The NETmundial Initiative exposed

The NETmundial Initiative finally came out of the closet this week with ICANN head Fadi Chehadé’s blog, An Initiative for Action. I am fortunate, if confused, to be one of eleven civil society representatives (really more like eight, if you look more closely at the list) invited to attend the first meeting of the Initiative in Geneva ahead of the 2014 IGF.

The expressed purpose of the initiative is to “carry forward the cooperative spirit of Sao Paulo and work together to apply the NETmundial Principles to solve issues in concrete ways to enable an effective and distributed approach to Internet cooperation and governance”. That much, I fully support.

Like others, I am less convinced that ICANN ought to have struck a deal with the industry-dominated World Economic Forum, of all organisations, to carry forward the initiative; as I noted once before, the criteria for membership of the Forum includes a cool $5 billion annual turnover. Best intentions aside, it’s not a good look and makes the W3C look positively grassroots.

On the other hand I also understand why it may have done so. First, “any port in a storm”, as they say. The Internet Governance Forum has proved itself, time and again, to be both unwilling and unable to shoulder the responsibilities expected of it by the Internet community, and required of it by its mandate in the Tunis Agenda (I’ll say no more on that here, but stay tuned for my next post.)

Second, this is absolutely Fadi’s Chehadé’s modus operandi. The silver-tongued smooth operator does not lack for grandiose ambition, and he is charismatic enough to do deals with whomever he needs to, from the President of Brazil to the Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, to bring his visions to reality.

Fadi pulled off a coup with the NETmundial meeting in April, although he fell foul with the disappointing 1net – and the NETmundial Initiative carries forward that same vision, to establish an equivalent institutional framework for broader Internet public policy issues as already exists in ICANN for narrower issues of naming and numbering.

Fadi’s weak point, however, has always been in consultation outside a narrow circle of advisers; he simply doesn’t have the patience for this. When he committed the technical community to the NETmundial event, and then installed 1net as the supposed co-host of that meeting, it was with a similar lack of consultation as he has exhibited again with the co-establishment of the NETmundial Initiative.

For some within civil society, process is everything, and these early deficiencies alone may amount to a deal breaker. Some are already talking of walkouts, and pre-emptively drafting statements bemoaning the deficiencies of the NETmundial Initiative’s inception meeting in Geneva. For me, this is premature.

I too believe that the lack of transparency and inclusion around the formation of the Initiative flies against the NETmundial principles that it claims to be advancing, and will I also be advocating for the World Economic Forum to pass on its mantle to a more open and multi-stakeholder host for the NETmundial Initiative at the earliest opportunity.

However I also know that a balance between top-down and grassroots organising is required to make any institutional changes, particularly in such a fraught area as Internet governance. Do we reject the IGF because it was the product of a relatively closed intergovernmental process at WSIS? We could, and some do, but most are more forward-looking, and so am I.

This leads into the question of the relationship between the NETmundial Initiative and the IGF. Of course Fadi states that the NETmundial Initiative will “not in any way replace” the IGF, and goes on to explain:

The Initiative’s work will not serve as a substitute for the IGF, but rather complement its efforts by formulating solutions, engaging in capacity development and broadening participation in Internet cooperation.

But this is diplomacy speak. We all know that the IGF has been a disappointment and has failed to deliver. The same disclaimers about supporting rather than displacing the IGF were given ahead of the April NETmundial meeting, which I predicted would actually come to mean the death of the IGF. With the IGF still in its extended death throes, I am yet to be proved wrong.

There was a time not too long ago when I had basically decided to wash my hands of the IGF. Given the failure of the subsequently-convened CSTD Working Group on Improvements to the IGF to effect any such meaningful improvements at all, I’m beginning to feel like that again. There comes a point where the IGF runs out of chances, and with the second extension of its mandate due this September (or otherwise), that time must surely be now.

Therefore if its process deficiencies can be overcome, I may well find myself willing to cast my lot in with the NETmundial Initiative for lack of a strong contender. We may indeed need a successor to an IGF in the event that its mandate is not renewed, or in the much more likely event that, like other United Nations organisations, it continues to lurch around, stubbornly refusing to keel over long after the point of its natural demise.