Is the IGF retreating from accountability?

Just because there haven’t been any updates posted here for a while doesn’t mean that there haven’t been any notable developments in the preparatory processes for the next Internet Governance Forum. But lacking the time to write about them, I’m just going to quote and link to some commentary from other IGF watchers. First, Farzaneh Badii posts an excellent critique of the dysfunctional relationship between the bureaucratic, opaque and territorial UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) and the notionally open and multi-stakeholder Internet Governance Forum that it administers. Noting how this tension manifests in areas such as the black-box selection process for MAG representatives, the failure to reappoint executive leadership for the IGF, and especially in the surprising decision to hold a closed-door IGF planning retreat in New York next month, she concludes:

UNDESA is trying to gain legitimacy by pretending that it is committed to the multistakeholder process, even though it is not. Through the selection of MAG and having a leash on the IGF secretariat, it will dominate the whole process in the long term, especially now that IGF has a 10 year mandate and it is free from the pressure of having to act responsibly and accountably to ensure future renewals. DESA will make allies in its confidential meetings with the strongest stakeholder groups and provide them with incentives to participate in IGF process. They can argue that the retreat’s resulting outcome document will not be final and that they will consult with the wider community, but let’s be honest: how many times have our comments been taken into serious consideration at IGF when they were merely on paper and we did not have a presence in drafting the document? We need an open and transparent process for selection of MAG, with minimal involvement from the UN.

Farzaneh is also behind a new Dynamic Coalition on Accountability of Internet Governance Venues that I have also joined, which aims to shed light on the procedural flaws of the IGF and of other Internet governance institutions, with the ultimate aim of reforming them to accord with the multi-stakeholder principles of openness, transparency and inclusivity that they espouse. UNDESA’s unexpected decision to hold a private IGF retreat at the resort town of Glen Cove, New York, likely without remote participation, also caused concern within civil society groups such as the Internet Governance Caucus (IGC) and Best Bits. Wolfgang Kleinwächter offered these comments on the IGC mailing list:

Access, Openess and Transparency are key elements of any multistakeholder process. But this case raises also the question of accountability. Who is in charge for the whole IGF? In my understanding it is the MAG which represents the various stakeholder groups. But to whom is the MAG accountable? To the governments of the UN member states? Or to the various IGF communities, loosely organized in the stakeholder groups which facilitate the nominations? Probably the planned UNDESA meeting could kick-start a process on a MAG transition away from UN stewardship to a independent and self-sustainable bottum up and community driven process where governments are involved as an important stakeholder but have to “share” decisions making with other stakeholders.

The questions being addressed at the retreat are hardly new; the same are posed every year, and the same answers that stakeholders give (such as these from 2009 and these from 2014) are routinely disregarded or overruled. Even the findings of independent reviews of the IGF, such as a 2014 evaluation by Edward Roche, have been buried and ignored. Planning retreats are not going to help advance the IGF’s mission while the IGF community feels disempowered because its recommendations are ignored and the most important decisions are made behind closed doors. Farzeneh’s criticisms of the accountability of the MAG appointment process are essentially the same criticisms I made in 2008. Almost nothing has changed and we are still having the same arguments years later. What is needed is for UNDESA to cease treating the IGF’s important global function as a feather in its own cap, and to release its stranglehold over the IGF’s management to the multi-stakeholder Internet community (again, nothing new; I made this argument in 2009). The ICANN transition, freeing that organisation from its ties to the US government,  has blazed exactly the same path that the IGF now needs to follow to free itself from UN bureaucracy.

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