Strengthening the Internet Governance Forum: A Perspective from Civil Society

I am the author of a chapter on strengthening the IGF from a civil society perspective, published in the book Beyond NETmundial: The Roadmap for Institutional Improvements to the Global Internet Governance Ecosystem, edited by William Drake and Monroe Price that has been released at this year’s IGF.

Talk of strengthening the IGF, in the abstract, is not particularly descriptive. How it could be strengthened, and what reforms might accomplish that strengthening, are questions cannot be answered without first asking what are the outcomes or capabilities that we require of the IGF, as this will point us to the reforms required to deliver those capabilities.

That in turn will depend upon one’s position in the existing Internet governance regime. For large corporates, well-funded technical organizations and powerful governments, an IGF with the capacity to produce recommendations may seem to offer little added value in the short term, and indeed may threaten existing power relations. But for civil society of course, that is exactly the point.

The premise of the chapter is therefore that various stakeholder groups that participate in the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) assess its value differently, because they have different needs. For those stakeholders who already possess the strongest voices in global governance processes, the IGF’s potential to directly influence those discussions was not seen as particularly valuable, and indeed may have been perceived as a threat.

Other stakeholders’ priorities

The stakeholders from outside of civil society (aside from some governments) were initially indifferent or actively hostile to the idea of the IGF. They tended to emphasize the IGF’s role as a discussion forum, and to attempt to confine the IGF to that limited role (though more recently most of those have since come around, at least rhetorically if not substantively, to the idea of an IGF that could act as a coordinating body between other institutions and could issue recommendations to policymakers and other stakeholders, as indeed the IGF’s original 2005 mandate demands).

As such, the priorities characteristically declared by other stakeholder groups for the IGF are somewhat different than those generally found within civil society. This was most evident in the positions taken within the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD)’s Working Group on Improvements to the IGF. (For example, the United States government expressed its view that submissions to the Working Group had “overwhelmingly affirmed that the Internet Governance Forum has succeeded because it has adhered to the original mandate and purpose set out in 2005.”)

This does not mean that these non-civil society stakeholders have no recommendations to improve the IGF; they would agree that there are the various ways in which the IGF could be strengthened to better facilitate coordination between governments or outreach for industry stakeholders. But the chapter does not attempt to address these, focusing instead on how the IGF could be strengthened to make it more useful in meeting the needs of civil society organizations, and particularly to those engaged in global ICT policy advocacy.

A civil society perspective

For civil society I argue, the stakeholder group with the weakest voice in policy processes, the IGF has considerable potential within its existing mandate to amplify that voice. The chapter groups the “forgotten” paragraphs of the IGF’s mandate into four categories – coordination, discussion, documentation and participation – and explains how the IGF has fallen short in its implementation of these. It then goes on to suggest how the IGF might be reformed to better fulfil these parts of its mandate, and how this might make global Internet governance processes better informed, more inclusive and more just.

This should not be taken to suggest that the IGF must forever be limited to the wording of its mandate in the Tunis Agenda; which after all, although stimulated by civil society input to WGIG, was ultimately not a multi-stakeholder compact but an intergovernmental one. It therefore ought to be possible for the multi-stakeholder IGF community to determine the course of its own evolution, and indeed it has already commenced to do exactly this. (The NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement represents a progression from the Tunis Agenda in several respects, for example in refining the WSIS process criteria, and in acknowledging that “The respective roles and responsibilities of stakeholders should be interpreted in a flexible manner with reference to the issue under discussion.”)

But even if we limit our attention to the wording of its mandate as it now stands, the IGF has more than enough scope to have a very significant and positive impact on the extent and effectiveness of civil society participation in global public policy development.

Bridging the gap

The gulf between the two visions is now so large, that it is no longer tenable to bridge it through the kind of incremental reforms that we have seen so far, such as tinkering with session formats, or issuing new summary reports. We should make no mistake that the reforms required in order to remake the IGF into a body capable of fulfilling its mandate are significant enough that they may require the complete reinvention of structures – the MAG, for instance – that have long held it back from doing so.

Whilst the greatest immediate benefit from this would be to those stakeholders whose voices are the weakest, ultimately our entire networked society and economy would benefit from a more deliberative, just and inclusive approach to global Internet-related public policy development.

This has just been an overview of the themes of my chapter, which I encourage you to download and read in full for free.