Multistakeholder opinions: an experiment for the IGF [draft]

At last week’s World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum (WTPF), a proposed opinion was tabled by Brazil titled Operationalizing the role of Government in the multi-stakeholder framework for Internet Governance. In an earlier form discussed at the ITU’s Informal Experts Group (IEG) the proposal had not reached consensus. But by 16 May, the revised and much shortened version of the proposal was tabled at the WTPF drew broader interest and support. Due to lack of time however, it was not possible to reach any conclusion on the proposed opinion.

Various options were suggested for the opinion to be discussed elsewhere. The Chair proposed that the opinion could be considered at the Council Working Group on international Internet-related public policy issues (CWG-Internet) and thence taken to the ITU Council for approval. The CWG-Internet is a government-only group which meets in closed sessions, although with open consultations. The discussion of the proposal in such a setting would therefore not be multistakeholder, unless the CWG-Internet were significantly reformed (which cannot be taken for granted, as a 2012 proposal by Sweden to do so has failed to progress).

There is a CSTD Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation with multi-stakeholder participation, which could consider the issues raised in the opinion, but some member states objected that they are not participants in that Working Group. An third proposal was that the opinion could be discussed at the IGF. But a number of governments resisted this suggestion on the ground that the IGF does not produce outputs, and the topic was considered of such importance that there should be a formal output document reflecting a set of agreed conclusions on that topic.

The purpose of this note is to suggest a way forward, whereby the IGF could step up and meet the unmet need for a multistakeholder forum for work on the draft opinion from Brazil, through a new pilot process that aims to produce a non-binding output document, that governments and other stakeholders alike could choose to support.

The question of outputs from the IGF

The fact that the IGF does not produce outputs has been supported by some and criticised by others. Those who support this have often expressed concern that the pressure to produce outputs could stifle the free exchange of views, and that in any case there are no mechanisms for the IGF to produce such outputs. Those who criticise it point out that the IGF’s mandate specifies that it should produce be able to make recommendations on emerging issues where appropriate, and that its lack of mechanisms to produce such outputs is not inevitable, but rather flows from choices made when defining its structure and processes, which according to the Tunis Agenda should be “subject to periodic review” as the IGF continues to evolve to meet the needs of its multistakeholder community.

Indeed, in 2010 the UN Secretary-General acknowledged the perception “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”. When the General Assembly renewed the IGF’s mandate the following year, it did so “recognizing at the same time the need to improve it, with a view to linking it to the broader dialogue on global Internet governance”. The task of recommending such improvements fell to a CSTD Working Group, which suggested that the IGF should “develop more tangible outputs”; including that a set of policy questions should be posed at each meeting, and that “the results of debates on these questions … should be stated in the outcome documentation”.

This note proposes a mechanism for beginning to implement the CSTD Working Group’s recommendation, in a deliberately modest way that does not require substantial structural reforms to the IGF, nor the expansion of its agreed mandate. The Tunis Agenda defines Internet governance to include the development by all stakeholders of shared decision-making procedures, so it is only appropriate that the IGF be bold enough to experiment with the development of such procedures.  No experiment is guaranteed of success, but from its results, we can learn and continue to refine the multistakeholder model of governance.

Multistakeholder opinions process

The production of a multistakeholder opinion at the IGF could work as follows:

  • As soon as possible, the existing draft text on “Operationalizing the role of Government in the multi-stakeholder framework for Internet Governance” as proposed by Brazil would be posted to a dedicated official IGF website that would enable paragraph-level comments to be added by registered users from all stakeholder groups.
  • Stakeholders would also be encouraged to discuss the proposal and the paragraph-level comments on diverse Internet mailing lists and Web fora, including existing lists maintained by stakeholders such as ISOC and the Civil Society Internet Governance Caucus, and a multistakeholder list to be maintained by the the IGF Secretariat. Links to known discussion fora would be included on the IGF website alongside the draft text.
  • Regional IGF meetings that are held between now and the global IGF should be encouraged to hold workshops on the draft text to gather feedback and suggestions, that would be summarised and submitted to the global IGF in writing. Links to these submitted reports would be included on the IGF website alongside the draft text.
  • Two months before the meeting, the submissions and comments would be gathered into a concise background paper by a multistakeholder working group of the IGF MAG. The background paper would seek to define and group areas of agreement and areas of difference around each paragraph of the draft opinion.
  • At the global IGF, a full morning session and an afternoon session would be set aside for development of a multistakeholder opinion based on the draft text.  In the first part of the morning session, one speaker from each stakeholder group would speak on the issues defined in the background paper, beginning with a representative from the government of Brazil. This would proceed into a period of moderated open discussion.
  • In the second part of the morning session, the room would be separated into groups, to which participants would be assigned randomly. Groups would be equipped with writing materials, copies of the background paper, a flip chart, and a neutral facilitator. One group would also be connected to remote participants. Each group would be tasked with addressing one points of disagreement over the draft text, with the aim of either reaching a view on one side or other of the disagreement, or proposing a compromise.
  • After a period defined by the moderator (say 20 minutes, depending on how many groups there are), the groups would rotate so that by the end of the morning session each group has had the opportunity to consider each area of disagreement.
  • Over the lunch break, the moderator of the session would compile together the outputs from the groups into a new composite text, based on the opinions that were reached most strongly within the groups. In the first afternoon session, this composite text would be presented and opened for discussion.
  • The session would aim to reach a rough consensus amongst its participants as assessed by the chair, but if a consensus of all participants cannot be reached, the chair could decide either to close the text in the form that has been most broadly agreed, or not to close the text, in which case in lieu thereof a report of the session would be prepared recording the points on which there were agreement and disagreement.
  • Any such text would not be binding, and would not be described as a multistakeholder opinion of the IGF, but a multistakeholder opinion developed at the IGF. The IGF Secretariat would maintain a register of those who have endorsed the statement, which would be opened first to those present at the session, including those participating remotely.