A history of IGF improvements, part 1

The recent decline of multi-stakeholderism is exemplified by the case of its poster child, the IGF. Whilst established as a multi-stakeholder body, the capacity of its stakeholders to actually influence policy development processes has been circumscribed by the very narrow interpretation of its mandate made by its Secretariat and by the most powerful voices within its Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG). Opportunities to address this deficiency, such as by placing conditions on the renewal of the IGF’s mandate for a second term, or once that had been decided, to recommend how it should improve its format, functions and operations during that second term, have also been systematically withdrawn from multi-stakeholder bodies and processes, and reserved to those that favour governments. This series of posts will recount and provide some background to these events.

At the time that the Internet Governance Forum was first proposed by the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) in 2004, it was expected to be able to be able to discuss international public policies regarding the Internet that fell outside the scope of existing bodies, and to make recommendations on such emerging issues where appropriate, in accordance with what would become its mandate in the Tunis Agenda. It did not seem at all outlandish at the time to suggest that “The Forum should be able to pass recommendations on to the concerned parties, and may also invite or recommend that the United Nations invites member states to discuss a certain issue in an official capacity, or via a vote in the United Nations General Assembly.”

In practice the IGF never took on such a role, due to early decisions made by its Secretariat and Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) that limited its capacity to engage in the process of developing such policy recommendations. In particular, the IGF was constituted as an atomistic annual conference, without an agenda of specific issues to address, suitable processeses for addressing them, or institutional structures to support such an exercise. At every turn when reforms to the IGF’s structures and processes were proposed within the MAG or at open consultation meetings that would render it better suited to the fulfilment of its mandate, these were strongly opposed by those same stakeholders who had originally spoken against the IGF’s formation at WSIS (such as ISOC and the ICC), and often also by its incumbent Secretariat.

However as the IGF’s initial five year mandate neared an end, a more independent review of the IGF’s strengths and shortcomings was called for by the Tunis Agenda. This review was conducted by the Secretary-General, drawing upon responses to a questionnaire that had been prepared by the IGF Secretariat and comments made at a special session held for this purpose at the fourth meeting of the IGF at Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt in September 2009.

In May 2010, the Secretary-General of the United Nations accordingly issued a note on the renewal of the IGF’s mandate. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), which hosts the IGF Secretariat and drafted the note, had been criticised in February for its decision to issue these recommendations directly to ECOSOC, rather than first forwarding them to the May meeting of the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) for its comment. The CSTD advises ECOSOC and the General Assembly on technology issues and was tasked with responsibility for system-wide follow-up of the WSIS outcomes, using a multi-stakeholder approach. Thus the exclusion of the CSTD from substantively considering the continuation of the IGF was one of the first signs of the tide turning against multi-stakeholderism in Internet governance in the new decade.

This controversy aside, the Secretary-General’s note acknowledged criticisms that “that the IGF had not provided concrete advice to intergovernmental bodies and other entities involved in Internet governance,” and “that the contribution of the IGF to public policy-making is difficult to assess and appears to be weak.” Suggesting that such criticisms may point “to a desire for more tangible progress on the issues at hand,” the note recommended that “improvements to the format, functions and operations of the Forum be considered at the Forum’s sixth meeting, in 2011.” A press release accompanying the note also suggested that the MAG “make proposals with regard to its own future, should the mandate be renewed.”

In response, and pending a formal decision on the continuation of the IGF by the General Assembly, processes to consider improvements to the IGF and its MAG were put in place during 2010. As to the MAG, it issued a questionnaire on its own performance and possible improvement following its May 2010 meeting, and considered (though in general did not recommend implementing) the suggestions given at its subsequent meeting in November. As to the IGF as a whole, on 29 July the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) invited the Chair of the CSTD to form

in an open and inclusive manner, a working group which would seek, compile and review inputs from all Member States and all other stakeholders on improvements to the Internet Governance Forum …

Following on from the Secretary-General’s note and pending the CSTD working group’s report, the General Assembly issued a resolution in December that extended the IGF’s mandate for a further term of five years, noting “the importance of the Internet Governance Forum … while recognizing at the same time the need to improve it, with a view to linking it to the broader dialogue on global Internet governance” and also “acknowledging the calls for improvements in its working methods”. Despite the earlier (and rightful) criticisms of the lack of multi-stakeholder participation in the development of this resolution, in the end the resolution complemented the CSTD process of discussion of IGF improvements, which will be considered in more detail in the next post.

This post is excerpted from a forthcoming paper and presentation of the author to be titled Arresting the decline of multi-stakeholderism in Internet governance.