, there are many useful steps that could be taken towards improving the engagement of the Internet community with the work of the IGF at no cost at all. These include the better promotion of the existing mechanisms and fora available for remote participation in the work of the IGF (both official and unofficial), the pro-active participation of the IGF’s Secretariat and Advisory Group in those fora (from which they are currently almost entirely absent), and the requirement (as in the IETF) that any decisions to be taken about the IGF’s structure and processes be ratified in online discussion. In your opinion, was the Rio meeting in line with the IGF mandate as contained in the Tunis agenda? Far from it. Paragraphs of the IGF’s mandate in the Tunis Agenda that require it, inter alia, to “advise all stakeholders” (e), “make recommendations” (g), “help to find solutions” (k) and to “promote and assess, on an ongoing basis, the embodiment of WSIS principles in Internet governance processes”, are not at all suited to being addressed using a panel discussion format. Rather, these paragraphs of the IGF’s mandate require it to form working groups with a formal link to the IGF’s plenary body (unlike the present dynamic coalitions), which are empowered to formulate concrete proposals on a multi-stakeholder basis, and to present those with a recommendation for adoption by consensus by the plenary body. This in turn will require the plenary body to develop a greater capacity for deliberation upon those proposals, as already indicated above. What did you think of the different types of meetings? Main Sessions: The poor attendance at the Rio meeting’s plenary sessions may be accounted for by the inherent tendency of panel discussions on broad themes such as openness, security, diversity and access to descend into banal and sterile generalities. In comparison, as was widely observed during the final day’s opening session, the much more focused and outcome-oriented dynamic coalitions potentially have much more to contribute to the fulfilment of the IGF’s mandate. Given the choice of investing their limited time in the plenary sessions, where they might expect to hear numerous prepared speeches from high-level speakers with quite entrenched views, or the alternative of participating in a dynamic coalition or workshop where their input could actually help to advance the group’s collective understanding of the issues, it is little wonder that most participants in the Rio meeting tended to prefer the latter course. The reforms that were made to this year’s plenary sessions did little to improve their quality. Whilst there was a reduction in the number of panelists, this was largely offset by the reduction of the session’s length from three to two hours, and by the nomination for each panel of a number of elite “discussants” who were given preferential treatment in making statements or questions to the panel. It is to be noted that the inclusion of discussants in this year’s panels was not a matter raised or discussed by the Secretariat during the open consultations. Even so, Nik Gowing in the final session on “Emerging Issues” illustrated that it would have been possible to create a more interactive discussion if only the speakers were more strictly held to their time limits. Even though the length of Gowing’s session was curtailed, it still afforded greater opportunity for public participation than, say, the security session in which the panelists’ presentations took up more than half of the allotted time of the session. It should also have been the case that in selecting the panelists, the Advisory Group ensured that greater diversity of opinion was represented. For example, as matters stood, even the potentially contentious session on critical Internet resources was neutered by the exclusion of speakers who advocated radical positions, such as the removal of authority from ICANN over the Internet’s naming and numbering systems. Workshops: Whilst many of the workshops were thoughtfully developed, diversely composed and usefully pragmatic, as in Athens, there were too many of them and their content in many cases overlapped too much. Some workshops also displayed an appreciable bias towards the perspectives of their primary organisers, neglecting other stakeholder viewpoints. These issues could have been overcome by not making an uncoordinated open call for workshops in the first place. Instead, it should be decided, through the open consultation process, what workshop topics would be consistent with the IGF’s mandate, and what criteria their organisers ought to satisfy. Then, for those classes of workshop for which there is not an existing dynamic coalition, a volunteer from amongst those interested in coordinating a workshop on each topic should act as a central point of contact for the others. Open Forums: The purpose of the open fora ought to be to fulfil the IGF’s mandate to “interface with appropriate inter-governmental organizations and other institutions on matters under their purview” (para 72(c)), and to allow it to “assess, on an ongoing basis, the embodiment of WSIS principles in Internet governance processes” (para 72(i)). In fact they accomplished nothing of the sort. Because the bodies invited to hold open fora were given free reign over their content, they became nothing but self-serving trade show presentations. The organisations in question were not challenged about their fulfilment of the WSIS principles, nor was a channel of dialogue opened between those organisations and the IGF. To be useful, open fora must allow for and encourage the airing of critical perspectives, and not only during question time. Taking ICANN’s session as an example, its Chairman Peter Dengate Thrush simply provided a dry history lesson of the organisation and took a series of reports from its constituent bodies. No discourse was facilitated between ICANN and dissenting voices, and no examination of ICANN’s place in the post-Tunis regime of Internet governance took place. Neither should this have been expected while the session’s agenda was left to ICANN, since ICANN has no interest in deferring to the views of the international community of stakeholders other than through its constituent bodies. Yet this is exactly what the Tunis Agenda requires the IGF to facilitate. Best Practice Forums: There seems to be no compelling reason to maintain any distinction between a best practice forum and a regular workshop. Dynamic Coalition Meetings: Many of the comments made during this year’s Way Forward session in Rio reveal a growing consensus that it is through the work of the IGF’s dynamic coalitions, as its de facto working groups, that it has the greatest opportunity of making progress in the fulfilment of its mandate. This will, however, require that the coalitions’ relationship to the plenary body be more strongly institutionalised. Thus it was suggested (for example by Bertrand de la Chapelle and William Drake) that the plenary meetings should be used to bring in the output of workshops and dynamic coalitions for discussion by the wider community, even if this does not involve formally accepting their recommendations. This would also facilitate these outputs being fed into other institutions at the international and national level. This will however require firstly that criteria be established by which for the multi-stakeholder composition and democratic operation of dynamic coalitions to be assured as a qualification for their capacity to deliver recommendations for the consideration of the plenary body. There are many examples of this in practice, including GAID whose Steering Committee is required to approve proposed CoEs by reference to an open set of criteria. It will also require that procedures be set in place by which for the dynamic coalitions to deliver their proposals or recommendations for the plenary body to deliberate upon. This in turn will require the plenary body itself to develop a greater capacity to deliberate upon such draft recommendations as it may receive. The potential utility of the Speed Dialogue mechanism for this purpose has already been noted. Was there an adequate balance between the different types of meeting? The Internet Governance Forum is not called upon to be an Internet policy conference. If it were, then the current balance of concurrent workshop and plenary sessions would be perfect. But in fact the IGF is called upon by a consensus of nations to be a “forum for multi-stakeholder policy dialogue”. Let us consider what this means in detail. First, it means that the meeting must contain a balance of all the stakeholder groups. Many of the workshops and dynamic coalitions are not, in themselves, particularly multi-stakeholder. Therefore in order to achieve the fullest multi-stakeholder participation in the activities of the IGF, the focus of its meetings must be on the plenary gatherings rather than on the decentralised activities of its workshops and dynamic coalitions. Second, it must concern questions of global public policy. Much of the discussions that have taken place to date at the IGF have been quite orthogonal to anything that could be considered an issue of global public policy. Therefore rather than allowing any random issue that can be said to bear on the Internet’s openness, security, diversity or access to be discussed at the IGF, it is important that dialogue be more tightly focussed on specific questions that call for a coordinated public policy response. Third, the IGF is intended to be a forum for dialogue. The presentation of prepared papers by high-level experts to a largely mute audience is anathema to the process of dialogue. In order to stimulate a more balanced and diverse discussion on Internet public policy issues, a different format is called for, whereby the plenary body is divided into table groups and is facilitated through the process of intently debating the various perspectives with the aim of producing a closer consensus. Was there an adequate balance between the different types of meeting? As stated above, the IGF will have little chance of fulfilling its mandate in the absence of a process empowering its plenary body to deliberate democratically on questions of Internet public policy, such as the Speed Dialogue sessions would have facilitated. The need for these to be reinstated on the agenda for the next IGF meeting is acute. Should all the different types of events be maintained on the programme of the New Delhi meeting? If so, should they be maintained in the form they were held in Rio or is there need for any changes to be introduced? The answer to this question should be apparent from the discussion above. But in summary, the IGF is not just about recognising Internet-related public policy issues and fatuously repeating platitudes about them (openness is good, the digital divide is bad); it is about global governance of those issues. This requires the forum to be able to develop policy around those issues. Although in the longer term this means being able to make recommendations, in the shorter term it need only mean that it has the capacity to challenge the preconceived views of the decision-makers who attend by requiring them to expose those preconceptions to reasoned public deliberation. This does not occur in a moderated panel format. Instead, it will be necessary for the topics for discussion to be filtered into a smaller number of discrete issues (which the dynamic coalitions and workshops are potentially the best qualified to do), and for the plenary body debate those issues in a focussed way with the assistance of trained facilitators, preferably beginning in small groups. Thus the themes of “openness”, “security” et al, if they are to be retained at all, should only be regarded as containers for much more specific issues on which measurable progress can be made towards the development of globally accepted public policy principles. If that occurs, then it will not be necessary to have separate main sessions on global public policy development or the role of the IGF, because these themes will be pervasive. As for the workshops and dynamic coalition meetings, whilst these should of course be maintained on the programme of the New Delhi meeting, the need for greater institutionalisation of their relationship to the IGF’s plenary body has already been noted, and indeed was even acknowledged by Nitin Desai during his summing up in Rio. Finally as for the open fora and best practice fora, as was noted above there seems little need to retain the latter as a distinct class of workshop, whereas open fora must in the future be co-organised between the subject organisations and the IGF’s Advisory Group, with a view to ensuring that the IGF’s mandate in paragraphs (c) and (i) of the Tunis Agenda is fulfilled. Did the ‘Village Square’ meet your expectations? If not, what can be improved for the next IGF? Despite the promise that photocopying facilities would be made available for the use of Village Square participants, in fact there either were no such facilities, or at least the host country staff were unaware of them when asked. Another unfulfilled commitment, repeated from Athens, was that prepared video statements would be shown in a loop at the venue and made available on the IGF’s Web site. Is there a need for a synthesis paper which gives an overview of all contributions received and which is translated in all UN languages? There is, but once again (and reiterating my comment from last year), the document is without purpose unless it is used as a starting point for the discussions in the plenary sessions. It should be made known to all participants ahead of time that they are expected to have read and considered the contents of the contributions and should be ready to debate them when the plenary meeting is convened. Panel moderators should be similarly briefed. Other suggestions for improvement in view of the third IGF meeting to be held in New Delhi in December 2008? Do not consider that the venue for the next IGF meeting is New Delhi. Its principal venue should be online, supported by an in-person meeting in New Delhi for those few who are privileged enough to be able to travel internationally. While this amounts to reversal of the Secretariat’s received wisdom, note that the Tunis Agenda does not speak of the Internet Goverance Forum as an annual meeting. Rather, it should be an ongoing process, principally taking place on the Internet, which after all is the central subject of its deliberations. On this understanding, the purpose of the annual meeting that is held in a regional centre each year is to support the broader online process; not the other way around. Any other comments or suggestions? One of the greatest failings of the IGF’s Secretariat and Advisory Group is not that they decline to receive comments and contributions from stakeholders, but that such comments and contributions as they do receive are not acknowledged, which leads those who submit them to believe that they are neither heard nor valued. In fact, the contributions of stakeholders (other than the most powerful) are in a number of cases belittled and discouraged. Requests to link to community resources from the IGF’s Web site are disregarded. Most email communications to the Secretariat receive no response. When once I did receive a response to my enquiry as to why one of my submissions had not been posted on the IGF’s Web site, it was to say, “We did not put your submission up initially because we thought the speed dialogue issue was already extensively covered in the paper you submitted for the second IGF. Moreover, it has been addressed during the open consultation in May.” This is completely unacceptable and makes a mockery of the Secretariat’s pretentions to being open, unbiased and transparent. Without a two-way feedback channel from the Secretariat by which contributions from the public are acknowledged and responded to (not simply posted online and forgotten about), the opportunity for public comment is meaningless. The fiction that decisions on the IGF’s structure and processes are only made by the United Nations Secretary-General does not justify the Secretariat in making such decisions without first engaging with the community in an open, constructive and accountable fashion.

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