Tectonic shift at ISOC: embracing outputs from the IGF

As readers of this website since 2006 will know well, one of the most staunch opponents of the IGF developing the capacity to produce non-binding policy outputs has been ISOC. Until now.

Yesterday, ISOC posted this submission to the IGF, which dramatically reversed years of opposition to paragraph 72(g) of its mandate (see below), and opens the door to an IGF that delivers tangible, soft law policy documents as outputs.

In the past, former CEO and President Lynn St Amour insisted, “I don’t think the IGF is a place for decisions, or for recommendations”, and this has been a consistent position in all ISOC’s submissions about the IGF since then.

But in its latest statement, the shift in thinking that we saw in the Montevideo Statement on Internet Cooperation, and in ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadé’s (albeit very contentious) support of Netmundial 2014, continues with the most dramatic turnaround seen from ISOC to date.

“Now is the time to take the IGF a step further, towards more tangible outcomes, as recommended by the CSTD WG on Improvements to the IGF”, ISOC writes.

Drawing on the processes of the IETF in the field of technical standards development, the submission suggests:

The Internet Society believes a good starting point would be to develop intersessional work on substantive issues, build on the work of the Dynamic Coalitions and create working groups chaired by MAG members or relevant experts of the IGF community, focused on particular topics or issues. The working groups would mostly work online, and meet physically during the MAG and Open Consultations meetings as well as the IGF. Ultimately, the IGF would have to develop a process that allows for adoption, by rough consensus, of documents, which would not be binding, but open to voluntary recognition and adoption by all stakeholders.

Essentially, then, ISOC’s position is now the same as that for which civil society has been advocating for for a decade, with ISOC until now fiercely opposed. Consider, just to name a few, the Internet Governance Project’s Building an Internet Governance Forum, Avri Doria’s proposal The IETF as a Model for the IGF, Vittoria Bertola’s An Implementation Proposal for the Internet Governance Forum, and indeed my own writings such as Lessons for the Internet Governance Forum from the IETF and my 2006 GIGANET presentation.

The ISOC statement is unconvincingly pitched as consistent with ISOC’s previous policy, and to the extent that any rationale for the backflip is given at all, it is that:

While Para 72 (g) of the Tunis Agenda (“Identify emerging issues, bring them to the
attention of the relevant bodies and the general public, and, where appropriate, make recommendations.”) allows for the possibility of making recommendations, the IGF, in the first years of its existence, would have been too fragile to allow for a robust discussion on how to work towards a consensus.

But ISOC also (correctly) recognises that:

2014 will be a pivotal year for Internet governance. The accelerated pace of Internet governance discussions in 2014-2015 is exemplified by the many major conferences … shaping the future agenda, with some of them aiming to restructure existing arrangements. It will, therefore, be important for the IGF to contribute to the shaping of a new international consensus on Internet governance. This context provides a unique opportunity for the IGF to occupy a central place in this debate.

Although I won’t soon forget eight years of bashing my head against a wall, I can’t argue with that. Now let’s see if the rest of the IGF MAG agrees, and makes the changes that will be necessary to see this happen.