IGF Plus proposal from High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation

The Report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma, contains the following recommendation to reboot the IGF, which is widely recognized as having failed to meet the expectations that led to its establishment in 2006:

The proposed Internet Governance Forum Plus, or IGF Plus, would build on the existing IGF which was established by the World Summit on Information Society (Tunis, 2005). The IGF is currently the main global space convened by the UN for addressing internet governance and digital policy issues. The IGF Plus concept would provide additional multi-stakeholder and multilateral legitimacy by being open to all stakeholders and by being institutionally anchored in the UN system.

The IGF Plus would aim to build on the IGF’s strengths, including well-developed infrastructure and procedures, acceptance in stakeholder communities, gender balance in IGF bodies and activities, and a network of 114 national, regional and youth IGFs. It would add important capacity strengthening and other support activities.

The IGF Plus model aims to address the IGF’s current shortcomings. For example, the lack of actionable outcomes can be addressed by working on policies and norms of direct interest to stakeholder communities. The limited participation of government and business representatives, especially from small and developing countries, can be addressed by introducing discussion tracks in which governments, the private sector and civil society address their specific concerns.

The IGF Plus would comprise an Advisory Group, Cooperation Accelerator, Policy Incubator and Observatory and Help Desk.

The Advisory Group, based on the IGF’s current Multi-stakeholder Advisory Group, would be responsible for preparing annual meetings, and identifying focus policy issues each year. This would not exclude coverage of other issues but ensure a critical mass of discussion on the selected issues. The Advisory Group could identify moments when emerging discussions in other forums need to be connected, and issues that are not covered by existing organisations or mechanisms.

Building on the current practices of the IGF, the Advisory Group could consist of members appointed for three years by the UN Secretary-General on the advice of member states and stakeholder groups, ensuring gender, age, stakeholder and geographical balance.

The Cooperation Accelerator would accelerate issue-centred cooperation across a wide range of institutions, organisations and processes; identify points of convergence among existing IGF coalitions, and issues around which new coalitions need to be established; convene stakeholder-specific coalitions to address the concerns of groups such as governments, businesses, civil society, parliamentarians, elderly people, young people, philanthropy, the media, and women; and facilitate convergences among debates in major digital and policy events at the UN and beyond.

The Cooperation Accelerator could consist of members selected for their multi-disciplinary experience and expertise. Membership would include civil society, businesses and governments and representation from major digital events such as the Web Summit, Mobile World Congress, Lift:Lab, Shift, LaWeb, and Telecom World.

The Policy Incubator would incubate policies and norms for public discussion and adoption. In response to requests to look at a perceived regulatory gap, it would examine if existing norms and regulations could fill the gap and, if not, form a policy group consisting of interested stakeholders to make proposals to governments and other decisionmaking bodies. It would monitor policies and norms through feedback from the bodies that adopt and implement them.

The Policy Incubator could provide the currently missing link between dialogue platforms identifying regulatory gaps and existing decisionmaking bodies by maintaining momentum in discussions without making legally binding decisions. It should have a flexible and dynamic composition involving all stakeholders concerned by a specific policy issue.

The Observatory and Help Desk would direct requests for help on digital policy (such as dealing with crisis situations, drafting legislation, or advising on policy) to appropriate entities, including the Help Desks described in Recommendation 2; coordinate capacity development activities provided by other organisations; collect and share best practices; and provide an overview of digital policy issues, including monitoring trends, identifying emerging issues and providing data on digital policy.

The IGF Trust Fund would be a dedicated fund for the IGF Plus. All stakeholders – including governments, international organisations, businesses and the tech sector – would be encouraged to contribute. The IGF Plus Secretariat should be linked to the Office of the United Nations Secretary-General to reflect its interdisciplinary and system-wide approach.

Best Bits winds up

It was a different phase of my life, but the most significant organization that I co-founded before Prostasia Foundation was a civil society network called Best Bits, which is effectively being wound up this month. Best Bits came together mainly because an older civil society network called the Internet Governance Caucus (IGC) had become dysfunctional due to arguments between traditional civil society leftists and Internet liberals and libertarians.

Best Bits was meant to be a new community where we could set aside those arguments for the sake of dynamically forming new coalitions in areas where both sides did agree, and could bring together the “best bits” of their various skills and approaches. We would write joint statements (which were not issued by Best Bits as a coalition, but by the collective signatories to each statement), and we would hold a meeting once per year, before the United Nations Internet Governance Forum (IGF).

Best Bits was very successful at what it set out to do, at the very critical time when it came together to do it: just before the ITU’s historic 2012 WCIT meeting, which was widely (although simplistically) framed at the time as a battle for Internet freedom, pitting the United States against the United Nations. The inaugural Best Bits meeting brought together a broad coalition of people from across the world, who (for a time) set aside the differences to issue a resolution explaining civil society’s shared concerns. Best Bits members went on to issue 93 other joint statements.

Andrew Puddephatt from Global Partners Digital was effectively my partner in launching Best Bits, and to support his organization’s own expenses in doing so, he used some funding from a donor that the leftist civil society members didn’t like. The fact that he didn’t proactively disclose this to them caused a whole lot of ridiculous arguing that would put today’s Tumblr and Twitter spats to shame, and ultimately resulted in some of the leftists splintering off Best Bits to form another coalition called Just Net Coalition (which in turn suffered infighting of its own… such is the way of Internet civil society).

Although we didn’t accept that Andrew or his organization had done anything wrong (they absolutely hadn’t), although Best Bits had originally been conceived as a more lightweight and informal network compared to the IGC, the continuing members of Best Bits pursued transparency and accountability reforms anyway. These included the development of what predictably turned out to be an unnecessarily baroque set of procedures, and the eventual cycling off of all the original board members (most of whom, honestly, were happy to go by that time).

Unfortunately the next elected committee didn’t really do anything with Best Bits after taking over, and so it was allowed to atrophy into its present state… but by this time, the old arguments at the IGC had simmered back down, and there were now also plenty of other places to post joint statements, that hadn’t existed back in 2012, and also of course some new (mostly narrower) civil society coalitions.

So it has been broadly agreed by the community that it is the right time for Best Bits to fold back into the IGC. Other than donating some web hosting, I confess that I have done very little to aid in this transition (as my attention is solely focused on Prostasia Foundation these days), but Andrew’s colleague Sheetal Kumar deserves special mention for shepherding the process along successfully.


Option Paper on Methodologies for the Development of Written IGF Outputs

IGF WG-MWP option paper

The document was originally written for the Working Group on the IGF’s Multi-year Strategic Work Programme (WG-MWP), and it recommends possible pilot processes that could be trialled by the IGF to develop tangible recommendations in fulfilment of paragraph 72(g) of its mandate. But unfortunately, there seems to be no practical path forward to have its recommendations actioned by the MAG.

In the most recent MAG meeting, there were two proposals for pilot processes. One of them, which is referred to in the paper, is the Global Citizens Debate organized by Missions Publiques. Like previous similar efforts (such as Stanford University’s Deliberative Poll pilot) they found that it was impossible for them to have this formally integrated into the IGF process, and so it will be held as a day-0 event only. But even then, the Chair stressed that it could not be guaranteed a Day-0 slot because these are assigned on a competitive basis.

The second new pilot process was a new kind of output-focussed best practice forum on cybersecurity that would be the culmination of a process of intersessional work. It was proposed by Wout De Natris, who was a co-author of the option paper, which proposes such a process. But there was a great deal of objection during the last MAG meeting to allowing this event to be trialled, even as a pilot. The MAG Chair ruled that the MAG had no flexibility to allow any new session type to be mainstreamed at an IGF meeting, and was unable to promise anything more than assigning a lunchtime slot – the same as a book launch might receive.

This shuts down the possibility of the IGF fulfiling its mandate because it has been shown time and again to be impossible for the IGF MAG to approve any new session type that could be used to develop recommendations. If such a new process is to be created and mainstreamed as an activity of the IGF, the only practical pathway for this to happen is for it to be directed by the Secretary-General. As an initiative of the Secretary-General, it appears to me that the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation may be exactly the vehicle that is required.

My appointment to the IGF MAG

I’ve lost count of how many time I’ve applied to join the IGF’s Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG), but this year for the first time I’ve actually been accepted. Since I literally wrote the book on the IGF (well, the first such book, anyway), a number of people who supported my previous applications (thank you!) expressed confusion about why I have been turned down so frequently.

Because the MAG is (still, in 2018!) appointed through a “black box” system of selection by the office of the UN Secretary-General, it’s impossible to know for sure, but one factor is certainly that the lack of accountability inherent in that system, which makes it easy for candidates who are known to be troublemakers to be quietly excluded from consideration.

I plead guilty to being such a troublemaker. I’ve made as many enemies as friends since I began my involvement with the nascent IGF back in 2006, hoping that it could become a showpiece of inclusive, deliberative, multi-stakeholder governance that could develop recommendations on global Internet public policy that the Internet community had no other way of developing.

ICANN couldn’t do so due to its limited remit, other international institutions couldn’t do so due to their own democratic deficits, and individual nation states couldn’t legitimately or effectively do so because their borders didn’t map to those of the transnational network that they sought to govern.

So we ended up in the default position, still persisting today, that the Internet would be governed by a hodge-podge of badly coordinated rules, standards, norms, and practices decided largely by powerful companies and governments, on top of a hacked-together legacy technical infrastructure that, due to luck as much as foresight, still weakly favors open and decentralised solutions.

In this context the fact that the IGF has done nothing concrete to change the status quo by developing for itself an influential role in bringing stakeholders together to influence global public policy decisions that lawmakers, technologists, and companies make (or could make) in concert, has been for me personally, and remains, a disappointment.

In case anyone hoped otherwise, I won’t be changing my tune about that now that I’ve been appointed to the MAG. I’m going to be as much of a tiresome, incessantly critical jerk as ever. I don’t suffer fools gladly, but I’m even less accepting of those who lack imagination, backbone, or ambition. The MAG is full of such people. And I don’t really care what they think of me.

It’s going to be a fun year.

Is Multi-Stakeholder Internet Governance Dying?

Over the last three months of 2017, EFF has been representing the interests of Internet users and innovators at three very different global Internet governance meetings; ICANN, the Global Conference on Cyberspace (GCCS), and this week in Geneva, the global Internet Governance Forum (IGF). All of these to some extent or other are held out as representing a so-called multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance. Yet in practice there are such vast differences between them—with the GCCS being mostly government-organized, ICANN being mostly privately-organized, and the IGF falling somewhere in between—that it’s difficult to see what this multi-stakeholder model really represents.

This is one reason why EFF has generally eschewed promoting a particular model of governance by name, but rather has emphasized how fair processes with the characteristics of inclusion, balance, and accountability, can lead to better outcomes. Last month UNESCO issued a report [PDF] with a more detailed list of its own criteria of multi-stakeholder governance processes, according to which such processes should be inclusive, diverse, collaborative, transparent, flexible and relevant, private and safe, and accountable. The use of criteria such as these, rather than merely the application of the buzzword “multi-stakeholder”, enables us to critique how particular global meetings fall short in effectively involving users in the development of policies that impact them.

ICANN’s Multi-Stakeholder Model

For example, although ICANN is the organization with the least degree of control by governments, does that make it the most effective at protecting users’ rights? Not necessarily, because of the way in which its work is organized. As the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) has put it in their briefing on this year’s IGF meeting, “being influential in ICANN requires a degree of effort and consistency which is difficult to sustain.” Consequently, there is a strong tendency for ICANN working groups to be stacked with private sector stakeholders such as lawyers for intellectual property rights holders and the domain name industry, who are able to dominate discussions, to obstruct attempts at compromise, and to push for one-sided outcomes, such as the right for a single company to control a generic word domain.

As a result, ICANN, although notionally multi-stakeholder, in practice fails to fulfil the criterion of balance. Its processes do not place a priority on the facilitation of understanding and consensus between warring stakeholder groups, and this feeds politicking and strategic behavior. Even many industry stakeholders acknowledge this shortcoming; for example Jonathan Matkowsky, who works for a digital threat management company, said in an ICANN mailing list post recently, “It’s very sad to see the open Internet breaking down as a result of the multistakeholder process failing to work.”

The Multi-Stakeholder IGF Under Threat

The IGF falls short in different ways. One of these is the criterion of accountability. Management of the IGF is heavily dependent upon the office of the United Nations Secretary-General, which appoints the IGF’s Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) in an opaque, top-down process, resulting in a top-heavy group dominated by government and industry. Originally, records of MAG deliberations were kept secret, although meeting minutes and mailing list archives have since been opened to the public.

Another way in which the IGF falls short is in failing to provide a clear pathway for the discussions that occur there to feed into the work that its stakeholders do elsewhere, such as the development of laws and regulations by governments, the development of of terms of service and policies by companies, and the design of software, standards, and tech by coders and hackers. This isn’t a separate criterion in EFF’s model of fair processes, but it is represented in the closing paragraph of our infographic on this topic, which we explain by saying “there is no point in inviting affected communities to help develop policies for the Internet if their recommendations are ignored”.

For example, although the IGF’s grassroots-organized Dynamic Coalitions can and do produce recommendations, such as the resolution on transparency in trade that the Dynamic Coalition on Trade and the Internet issued this week, the IGF itself has never done so, despite a paragraph in its mandate that requires it to be able to make recommendations, where appropriate. This is one factor has led many stakeholders, particularly from government and business, to abandon the IGF for alternative fora, and has made it difficult for the IGF to raise funds. It has even made it difficult for the IGF to find countries willing to host its meetings; in an unprecedented failure, the IGF Secretariat has yet to secure a host for its 2018 meeting, and was only able to hold a meeting in 2017 by hosting it at the UN office in Geneva.

What is Replacing the Multi-Stakeholder Model?

Why, you might ask, does it matter if a fairly obscure, 12 year old Internet governance forum loses support and goes away? Well, that really depends on where the IGF’s participants go instead. If this means that governments and business flock to less inclusive institutions such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to develop rules and policies for the Internet, that could end up being profoundly dangerous for users.

More or less, that seems to be what is happening, as governments are increasingly bypassing civil society and concluding agreements directly with companies. The increasing treatment of Internet public policy issues in closed, opaque trade negotiations at regional levels and at the World Trade Organization (WTO) is one example of this. There are also governments pushing at the Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation of the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) for the establishment of a new, government-led multilateral mechanism for the oversight of Internet-related public policy development.

In November the Council of Europe concluded agreements with large tech companies and associations on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. The Secretary-General of the Council of Europe Thorbjørn Jagland said in his speech at the ceremonial signing, “it is the first time the Council of Europe is also giving a formal, institutional role to the private sector, one which is open-ended allowing other companies and representative associations to join in the future.” The text of this agreement is not publicly available—at least, EFF requested a copy of it from multiple parties, and was told a month ago by the Council of Europe, “we’ll look into it”.

China’s Alibaba, now the world’s largest retailer, is also taking a larger role in global Internet governance, partnering directly with governments, but leaving civil society in the cold. It recently launched a pilot Digital Free Trade Zone as a a public-private partnership with the Malaysian government, and its CEO Jack Ma was also at last month’s WTO ministerial meeting in Argentina to announce a partnership with the WTO to create an Electronic World Trade Platform (eWTP).

True Believers in Multi-Stakeholder Models

That’s why there is merit in continuing to strive for the development and improvement of truly inclusive, balanced, and accountable global fora for the discussion of Internet policy issues, rather than allowing governmental and industry-only fora to dominate. This might mean a reinvigorated and improved IGF, or it might mean something new.

Microsoft has proposed this year that there should be a new Digital Geneva Convention on cybersecurity, and during this year’s IGF it gave further details of how it sees the initial draft of this document emerging from a multi-stakeholder dialog, although it would be finalized by governments in the same manner as a conventional international treaty. The proposal has received a mixed reception here in Geneva.

The Internet Society is incubating a project that aims to bring the multi-stakeholder model to the development of other policy issues, in an outcome-oriented fashion that has eluded the IGF to date. The project, which was approved as a pilot by the board of the Internet Society in November, aims to undertake three key activities:

  • Convening stakeholders to solve concrete problems and develop norms on a consensus basis,
  • Training stakeholders on how to be effective in multistakeholder discussions, and
  • Building and promoting academic research and writing on the multistakeholder approach.

Meanwhile a French civic enterprise called Missions Publiques is promoting its proposal for a Global Citizens Debate on the future of the Internet to be piloted across the world during 2018. The project would involve ordinary citizens coming together to actively deliberate on a concrete policy issue, the results of which could then feed back to policy makers at the IGF and other venues. The project is currently seeking support from governmental, private sector and civil society partners.

For our part, EFF’s Jeremy Malcolm is chairing a group that is developing an option paper for the IGF’s own Multi-year Strategic Work Plan Working Group, to investigate whether there are any such multi-stakeholder processes that the IGF itself could use, possibly incorporating one or more of the above external initiatives or partners, to improve its own ability to generate useful and actionable policy recommendations, while avoiding the problems of capture that have beset ICANN, or the democratic deficits of intergovernmental text negotiations.

The important thing is not whether a particular global policy forum such as the IGF lives or dies. None of the existing Internet governance forums is perfect, or close to it. But such fora will always be part of the global governance ecosystem, and whether they are inclusive, balanced, and accountable matters. The flaws of particular self-identified multi-stakeholder fora should be identified and addressed, using user-focused criteria such as those developed by EFF and UNESCO. And we should also remain open to the idea that new innovations in global governance could emerge that would fulfil these criteria better than existing processes and institutions do.

This article is cross-posted from EFF’s Deeplinks.

New work on IGF outcomes to begin

As partially documented here and here, various working groups have periodically tackled the issue of how to improve the IGF by making it more useful and relevant, and in particular by ensuring that it would have the capacity to address one of the forgotten paragraphs of its mandate from paragraph 72(g) of the Tunis Agenda; to “Identify emerging issues, bring them to the attention of the relevant bodies and the general public, and, where appropriate, make recommendations.”

However recommendations for improvement of the outcome orientation of the IGF have been held back by the need to reach a consensus with stakeholders with a vested interest in keeping the IGF in its box, resulting in milquetoast recommendations at best (such as publishing “Chairman’s Summaries” of meetings). Yet another Working Group on IGF Improvements was established this year, but it seems to be limiting itself to cataloging and assessing progress against these already-vetted proposals, as seen here.

The kind of reforms that I’ve always been more interested in are more ambitious reforms relating to the development of policy recommendations within the IGF, either using face-to-face deliberative democratic methods, and/or innovative online tools. In the few cases where deeper critiques of the IGF have recognized the need for such more ambitious reforms, such as in a 2014 report by Edward Roche, the IGF MAG and/or Secretariat have acted as gatekeeper to bury these and prevent them from being addressed.

My most recent effort to circumvent these blocks by introducing more ambitious procedural innovations to the IGF from the bottom up, viz. through the Dynamic Coalitions, or from the side, viz. through Stanford University’s independent side project on Deliberative Polling, have met with similar difficulty due to obstruction and delay from those opposed to the idea of the IGF producing recommendations.

But another attempt to crack this nut is about to begin, through another IGF working groups that the MAG established for this year, the Multi-year Strategic Work Programme group chaired by MAG chair and former ISOC President/CEO Lynn St Amour. Today, the group accepted the following mandate for a new drafting group that would produce a short option paper for consideration of the full working group, outlining a range of possible approaches towards the fulfilment of the IGF’s mandate in paragraph 72(g). Without prejudging that any changes from current practice are necessary, the option paper would address:

  • What factors would make it more or less appropriate for the IGF to produce an output addressing a particular policy issue in conformance with its mandate in section 72(g)?
    • For example—strong and broad consensus around the issue, no other multi-stakeholder body directly addressing the issue
  • Are existing mechanisms for the developments of outputs within the IGF (eg. Dynamic Coalitions or Best Practice Fora) appropriate for the generation of draft text on such an issue from the IGF?
    • If not, what new mechanisms (such as expert working groups, or participatory political processes such as the “citizens jury”, etc.) could be used to develop such draft text?
  • What form or forms could these outputs of the IGF take that would be consistent with its status as a forum for multi-stakeholder policy dialogue through a non-binding process?
    • For example, are Internet technical community processes of offering voluntarily-adopted “Requests for Comment” applicable?
  • Once draft text has been produced, what kinds of further process could allow for the IGF as a plenary body to meaningfully consider and provide feedback on it, and what institutional reforms to the IGF would be necessary to support that process?
  • What should be the threshold standard for the publication of a text as such an output of the IGF?
    • For example, would it be necessary to achieve a “rough consensus” standard within the community of registered on-site and online IGF participants?

This has the potential to be quite a breakthrough, given that so many previous endeavours to suggest improvements the IGF have deliberately avoided addressing paragraph 72(g) head-on. As a member of this new drafting group and of the full working group, I will do my best to help draft a persuasive option paper that illustrates that the development of non-binding recommendations need not be the death knell for the IGF as many fear, but could on the contrary be the salvation of an institution that some say is on its last legs.

How IGF 2016 failed, and how IGF 2017 could do better


More work needs to be done in ensuring that workshop rooms are assigned appropriately and with plenty of notice of late changes. Two workshops that I was involved with were placed in a room that was far too small, which drove would-be participants away.

One of these workshops had been listed in the printed schedule in a larger room, and participants who had not noticed the change in the online schedule had no forewarning of the change until the workshop was about to begin. Apparently the event that had taken over the larger room had insisted on being given a larger space, notwithstanding that it ultimately had fewer participants. Worse, IGF volunteers present in the originally-assigned room were apparently unaware of the change, resulting in much confusion by participants and organizers.

Main sessions

I was also involved in preparations for two of this year’s main sessions. It is understandable that the MAG takes a more hand-on role in the development of main sessions, however in the case of the session on Trade and the Internet, this was taken to excess. The MAG went to the extent of micro-managing how many and which speakers there should be, how the session should be titled, what the agenda should look like, and so on. The actual subject matter experts attempting to organize the session did not find this level of intervention helpful at all.

There was also a lack of clarity about what details the MAG could require from the main session organizing team in order to approve the session. The original main session application form only seemed to require a description of the theme of the session, how it fulfilled a set of criteria for main sessions, and some details of how it would be organized. Yet even after supplying these details, feedback from the MAG suggested that we were also expected to have finalised our speaker and agenda before the main session could be approved. This was confusing and inconsistent with the treatment of other main sessions.

The MAG should take less active role in programming main sessions. The main role of the MAG should simply be to approve the theme of the session, and then to take a step back to allow space for the organizers to do their work without interference. Although there should be one or more liaisons from the MAG on each main session organizing committee, it should not be expected that these liaisons should necessarily lead that committee, and it should not be necessary for them to obtain approval from the MAG for every detail of the session. In particular the issue of panelist selection is too easily politicized within the MAG, with demands that certain favoured speakers or groups be selected even if they do not have subject matter expertise.


Looking at the bigger picture, the IGF needs to continue to address its inability to fulfil the mandate in paragraph 72(g) of the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society, which requires it to “Identify emerging issues, bring them to the attention of the relevant bodies and the general public, and, where appropriate, make recommendations”. Even more than a decade after its formation, the IGF has still failed to develop the capacity to fulfil this crucial paragraph of its mandate, despite much discussion about how it could do so, and a few tentative steps taken. But comparing these steps to the achievements of the NETmundial on a much shorter lead-time reveals how the IGF has fallen short.

The building blocks for addressing this deficiency at the IGF are already in place. For example, the team from Stanford University that has organized events on Deliberative Polling at the IGF have demonstrated how the use of deliberative democratic practices can yield measurably higher quality outcomes. In parallel, the Dynamic Coalitions have been experimenting with online and offline feedback forms to gauge the support of the broader IGF community for the Dynamic Coalition outcomes. These supplement the similar document review platform that exists for the MAG-led Best Practice Forums.

Putting these building blocks together, the IGF could adopt a process whereby Best Practice Forums and Dynamic Coalitions alike could host the development of draft outputs for the IGF that would be developed on an open, multi-stakeholder basis, much as they do now. Each year one or more of those draft outputs (perhaps selected to complement the meeting’s theme) could be taken to the “next level” by subjecting it to a well-resourced, officially-supported and professionally facilitated process of democratic deliberation that would take place during a main session. In order to make the deliberation as inclusive as possible, this main session should not be scheduled at the same time as any workshops, and should include remote and asynchronous participation options.

This could result in the identification of points of consensus, documented under supervision of the MAG, that the chair of the meeting could recognise as a non-binding recommendation of the IGF, thereby fulfilling the neglected paragraph 72(g) of the IGF’s mandate.

The Internet Governance Forum wakes up to trade

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is a multi-stakeholder community that discusses a broad range of Internet issues, and seeks to identify possible shared solutions to current challenges. This year was the first year in which the spotlight fell on the use of trade agreements to make rules for the Internet behind closed doors, and a broad consensus emerged that this needs to change.

In an unprecedented focus on this issue, there were three separate workshops held on the topic—an EFF-organized workshop on the disconnect between trade agreements and the Internet’s multi-stakeholder governance model, two more specific workshops on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and on the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), and finally a high-profile plenary session that was translated into the six United Nations languages and included on its panel two former trade negotiators, a Member of the European Parliament, and two private sector representatives, as well as speakers from EFF and Public Citizen. Private sector panelist David Snead from the Internet Infrastructure Coalition said:

I think if you look at the recent history of trade negotiations, we have this long string of failed trade agreements, and trade agreements that have been really vehemently opposed by a number of people, the last of which is TPP. What does that indicate to me? It indicates to me that as someone who believes very deeply in the potential for free trade and the fact that free trade is good, that the system isn’t working. If we can’t get people behind the trade agreements, if we have people in the streets opposing the trade agreements, we need to find a better way to address their concerns, and for me the primary issue is one of secrecy. I think we’ve gone way overboard in classifying trade agreements and trade agreement texts, and there need to be methods for opening those up.

The attention now being given to trade at this important global forum comes not a moment too soon, as the intense push to ram Internet issues into international law through the TPP and TISA that we saw this year won’t be dampened for long by the failure of the TPP. The narrative is that whether it takes effect or not, the closed TPP negotiations themselves have set a new standard for digital policies that countries in the Asia-Pacific region should uphold in order to participate in 21st century trade.

Thus today the sad news has come of Japan’s pointless ratification of the defunct TPP, and the passage of associated legislation. Although we have not seen this legislation, we understand that it includes the extension of Japan’s copyright term from 50 to 70 years after the death of the author, which makes today a very sad day for Japan’s public domain. There remains a risk that other TPP countries such as Singapore—and even countries that weren’t part of the original deal, such as Taiwan—will soon also bring their domestic legislation into conformity with the requirements of this dead agreement.

On the other side of the world, three dozen university professors from around the world this week released the Namur Declaration [PDF], which echos the calls made at the IGF to improve the transparency and inclusiveness of trade negotiations, with a demand that the “interim results of the negotiations should be made public and accessible in  due course, so that civil society is ensured full knowledge and a parliamentary debate can take place before closing the negotiations.” This reinforces similar demands made in the Brussels Declaration on Trade and the Internet [PDF], that EFF and its partners released in February this year.

The world clearly recognizes that writing is on the wall for closed, secretive trade deals. As the principal and most powerful proponent of this outdated and undemocratic method of trade negotiation, the onus falls upon the United States Trade Representative (USTR) to listen to the public’s demands and to respond. Following up on the strong consensus for change expressed at the IGF, EFF will be meeting with the USTR early in the new year to discuss how it can begin making the necessary reforms. This blog was reposted from EFF’s Deeplinks.

Why IGF main sessions suck

This year I’ve been involved with two of the main sessions at the upcoming IGF in Guadalajara. Being behind the scenes gives you a bit of an insight into why these always seem to end up being so disappointing.

First, the IGF allocates no budget for them. None. I mean, you do of course get the translation, and some assistance from the Secretariat with basic logistics, but say for example that you want to retain a professional moderator, such as most conferences of this size have—then you’re paying for that out of your own pocket, or more often, doing it yourself. At last year’s Dynamic Coalitions main session, I was even personally buying stationery for use in the session.

Second, they have to be organized by IGF MAG members, even if they have no connection to the topic of the main session, and no knowledge or experience to qualify them for doing so. There is no obvious reason why this should be so. Sure, it makes some sense that the MAG should approve any main session topic. But why should they also be responsible for seeing it through? MAG members are not chosen for their subject matter expertise, and this explains a lot about the low quality of most main sessions.

Third, the appointment of speakers to the main session is based on political patronage, rather than merit. The power blocs within the MAG can block those that they don’t like, or hold a session’s approval hostage until their favoured candidates are appointed to speak. Regional, gender and stakeholder group balance are also prioritized over knowledge and experience. This results in panels that are large, weak, and lacking any outlying perspectives.

The way in which main sessions are organized needs to be thoroughly revamped if they are to start to attract more interest at IGF meetings, and a good start would be to divest the MAG of its responsibility for organizing them, and instead to outsource this role to independent experts, with appropriate resourcing to allow the sessions to be staged to a professional standard.

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.