The draft programme for the Hyderabad meeting incorporates a number of incremental improvements to the programmes for the Athens and Rio meetings which take into account some of the concerns and suggestions that civil society and other stakeholders have long expressed. However whilst this movement is in the right direction, the rate of progress remains too slow in light of the fact that at the mid-term of its initial five year mandate, the IGF remains incapable of fulfilling each of the roles that the Tunis Agenda sets out for it.
To begin with, it is laudable that the Secretariat has joined the majority of stakeholders in recognising the need to refresh the now-stale and ineffective main sessions for the next meeting. To this end the new draft programme suggests that more “specific issues” be the focus of the main sessions in Hyderabad. However, this alone will not redress the problems of relevance that attended the plenary sessions in Athens and Rio. Most important is not how specific the issues under discussion are, but whether those issues bear on the governance of the Internet rather than simply its use.
For example, to discuss the quality of peer produced content (to select at random a topic chosen for last year’s plenary meeting), whilst interesting and a suitable topic for a conference on the sociology of the Internet, does not touch on the IGF’s mandate and it inevitably achieves little. Instead, to continue the example, discussion should be directed as to how (if at all) peer production should be governed and in what respects – that is, through norms (perhaps codified in a voluntary code of conduct), laws (subject to the observance of human rights standards), or some other mechanism.
A second proposed reform, responding (though not expressly) to a suggestion from civil society stakeholders such as IT For Change, is for certain workshops to be held on topics defined by the MAG and linked to main sessions, rather than being left entirely at large for ground-up development. These workshops would not be held to conflict with main sessions, to facilitate the attendance of all interested stakeholders. The overload of events will be further reduced through a moratorium of meetings during the lunchbreak or after 6pm.
These suggestions as to scheduling represent an advance over previous meetings, but do not go far enough. It should be that workshops and main sessions are held on different days altogether, so that none of them conflict with each other. This is common practice elsewhere in the Internet community, for example in the annual APRICOT conference, at which workshops precede the main conference days. This would foster a greater sense of purpose and community amongst IGF participants than the fragmented programmes of Athens and Rio made possible.
An additional change foreshadowed in the draft programme is that event organisers would be required to present a report on their events, failing which they would be disqualified from holding similar events in the following year. This is a sensible suggestion, but does not sufficiently redress the lack of control that the IGF at large exercises over the activities of those acting under its auspices, and in particular its de-facto working groups, the dynamic coalitions.
Specifically, it has long been contended by the author and others from civil society, and has more recently been acknowledged by the MAG also, that criteria should be developed in open consultation with all IGF stakeholders by which dynamic coalitions (and, if relevant, other working groups that may form under the IGF) to be accredited for their compliance with basic norms of democratic and multi-stakeholder procedure. Why has this widely-accepted deficit still not yet been addressed?
A fourth reform that has been put forward in the draft programme is that further efforts should be made to enable remote participation. This, again, is a reform for which the author and many other stakeholders have long been calling. It is regrettable, then, that there has been no sign of any progress towards its implementation ahead of the Hyderabad meeting, or at least that any such progress that may have been made has taken place behind closed doors.
It is insufficient for the Secretariat simply to rely upon the decentralised action of stakeholders to make good the deficit in mechanisms for remote participation on a voluntary and unfunded basis. If real progress towards a better experience for remote participants is to be achieved, it will need to be actively facilitated and funded by the Secretariat in open consultation with stakeholder groups working in this area. Although the Secretariat’s funding is limited, if comparable priority were accorded to online engagement as is accorded to the annual meeting, the IGF’s facilities for remote participation could be second to none.
Finally, on the proposed new themes for the plenary sessions – Universalisation of the Internet and Managing the Internet, I also have some concerns. Taking the first of these to begin with, although development objectives are important, these are also those themes that have the greatest potential for overlap with the other follow-up mechanisms from WSIS, and also tend to raise questions of governance of the Internet only very incidentally. Consequently, I question whether they merit over a full day of time on the Hyderabad programme to the exclusion of other governance topics.
As for Managing the Internet, my only concern is that the alternative title for this stream of “Using the Internet” should not be further entertained. The IGF is not a conference about the use of the Internet. It is a multi-stakeholder public policy governance forum. By having allowed the first two meetings to become symposia for the aimless discussion of issues arising from the use and misuse of the Internet, much of its early potential has been wasted. “Managing the Internet” more appropriately redirects the focus of the forum towards its principal purpose: that of Internet governance.
Beyond the minor vaunted reforms that have been described above, and which do deserve some credit, it is at the same time disappointing that a more radical rethinking of the basic format of conference-style plenary sessions accompanied by stakeholder-organised workshops has not been undertaken. My previous submissions have explained in detail why little progress will be made towards the fuller achievement of the IGF’s mandate while its main sessions are structured as a conference rather than as a deliberative forum.
Without repeating those submissions, it will be necessary for the IGF to embrace more deliberative forms of discussion, in which participants are assisted by trained facilitators to engage in intensive small-group discourse on discrete issues of Internet-related public policy. Such processes of democratic deliberation should extend not only to the annual plenary meeting, but also to on-line fora, as well as supportive intersessional and regional activities.