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.

Excerpts from “Criteria of meaningful stakeholder inclusion in internet governance”

My paper Criteria of meaningful stakeholder inclusion in internet governance has just been published at the Internet Policy Review. Here are some excerpts:

This paper proposes a set of four criteria of meaningful stakeholder inclusion in global internet governance processes, that can simplify the process of examining and critiquing processes that purport to allow for public or multi-stakeholder involvement in public policy development. Because the criteria that will be presented here are largely independent, they allow for the multi-dimensional assessment of such processes. In comparison, the application of a binary designation “multi-stakeholder” conveys too crude a meaning, which has allowed its appropriation by a broad range of processes (Raymond and DeNardis, 2015, p. 575), some of which are not particularly open or participatory. This has even led certain people to assume that multi-stakeholder processes are necessarily undemocratic or captured, merely because some are. …

More specifically, the criteria of meaningful stakeholder inclusion presented here are designed to capture the extent to which the processes in question are effectively designed to incorporate the viewpoints of all affected stakeholders into the development of those policies in a balanced way, this being the essential feature from which this subset of multi-stakeholder processes can claim democratic legitimacy. Because it is very difficult to get this right, skepticism about multi-stakeholder processes in general is justified. But at the same time, there is little alternative to exploring such processes, given that despite pockets of internet policy that can be effectively governed locally, more often the border-crossing impacts of (or impacts upon) such regulation caused by the internet’s global architecture impel stakeholders to coordinate in order to govern those issues effectively and legitimately. …

As a first step towards achieving meaningful stakeholder inclusion, it is suggested to apply the following criterion as to whether the right stakeholders are participating in a multi-stakeholder internet governance process:

The body should have access to the perspectives of all those with significant interests in a policy problem or its possible solutions.

Strategies that a body can pursue to ensure that it meets this criterion include:

  • Being structurally and procedurally open to admit the participation of all stakeholders who self-identify as being significantly interested in an internet governance policy problem or by the possible solutions to that problem that are within its mandate.

  • A programme of resourcing and outreach to ensure that the perspectives of all those stakeholders who are significantly affected by that problem or those solutions are indeed included.

  • Flexibility to adapt its internal structures and processes to accommodate stakeholders within groupings that facilitate the work of the body, and can be consensually accepted by all participants as being fair and balanced. …

How, then, should the perspectives of different stakeholders be balanced, and by whom? There are two main ways in which this can be done: through policy development processes designed to roughly balance the views of stakeholders ex ante (but usually subject to a formal decision-taking process by a governing council), or by a deliberative democratic process in which the roles of stakeholders and the balancing of their views are more dynamic (though might again be subject to a formal decision taking process, which may be situated elsewhere, and/or be distributed). Some multi-stakeholder processes may also combine these two models. …

The flattening of power imbalances, which is intrinsic to deliberative democratic processes, is also absolutely critical to multi-stakeholder processes of all kinds, if they are to promote meaningful stakeholder inclusion in internet governance. Yet while there are many examples of how to do this, there is no single template that will serve all bodies best. Thus this document does not prescribe in detail how workflow and agenda work, how consensus is assessed, how committees are structured, what online tools or meeting methodologies should be used, and so on. Instead the following more general criterion is proposed, along with some examples of how it may be advanced:

There must be mechanisms to balance the power of stakeholders to facilitate them reaching a consensus on policies that are in the public interest.

The ways in which this can be done include:

  • As a first pass, agreeing upon any unique roles of the participating stakeholders in respect of the policies under consideration, based on all relevant factors including historical roles, expertise and resource control.

  • Thresholds for decision-making, such as rough consensus, that give all stakeholders an effective voice in developing policy, while minimising the possibility of minority veto or capture by the powerful.

  • Deliberative processes that flatten power differences between stakeholders and require them to defend their position in terms of their view of the public interest. …

Mechanisms of accountability must exist between the body and its stakeholders to demonstrate the legitimacy of their authority and participation respectively.

The factors involved in determining whether this is so include:

  • Where the body exercises any authority over the stakeholders, its legitimacy to do so (whether institutional, democratic, meritocratic, or otherwise) must be generally accepted by the community of stakeholders at large.

  • The body must operate transparently and adopt mechanisms of accountability that are recognised as organisational best practices, such as independent review.

  • The process must include means by which the stakeholders can be held accountable for the legitimacy of their participation, as appropriate to the process and their roles in it.

The fourth and final question bears upon how “meaningful” is the stakeholder inclusion in an internet governance process, where meaningfulness is a function of how closely the stakeholder’s participation is linked to empowered spaces in which authoritative mutual decisions are made, as opposed to public spaces that are limited to discussion (Haristya, forthcoming). The body might not be an empowered space in itself, but might be effectively (and usually formally) linked to other empowered spaces, which can also make participation in the former meaningful to some degree; amongst these processes, some may lay claim to being multi-stakeholder, while others might not. However a body which is neither empowered in its own right, nor effectively linked to empowered spaces, is not accurately described as a multi-stakeholder process, and certainly not as one that provides meaningful stakeholder inclusion in internet governance. …

For some, multi-stakeholder processes can and should be directly empowered to make or to implement global internet governance policies. But for others, there are concerns about multi-stakeholder processes that directly effect changes in global governance, particularly outside of the technical and administrative realm.

These concerns are heard from both the political left and the right. From the left, they have manifested in a rejection by some of multi-stakeholder processes in general, to the extent that these lack the intermediation of more traditionally representative democratic institutions such as national governments, or intergovernmental bodies such as the United Nations (Gurstein, 2014). This in turn stems from a distrust of providing corporations with a pervasive role at (and behind) the negotiating table, as this is seen as effectively corporate self-regulation under another name, and therefore a diluted pacifier to much needed action (by governments).

The right on the other hand has no great love of regulation, and so while expressing support for the multi-stakeholder model, has been wary of accepting it as a method of policy development. For example, some private sector stakeholders have been amongst those most resistant to the IGF developing the capacity to produce even non-binding recommendations, since this would complicate the existing structures of power and influence by which corporations and governments craft policy in less open fora, or act in default of policy (Malcolm, 2008, p. 425).

This paper seeks to address these concerns by breaking the essential features of effectively inclusive processes into several criteria, and in particular by separating out this last criterion, which isolates the core concern of these critics. The extent of the disagreement can be further narrowed by breaking the process of internet governance into several stages, such as framing and agenda setting, drafting, validation of outputs, implementation and dispute resolution (de la Chapelle, 2011). Most of the concerns about overreach of multi-stakeholder processes could be resolved by limiting the empowerment of those processes to the stages of framing and drafting. And indeed, those are the stages to which almost all multi-stakeholder processes outside of the technical and administrative are already limited. …

For each stage involved in governance, the body should either be directly empowered to execute it, or linked to external institutions that have the authority to do so, as appropriate.

This requires, for example, the following:

  • The body should develop a shared understanding of the extent of its own legitimate authority (that may vary by issue, stage of governance, implementation mechanism, and over time).

  • At every point where the body lacks either the capacity or the authority to act, formal or informal two-way liaison mechanisms linking its outputs to external empowered institutions should exist.

  • To facilitate this, the outputs of the body should be collected, synthesised, recorded and delivered in clear, actionable forms.

No claim is made that meaningful stakeholder inclusion in internet governance is easy to achieve, or that if achieved, it will easily resolve all internet policy problems. In particular, distributional effects of existing power structures are all-pervasive and these cannot be ignored. Inclusive stakeholder participation will not fully negate these imbalances. However, to the extent that multi-stakeholder processes score highly against the criteria presented here, they are less likely to have negative distributional effects than existing, less-inclusive governance institutions and processes that afford greater control over the global internet to overreaching national sovereigns and near-stateless global monopolists alike. …

 

Read more at Internet Policy Review.

Transcript of my controversial ICANN intervention about Idea Rating Sheets

As a follow-up from the preceding post, here is what I actually said about outputs at the IGF that caused the private sector such angst. This was delivered ex tempore, so excuse the informal grammar in parts.

Markus Kummer: Ten years ago would have been unthinkable to have a discuss on net neutrality. People would have feared, there would be blood on the floor. But in Istanbul we had a reasoned discussion on net neutrality, and as Jeremy said, this is a delicate issue we are not ready to conclude, but at least the IGF allows this discussion in a sense of neutral respect. And I’ll close with that. Maybe Jeremy wants to follow up on it.

Jeremy Malcolm: Sure. So I can say a little bit about the methodology that Markus alluded to. But maybe before I go into that just a bit more background into why we’re moving in this direction for the IGF. And when we’re here at ICANN, particularly for people who aren’t following the IGF as closely, it might seem strange that there is such a big debate about whether the IGF should produce some kind of recommendations or outcomes because we do that at ICANN all the time. And so you might wonder why is the IGF seen as just being a talk shop or a conference that can’t produce outcomes. And it’s a good question because it wasn’t always intended to be that way. If we look at the IGF’s mandate in the Tunis Agenda it does actually provide for the IGF to be able to make recommendations. So it could in a way have become the ICANN for issues other than names and numbers, if it had been structured in that way. With the difference that its recommendations would be non-binding, of course, because the Tunis Agenda does say that and also it says there should be no duplication of existing mechanisms.

But having said that, there are really few, in any, existing mechanisms for Internet policy issues to be dealt with in a multistakeholder way. So there is a lot of scope potentially for the IGF to act as a body to produce these non-binding policy recommendations. Unlike at ICANN, however, there’s been a lot of historical reservation to that, from certain stakeholders, such as some developed country governments and some of the private sector stakeholders. And when the IGF was originally being formed, I guess there was perhaps one might argue some undue influence by certain stakeholders who didn’t want it to develop in that way. So baked into the IGF’s original DNA we see a conference-style format which didn’t have the capacity to develop recommendations through structures that were designed for that purpose. Unlike ICANN where those structures do exist.

So now we have the opportunity to try and revise the way that the IGF does things, but it has to be in an incremental way and hence these — these slow reforms that we’re now seeing. And I do think it is important that we do allow the IGF to develop these capacities, because otherwise, as I think it was Marilia alluded to or someone alluded to the fact that Internet issues are otherwise going into places that we don’t want to see them like multilateral trade agreements which are very closed to civil society are being used to decide issues like IP, free flow of information that is personal data protection, and even ccTLD management which has popped up in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. So we don’t really want to see closed fora like trade agreements or even necessarily the ITU deciding Internet governance issues and it would be better if we did have a way for the IGF to produce some non-binding policy recommendations.

So the way we’re doing that is in a very lightweight, non- threatening way. And the methodology that we’re looking at for this year for the dynamic coalitions at least is the use of something called idea rating sheets. So the dynamic coalitions have all produced input documents of their own using whatever methodology they had developed internally. But those documents are really just the product of the dynamic coalitions themselves. They’re not — they don’t have any greater validity than that. So what we’re trying to do is to publish those, to explain them to the IGF community, to reduce them into a set of ideas or propositions that the IGF community can express agreement or disagreement on. And then to have a session which is actually split into two where we can invite the IGF community to — to rate or to validate the ideas that it agrees with and to show the extent to which it may disagree with the outputs as well. And so we’re going to have the break between the session on the second to last day and the session on the last day for people to complete these idea rating sheets which will be placed around the room and also made available online. And then on the second day we’ll come back and review what that feedback has been. And how we take the feedback forward is really a matter for the dynamic coalitions and the chairs of the session. If there seems to be an overwhelming consensus in favor of something that a dynamic coalition has proposed then there is the option that the chair of the session could say hey, I think we have a rough consensus on this. But for more contentious issues — and net neutrality is probably one of those — we likely won’t see such a strong consensus that we can say there’s a validation of the output by the IGF as a whole. But what we may see is that the IGF has given enough feedback that the dynamic coalition can then go away and over the next year work to revise its document and to undergo further discussions and then maybe come back later once more of a consensus has developed. And in that way we can gradually see the accretion of some outputs from the IGF without falling into the trap of having something like an intergovernmental negotiation process which as many people have long feared would be dangerous — a dangerous road to head down.

So on the other hand, if these experiments do work, I think we can then become bolder over time, and then not be so afraid of the IGF producing outputs. And so that’s my hope for the future, that we will be able to see an IGF that eventually does produce some useful actionable policy recommendations for other institutions to take forward. Thank you.

Cheryl Miller [Verizon]: So I wanted to just clarify a few things. I don’t think it would be accurate to say the private sector doesn’t support outcomes. I think for a long time we’ve not been in favor of turning the IGF into more of a negotiated body, and I think the gentleman’s points before really are testament to that, because a lot of the value and the benefit that we do receive from the IGF and from participating in it is breaking down the silos and having some of the discussions on net neutrality and other issues where we can’t discuss them in other ways and in other forums in that way. … 

And then I guess my question to the panel would be: We’ve had a lot of discussion within the MAG about MAG self-assessment and IGF self-assessment, and so you all have been involved in this for many more years than some of us new members such as myself.

What are specific things that you think we as MAG members can do to make some of the changes that you think are really important to support the IGF and make it a stronger body moving forward?

Jeremy Malcolm: There was one question that came in this last round of questions about how the MAG can help the IGF to evolve and I think the MAG has got a problem in terms of its own working methods, in that it really relies on a full consensus to be able to make any changes to the IGF and that’s rather stifling. I think the MAG needs to self-assess how it can move beyond some of those roadblocks that may be raised by just one or two members which can stop the IGF from moving forward, being more open to outside ideas as well.

For this year, one of the independently organized sessions is deliberative poll, which is another idea of how the IGF in the future might be able to deliver some outputs. So ideas like that I think the MAG should consider and try and work through those internal roadblocks that stop it from actually making evolutionary changes to the way the IGF works. Thanks.

Idea Rating Sheets for validation of IGF dynamic coalition outputs

According to an informed source, the IGF’s private sector stakeholders are raising a (quote) sh*tstorm about the presentation I gave at ICANN 54 about the process that the dynamic coalitions have developed for the validation of their outputs by the larger IGF community.

The concept for the endorsement of dynamic coalition outcomes by the main session has a long history. But it was only this year that a MAG informal working group on intersessional activities, in turn responding to a recommendation of the more formal CSTD Working Group on Improvements to the IGF, finally recommended that there should be an IGF main session at which the dynamic coalitions could “present their work and ask for validation from the broader IGF community”.

This recommendation was recorded in several sets of MAG minutes without adverse comment by the usual risk-averse private sector stakeholders (for clarity: this comprises the majority, but not all, of the long-time private sector voice on the MAG; Google, for example, is an exception), and so the dynamic coalitions proceeded to plan for such a session.

In the absence of any other suggestions for how they might do this, I came forward to propose that they should adopt the use of Idea Rating Sheets. Although we are tweaking the suggested methodology slightly (because the dynamic coalitions have a separate process for actually generating ideas; we only need one for rating them), this simple and low-cost methodology fits the bill quite well.

It allows the dynamic coalitions to explain their outputs to the meeting and then to present them for comment in a series of points. Members of the community, both online and offline, can record the extent to which they agree or disagree with those points, and optionally why, resulting in useful feedback. In the case that a given document reaches a certain high threshold of consensus within the participating IGF community, the meeting chair could declare that it has been “validated”, thereby imbuing it with a more authoritative (though still advisory) status.

It was this that has enraged the private sector. The first indication of this was when co-coordinator of the session, Markus Kummer, in his usual diplomatic fashion, declared that due to the “sensitivities” of certain members of the MAG, we would no longer be using the word “validation”. This got the goat of a number of dynamic coalition participants who had never agreed to stop using that word.

His suggested compromise, such as it was, is that individual dynamic coalitions could choose their own terminology to use about whatever it was that the IGF main session was doing to their outputs. Nonetheless he has made clear that he won’t be using the word “validation” in the main session. (I, on the other hand, most certainly will.)

Then came my presentation at ICANN 54, which essentially outlined the above. When I came to the point about the private sector being averse to the IGF producing tangible outcomes, the Verizon representative who was there present rose and declared that oh no, I had it all wrong! They are actually all in favour of IGF outcomes!

Yet it was that same individual who communicated the substance of my remarks to her private colleagues, thereby precipitating the aforementioned sh*tstorm. It’s exactly the same over-the-top reaction that these control freaks (my source’s words) pull in response to any measure aimed at empowering the IGF as a policy forum, from 2005 (when they opposed the IGF’s very formation) until today.

I also observed during the ICANN session (no transcript is yet available unfortunately, and my remarks were ex tempore), the fact that the MAG self-imposes a requirement of essentially a full consensus before any changes to the IGF’s format can be made or any outside ideas accepted, is probably the greatest weakness of the institution as a whole.

Consequently there will always be a few self-interested private sector participants (“bad actors”, to use the terminology of another IGF working group) who will misuse their position on the MAG to block needed change. But multi-stakeholder processes don’t (or shouldn’t) work that way. The IGF MAG, its Chair Jānis Kārkliņš, and the chairs of its working groups such as Markus Kummer, simply need to have the guts to tell these actors: Thanks for your feedback, but the IGF has a mandate to make recommendations, the CSTD has affirmed that these need to take the form of more tangible outputs, and a MAG working group has worked with the dynamic coalitions in an open process to define how those outputs will be produced.

Or, more concisely:

Sorry private sector, but you are not the boss of the IGF.

Debunking eight myths about multi-stakeholderism

From being the darling of civil society during WSIS (and soon after being repurposed by the technical community as their own guiding principle), multi-stakeholderism has entered a rough patch during the last 18 months. The phrase, and—worse—the underlying concept have quite swiftly begun to acquire a distinctly negative connotation in the public eye (at least, among those who have heard of multi-stakeholderism at all).  Amongst the civil society voices who are now treating multi-stakeholderism as a failed cause or worse, here are a few recent examples from commentators across a range of political views:

But these are not critiques of multi-stakeholder governance in general, or to the extent that some of them are, they are misplaced. Here I attempt to briefly debunk some of the fallacies that underlie blanket critiques of multi-stakeholder models of Internet governance:

  • That multi-stakeholderism aims to replace governments. Multi-stakeholder processes are for producing soft law principles, rather than hard law regulations. Admittedly there is more of a continuum between hard and soft rather than a clear dividing line, but it is clear enough that while multi-stakeholder processes may provide recommendations to the national and international institutions that create binding obligations, they won’t be replacing those institutions any time soon. Ultimately we can question whether nation states (and groupings of these) are still the right default agents for making the hard rules that govern our world, but the future in which they fade away in favour of multi-stakeholder governing bodies remains a long way off.
  • That multi-stakeholderism is incompatible with democracy. The “harder” that the outcomes of multi-stakeholder processes are (for example, some of ICANN’s policies have effects that would be difficult to distinguish from international legal rules), the more important it is to ensure that its structures and processes are legitimate. In this context, legitimacy—which, yes, means democratic legitimacy—doesn’t just come from representative democratic processes. There are other ways of reflecting the will of those who are governed than voting, which, anyway, is impossible to realise at the global level (as ICANN discovered with its 2000 At-Large election experiment). The method that ICANN has plumbed for is to create a structure aimed at balancing the inputs of all affected stakeholder groups, including those that cross national borders. Other methods, such as the deliberative poll that is (hopefully) to be held ahead of the 2015 IGF, utilise techniques of deliberative democracy with the aim of produce balanced and rational outcomes. Such methods, flawed as they may be, are no less democratic in principle than the equally or more flawed representative democracies that we live under—nor than international institutions such as the United Nations, which indeed suffer from very severe democratic deficits. Particular multi-stakeholder processes can and should be criticised for not being democratic enough, but it is false to claim that they are undemocratic by definition.
  • That multi-stakeholderism gives too much power to corporations. Do multi-stakeholder processes allow corporations to participate? In general, yes. But let’s compare apples with apples, here. Corporations already have too much power in global governance. Do multi-stakeholder processes give them any more power? No—or if they do, they’re doing it wrong. On the contrary, multi-stakeholderism is meant to be about balancing the input of all affected stakeholder groups, crucially including civil society, which is currently sidelined in the governance processes that corporations dominate. Thus although multi-stakeholderism does allow for the perspectives of corporations to be included in decision making, this remains relatively better for civil society, because our perspectives are also heard at the same level, which is an improvement over the status quo. By analogy, consider the reason the why free and open source software licences outlaw discrimination by field of endeavour (ie. prohibition of commercial use). Although FOSS licences are good for corporations, that is because they are good for everybody (and in fact better for those who are locked out of proprietary software). The same is true of multi-stakeholderism.
  • That multi-stakeholderism is a neoliberal construct. Again, if multi-stakeholderism is really a better form of governance for the borderless world we live in, then, like democracy itself, it ought to be better for libertarians, conservatives, liberals and progressives alike (to use the US terminology). Of course, it won’t ever satisfy radicals who are really calling for the complete overthrow of existing power structures. If you are not looking for a mechanism of global governance, but for a stick to beat corporations or governments with, then look elsewhere. That’s not governance, that’s advocacy (or, in the hands of the powerful, an instrument of class warfare). But whilst multi-stakeholderism isn’t going to completely upend existing power structures, neither will democracy. What you’re probably really looking for instead is a system of government that allows workers to seize control of the means of production.  I believe there’s a name for that.
  • That multi-stakeholderism requires corporations to have an equal role to governments. This has been debunked before, but it bears repeating that this argument is no longer tenable post-NETmundial, where it was established that “The respective roles and responsibilities of stakeholders should be interpreted in a flexible manner with reference to the issue under discussion”. As explained in my previous post  that means that depending on various factors it will be most legitimate and effective in some cases for governments to take the lead; in other cases, the technical community; in others still civil society; and in some cases industry.
  • It’s turtles all the way down. This fallacy tells that in order to sort out the roles and responsibilities of stakeholders in a given issue area or forum there needs to be a pre-existing (also presumably multi-stakeholder) process to determine these, and then another one to determine that one’s composition, and so on. Actually that problem mostly solves itself. Since multi-stakeholder processes are voluntary, if affected stakeholders are not able to negotiate for the roles and responsibilities that are appropriate to them, they can always opt out. Their refusal to participate will then reduce the legitimacy of the initiative, and consequently the authority of the outputs that it produces. This isn’t just theoretical; it can and does happen; the Licences for Europe initiative is one example.
  • That any process that calls itself multi-stakeholder really is.  Part of the reason for the backlash against multi-stakeholderism is that too many of the processes that use that label don’t deserve it. Not all multi-stakeholder processes were created equal. Many criticisms that have been made of the execution of particular supposedly multi-stakeholder processes are absolutely valid. Some such Internet policy processes are still legitimate in different terms—for example, they may be instances of state-led participatory democracy—but to call them multi-stakeholder, when they do not attempt to incorporate the viewpoints of all affected stakeholders into the development of those policies in a balanced way, is misleading. One recent example of this, in which civil society’s participation was both narrow and token, is the Global Conference on Cyber-Security  Processes that do better?  Regrettably these are harder to come by as yet. ICANN is flawed and largely captured and driven by special interests, and the IGF has squandered its opportunity to actually engage in governance rather than just discussing governance. However, both institutions continue to evolve, and we should not expect the multi-stakeholder model to be perfected within just a few years (how long did it take for the Westminster system to reach its present form?).  Even so, multi-stakeholder advocates are often criticised as not presenting a good example of the ideal that they propose, which brings us to the last fallacy: 
  • That there is any alternative. It really boils down to this: if not multi-stakeholderism, then what? Do we want to establish a new, global parliament to make global rules for the Internet? Or do we expect (and trust) existing intergovernmental bodies such as the ITU or the (thoroughly undemocratic) UN Security Council to do so? Do we have any faith that the rules that 196 nation states make for the Internet will interoperate in a sane way if there is no process to guide their development along compatible paths? Or that companies will develop terms of service in consultation with users from all over the world, taking into account all their local needs and circumstances? Or that technical standards are a magic wand to wave away all of the governance problems of the Internet? There is such folly in these scenarios that it makes proponents of the development of multi-stakeholder models of global Internet governance look like staid conservatives by comparison. There really is no alternative.

So if multi-stakeholderism is not the dead end that some claim it is, but rather an emergent model of governance whose name is often taken in vain, how are we to recognise (and to shape) better examples of it? What is the gold standard of multi-stakeholder processes to which we aspire? That is, indeed, something that needs to be better documented, and I hope to be able to work with others this year to produce an accessible “quality seal” of multi-stakeholder processes that we can use to help chart the path forward.

UNESCO resists JNC’s attempt to turn “democracy” against ordinary Internet users

Today in Paris UNESCO (the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) finalised the outcome document from its conference, “CONNECTing the Dots: Options for Future Action”. The document is wide-ranging, and although it doesn’t push the envelope as far as civil society would like on issues such as privacy and intermediary liability, it nonetheless contains some welcome and hard-fought provisions on freedom of expression (for example, recognising social media producers as worthy of similar protections as journalists), on access to information and knowledge (referencing the importance of open access, open data and FOSS), and affirming the relevance of work on network neutrality, amongst other areas. It also manages to avoid the few negative provisions that marred the NETmundial statement, and as such was welcomed by major civil society groups on the ground in Paris as a worthy outcome of one of the most consultative, multi-stakeholder processes that one could expect from a United Nations body. Since it is a non-binding document it was not put to the vote, but was accepted as a consensus outcome by acclaim, as signaled by a round of applause.

All except by one civil society splinter group, the Just Net Coalition (JNC), whose representative, former ITU (International Telecommunciations Union) officer Richard Hill, interrupted the closing ceremony to voice a formal objection to the document, because it did not reflect two of the changes that JNC members had demanded during the open drafting sessions. One of these was a reference to “social and economic rights” that was apparently proposed at one point by Anita Gurumurthy, and the other was Hill’s repeated insistence throughout the conference that all references to “multi-stakeholder” throughout the document include the qualifier “democratic” (and in the end there was only one such reference, in paragraph 1.5 which makes the purely factual observation that the “open Internet is… characterized by Multistakeholder participation”).

In typical bombastic, sanctimonious fashion, Just Net representatives have been expressing how shocked (shocked!) they are that I was amongst those who objected to their insertion of this qualifier, claiming that it reveals that I am against democracy (and probably that I torture kittens, etc). After all, who could possibly have any legitimate reason to object to the word “democratic”, which Hill attempted to wave away as merely an “editorial” change? In fact, as a seasoned veteran of intergovernmental negotiations, Hill knows very well how by proposing a seemingly innocuous amendment—a comma here, a “where appropriate” there—one can make deceptively profound changes to the meaning of official documents, that can have reverberations decades later. (Consider the unforeseen implications that the innocuous phrase “enhanced cooperation” has had since WSIS, for example.)

What, then is “democratic multi-stakeholderism”? It’s not the multi-stakeholderism that characterises the open Internet, that’s for sure. Rather, it’s the limited type of government-led rulemaking, in which the other stakeholder groups offer merely a subsidiary advisory role, that I revealed as the agenda of the Just Net Coalition in a previous post. It sets up a false binary between democratic multi-stakeholderism on the one hand, and “equal-roles” multi-stakeholderism on the other; the straw-man position that they ascribe to me and others that supposely holds all the stakeholders to be equal in multi-stakeholder processes. While some, probably, do continue to hold that position, the preferable and more widely-held view post-NETmundial, and the middle ground that the JNC binary obscures, is that the roles and responsibilities of stakeholders will vary depending on the issue in question, the governance mechanism being applied, and the forum in which the stakeholders come together.

Thus in some cases—a treaty on the use of cyber-weaponry in war, for example—it might be appropriate for governments to take a leading role, while consulting with the other stakeholder groups, in much the same fashion that JNC supports. But in other cases—the development of new technical standards to protect the privacy of Internet users, perhaps—it would be more appropriate for the Internet technical community to have the principal role. In still others—developing model terms of service for Internet intermediaries, for example—civil society and the private sector might appropriately exercise leadership, though naturally within a legal framework that governments have established. These cases, in which multi-stakeholder working appropriately excludes a dominant role for government, would be precluded by the replacement of the flexible term “multi-stakeholderism” for the narrower phrase “democratic multi-stakeholderism”, which would only encompass the first of the three examples given above.

One will occasionally hear a JNC representative draw a distinction between processes that lead to public policy decisions embodied in laws and treaties, over which governments are to exercise sole authority, and other governance processes such as the development of standards, guidelines and recommendations, in which they may admit the participation of other stakeholders on a more equal footing. But their admission of this possibility is belied by their use of the “democratic multi-stakeholder” phraseology, which doesn’t admit of any such nuance, and could easily be used by repressive states or others to constrict the legitimacy of such soft normative processes in the future. Indeed, some might argue it already has—given that in the first post-NETmundial process in which they introduced their “democratic multi-stakeholder” language, the WSIS+10 review, a high-level meeting to be held this December has been ruled as intergovernmental only, in a regression from multi-stakeholder norms that other fora such as the IGF and NETmundial had established.

Moreover, JNC’s position that there is such a thing as “public policy decisions” that should be reserved to governments sets up a further false binary, given that in the post-Westphalian era, government edicts such as laws and treaties no longer necessarily have effects that have any more practical force and impact than non-governmental decisions, such as those that ICANN makes over domain names and IP addresses, or those that private-sector arbitrators make in cross-border trade disputes. It is imperative that we do not close these non-governmental processes to being improved through multi-stakeholder participation of various forms. This must be broad enough to include forms that do not place governments in a position of authority over other affected stakeholders, many of whom, such as trans-national networks of citizens, governments alone do not adequately represent.

It is therefore time to stop this insidious form of words from spreading any further, and that is why I was proud to be amongst those who stood up to oppose the constriction of UNESCO’s support for multi-stakeholder Internet governance to only limited forms of “democratic multi-stakeholderism” that are led by states.

Who are the Just Net Coalition and what can we expect from the Internet Social Forum?

Today, the Just Net Coalition (JNC) has broadcast (on seven mailing lists alone that I subscribe to) its plans for an Internet Social Forum, modeled on the World Social Forum, the well-known anti-globalisation summit. Just as the World Social Forum is held in opposition to the annual Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), so the Internet Social Forum is framed as an alternative to the NETmundial Initiative, which JNC describes (inaccurately) as a project of the WEF.

Before saying anything more, I should clarify that I too have been critical of the NETmundial Initiative, I too believe that the Internet governance status quo is overdue for reform, I also share concerns about a concentration of market power in the hands of US-based Internet companies, and I do believe that governments have an important role to play in future Internet governance arrangements. However, I won’t be supporting the Internet Social Forum, because the Just Net Coalition’s objectives are misguided, and its mode of engagement with the rest of civil society has been profoundly dysfunctional.

History

Who are the Just Net Coalition? I briefly mentioned them in my last post, but today’s announcement has raised further questions among some of my contacts, and led others to express support for the proposal despite not knowing much of the history of those proposing it. This post is to provide some of that necessary background, so that those who choose to endorse the Internet Social Forum will not be taken by surprise when its proposed “People’s Internet Manifesto” takes a course with which they may profoundly disagree.

The founding meeting of what became the Just Net Coalition in February 2014 was invitation-only, and invitations were issued, in the first instance, only to those known to by sympathetic to the views of the organisers. (A few key individuals excluded from the first round of invitations were, at the urging of the meeting’s funder, subsequently approached with late invitations to attend; speaking for myself as one of these, the approach came far too late for me to make the necessary arrangements even to obtain a visa.) Consequently, the content of that meeting’s outcome document, the Delhi Declaration for a Just and Equitable Internet, was largely predetermined.

The political programme of that document (more on this below) has a long history in a disagreement between a few individuals who were members of the Civil Society Internet Governance Caucus (IGC), that has frequently threatened to tear that group apart. On some accounts, indeed, it has already done so – opinions vary on when or whether the IGC “jumped the shark”, but many count it as the day at an IGC meeting in 2013 when a prominent JNC member almost came to blows with a female attendee in an argument, ironically, over his own overbearing behaviour.

The formation of Best Bits in 2012 was (at least on my part, as one of its founders), partly in response to the decline of the IGC and the need for a more action-oriented, globally-inclusive civil society community that could speak on Internet governance and human rights issues, without requiring a full consensus which (for the IGC, at least) had become completely unachievable. Those who now lead JNC, at the time, also held hopes (as did we) that they too could make effective use of Best Bits as a platform for actions and statements on which a broad consensus could be reached, which for a time they did, but what ultimately transpired will be recounted later.

So who are these individuals to whom I am obliquely referring? Although I don’t wish to unduly personalise this post, it is relevant that they be identified in order to give context to the following section of this post; and equally, it is quite proper that as spokespersons for the group, they should be held accountable for their public behaviour and statements. (I should also add before going further that I have had a long record of working fruitfully with the individuals named both online and in person, dating back to 2004. I have even retained one of them as a paid consultant on a project I managed.)

Amongst the key individuals who have spoken publicly for JNC and who sit on its steering committee are Parminder Jeet Singh who leads Indian NGO IT for Change, Michael Gurstein who is a Canadian academic and edits the Journal of Community Informatics, Norbert Bollow who is a Swiss systems analyst and FOSS developer, and Richard Hill, former senior staff member of the ITU, who continues to advocate for an expanded role for the ITU on Internet-related public policy issues. Many of the groups shown as supporting the Internet Social Forum in today’s announcement are vanity or hobby projects of these founding individuals. For example Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training is Gurstein, GodlyGlobal.org is Bollow, and Association for Proper Internet Governance is Hill.

(You might note that the majority JNC’s most vocal key figures, including others not mentioned above such as Louis Pouzin and Jean-Christophe Nothias, are white men from industrialised countries. Now as a white man myself I’m certainly not one to point fingers at them, but as an organisation that purports to be “globally concerned with…social justice”, as JNC does, this lack of diversity perhaps bears mentioning.)

Objectives

The positioning of the Just Net Coalition against multi-stakeholder Internet governance, and in favour of a state-centric model, although now quite overt, became evident gradually. The Delhi Declaration covers this obliquely, stating “The right to make Internet-related public policies lies exclusively with those who legitimately and directly represent people” (ie. states). Another coded phrase the JNC has used to call for the centralisation of Internet governance authority in states is its call for “legitimate political authority”.

A turning point came at the meeting of the Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation on Public Policy Issues Pertaining to the Internet (WGEC) of the UN Commission for Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) in April 2014. To the surprise of other civil society and technical community delegates at that meeting, Parminder Jeet Singh insisted that support for paragraph 35 of the Tunis Agenda be retained in working group’s report, as the representatives from Saudi Arabia and Iran also forcefully argued. Up until then, indeed for an unbroken decade, opposition to paragraph 35 had been a unanimous civil society position.

Paragraph 35 states (my emphasis):

We reaffirm that the management of the Internet encompasses both technical and public policy issues and should involve all stakeholders and relevant intergovernmental and international organizations. In this respect it is recognized that:

  1. Policy authority for Internet-related public policy issues is the sovereign right of States. They have rights and responsibilities for international Internet-related public policy issues.
  2. The private sector has had, and should continue to have, an important role in the development of the Internet, both in the technical and economic fields.
  3. Civil society has also played an important role on Internet matters, especially at community level, and should continue to play such a role.
  4. Intergovernmental organizations have had, and should continue to have, a facilitating role in the coordination of Internet-related public policy issues.
  5. International organizations have also had and should continue to have an important role in the development of Internet-related technical standards and relevant policies.

In supporting this paragraph that constricts civil society’s role in Internet governance, Parminder said:

I have clarity about what is the role of different stakeholders being quite different to one another and I don’t appreciate that non-governmental actors would have the same role in decision-making than governmental actors. That should not be acceptable at a global level.

This, translated into JNC policy and the agenda for its Internet Social Forum, marks a profound shift away from the decentralised and horizontal model of Internet governance that civil society had heretofore supported, towards an hierarchical, state-led model.

For a time, JNC attempted to explain away this change by drawing a straw man distinction between “democratic multi-stakeholderism” (which JNC supports) and “equal footing multi-stakeholderism” (which it doesn’t, mischaracterising it as “governance by self-selected elites”). But it has since mostly abandoned that pretense and become more overt in promoting an intergovernmental model of Internet governance, stating for example in a more recent statement, “We invite all countries to call for a Framework Convention on the Internet and to take up leadership in developing global Internet-related policies,” and averring that “[w]ithout governmental support, it is difficult, perhaps impossible to combat the dominance of global Internet monopolies”.

Now, I have argued elsewhere why governments ought not to have a monopoly on the development of Internet-related public policies, and why a model of multi-stakeholderism that includes governments as a key, but not dominant stakeholder can still be counted as democratic. You can accept those arguments or not. If you don’t, then you might come down on JNC’s side on this issue, and that would be perfectly legitimate.

But that’s only half of the problem with JNC. The other half is the toxic relationship that its representatives have cultivated with the rest of civil society.

Relationship with civil society

At the first Best Bits meeting in 2012, much time and many pains were taken to accommodate the demands of those future JNC committee members who attended, and this effort did successfully result in a consensus text to which they were willing to put their names. But from this point, their participation in Best Bits became less productive and more divisive, largely over two issues, which were intertwined.

The first has already been mentioned: the fundamental ideological disagreement over the legitimacy of multi-stakeholder Internet governance, which was accepted by a majority of Best Bits participants, but not by those who were later to split off into JNC. This disagreement took on greater currency when the NETmundial meeting was announced and Best Bits participants began to coordinate the development of several joint inputs. When the future JNC leaders found themselves unable to influence the drafting of these statements to sufficiently accord with their view that governments should have an outsized role in Internet governance, the next best option became to disrupt the development of those statements by hectoring, intimidating and disparaging participants who expressed pro-multistakeholder views.

As good an example as any, and a more recent one, is Gurstein’s reaction in November 2014 to the qualified support of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) for the NETmundial Initiative, to which he wrote to Anriette Esterhuysen, APC’s Executive Director, “I’m taking from your argument that because the NMI offers some possibility, however remote for the advancement of human rights, you are completely abandoning perhaps irrevocably, the pursuit of social justice.” To anyone who knows of the many years of devotion that Anriette and APC have given in the cause of social justice (and Gurstein certainly does), this is a farcical insult.

The second issue to which the disruptive behaviour of JNC representatives has been directed, which probably arose from the first, were criticisms of various processes that they found themselves unable to influence, including not only those of Best Bits, but also 1net, and the Civil Society Coordination Group (CSCG). In a rising tide of authoritarian behaviour, those who became JNC’s leaders would demand appointment to a position of authority or that these fledgling groups hold elections immediately, insist that other participants in those groups disclose their sources of funding, and cause a commotion about any strategic discussions that took place off-list or in closed groups.

The response of a relative outsider, Milton Mueller, to Gurstein’s demands for inclusion in 1net aptly record the frustration that many others felt:

Stop pretending that CI [Community Informatics] is some massive grassroots movement related to Internet governance that deserves special representation; and stop pretending that  your frustration with not being selected by CS means that their procedures were illegitimate.

You are your group are free to contribute position papers to the process and to attend, as far as we know. Why don’t you see how far you can get on persuasion and education, if that’s really your mission?

To give another example, Bollow, who had earlier demanded a full accounting of the funding sources of Best Bits participants, wrote in November 2013, “I hereby request the members of the BestBits steering committee, the members of the IRP Steering Committee, and the coordinators of the IGC to disclose any direct or indirect financial relationship to any ‘capacity building’ or similar kind of project where a US government agency is among the funders.”

Then again he wrote in October 2014 to the moderators of a closed strategy list formed for the recent ITU Plenipotentiary meeting – a list that he had not joined – demanding the right to “inspect” its archives on behalf of JNC. As for the CSCG, even after it acceded to JNC’s requests and added Bollow as a representative, JNC betrayed that trust by publishing an account of its private deliberations which criticised other CSCG members, falsely stating that they had decided to support the NETmundial Initiative.

Although some of JNC’s demands of other civil society groups and networks may have been reasonable in themselves – Best Bits, for example, always intended to hold steering committee elections and did hold them within a year of its formation – these demands were delivered with such hubris and entitlement that the effect has been to isolate JNC from other civil society groups and networks and to sow seeds of discord that will have lasting effects.

Ironically the result has been exactly the opposite of what JNC intended. Discussions have retreated from public, open lists into private, closed lists – or private cc groups that are not list-managed at all – precisely to avoid unproductive exchanges with JNC members.

Even more ironically, JNC does not hold itself to the same standards of transparency and accountability that it demands of others; it has never publicly disclosed, for example, receiving funding from ThoughtWorks, and even the list of signatories of the Delhi Declaration, which formed the JNC’s first membership list, was not made public for months after its supposed founding, even while further statements continued to be issued. Neither does JNC operate an open mailing list, despite vociferous demands that other civil society networks, such as Best Bits, should do so.

It might be countered that as pernicious as the behaviour of key JNC members may have been, they are only individuals, and this should not be attributed to the organisation as a whole. Whilst none of the other JNC members has ever “broken ranks” and spoken up against even the founders, this may not be because they are condoning their behaviour, but because they are unaware of it, since it takes place on other civil society mailing lists. Might a change of leadership of JNC be all that is required? This is hard to say, and at present a moot question since no such change is on the horizon.

Conclusion

What, then, can we expect from JNC’s Internet Social Forum? Sadly, we can expect that any participants who support a distributed, multi-stakeholder model for Internet governance will be required to check those convictions at the door, and to embrace instead a UN-based model that places governments firmly in control of Internet public policy development. We can expect those who deviate from this line to be interrogated mercilessly, and accused of being props for neoliberal hegemony and corporate domination. May JNC’s “take no prisoners” approach serve them well.

This is a shame, because a well-reasoned leftist critique of Internet governance arrangements and reforms that directs its ire at powerful incumbents, rather than at those who seek to forge a middle path of inclusive multi-stakeholder governance, would actually be very valuable. To date, JNC has exhibited no desire to provide such a sober, productive critique, instead preferring to focus its destructive anger on easier, weaker targets – its own civil society colleagues.

Civil society talks tough to the NETmundial Initiative, but holds back on a boycott

The following letter was sent to the organisers of the NETmundial Initiative today by the Internet Governance Civil Society Coordination Group (CSCG), an umbrella organisation of which I’m a member on behalf of the Best Bits network.

Responding to concerns raised by the CSCG’s constituents, the letter makes some very pointed criticisms of the Initiative, but in distinction from the stance taken by ISOC and the Just Net Coalition (JNC), does not boycott the Initiative altogether, instead placing a series of conditions on the CSCG’s participation. 

(To complicate things, JNC is itself a CSCG member, but has always had a combative relationship with other civil society groups and networks. Splitting off from Best Bits and the Civil Society Internet Governance Caucus following a closed meeting in New Delhi in February 2014, but often continuing to mount attacks on these groups on public lists, JNC favours UN-based multilateralism in Internet governance, and is critical of multi-stakeholderism which it sees as a mask for neo-liberal hegemony.)

The letter follows:

Dear Virgilio, Richard and Fadi,

As members of the Internet Governance Civil Society Coordination Group (CSCG), we write to express our appreciation for your openness in working with us to negotiate the terms of civil society’s participation in the NETmundial Initiative; in particular, by accommodating our expectation, drawn from the NETmundial Principles, that if we are to participate on the Coordination Council, we should nominate our own representatives.

Since our initial agreement on this principle, we have been consulting with our constituents about whether civil society ought to avail itself of this opportunity at all.  We must say that this has been a difficult question, at the end of which there remain some very significant misgivings across a broad segment of civil society about the merits of our prospective involvement.

Among the underlying concerns of many are that the involvement of the World Economic Forum in the initiative signals an attempt by economic and political elites to secure a central role in Internet governance; that the Initiative has been organised in a top-down manner that privileges its three promoters above other stakeholders; and that devoting time and resources to the Initiative may detract from other processes such as the Internet Governance Forum.

On the other hand, others recognise the opportunity that exists for civil society to help shape the NETmundial Initiative into a mechanism (but not the only mechanism) that can advance the NETmundial roadmap. Despite significant shortcomings in the NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement stemming from influence exerted by powerful actors towards the end of the process, much of the document, including the roadmap, does enjoy broad civil society support.

Our involvement and process

In the end we have decided to facilitate the involvement of those from civil society who do wish to apply for membership of the Coordination Council, while acknowledging others have decided as a matter of principle that they do not wish to be involved—and indeed would rather that civil society did not participate at all. We acknowledge and respect that our colleagues from Just Net Coalition have taken that position and will not be participating with us in this exercise.

The process we have agreed to work with is

  1. At the close of nominations (December 6), CSCG Nomcom will review all nominations for civil society participation and evaluate each candidate’s suitability.
  2. CSCG Nomcom will recommend one candidate per geographic region, and submits names to Transitional Council with reasons.
  3. If necessary, NMI Transitional Council will convene a (virtual) meeting with CSCG Nomcom to discuss any issues arising, with a view to reaching a rough consensus agreement if there are any issues with our nominations. If there is a strong dissenting voice from another area of civil society they may also be invited to participate after discussion.

Conditions and considerations

Although we will work with the NETmundial Initiative’s organising partners to select willing civil society representatives from amongst those who self-nominate through the Initiative’s nomination process, we also outline five simple conditions that we believe representatives are likely to affirm following their appointment to the Coordination Council:

  1. We would like the Co-ordination Council to discuss whether CGI.br, WEF and ICANN should have permanent membership of the Coordination Council and what that implies. Whilst it is acknowledged that the above organisations are jointly funding the operational expenses of the Initiative for its first year, this might not remain so. We are not convinced that funding support is sufficient justification for such a role, and we believe that the full Coordination Council itself should approve any permanent seats and what that implies.
  2. To the extent that a stated objective of the Coordination Council is “promoting the distributed Internet governance model,” we want to point out that the status quo in Internet governance does not represent the fulfilment of this model. The NETmundial Initiative should not be used to legitimise existing inequalities and deficiencies of the present system and should not hold civil society back from advocating necessary reforms.
  3. While we acknowledge the progressive elements of the NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement, it is not the final and definitive statement of Internet governance principles; indeed the Statement itself acknowledges that it is only a work in progress. So we do not see the NETmundial roadmap as an immutable document. We look forward to its refinement and/or augmentation and hope that NMI ensures a bottom up collaborative process to undertake this work.
  4. A key performance indicator for the NETmundial Initiative must be the extent to which its activities strengthen and support the Internet Governance Forum, which remains the most significant global hub for general multi-stakeholder Internet governance policy discussions. If the IGF develops the capacity to assume further activities that currently might not fall within their capabilities, this should be facilitated, not opposed.
  5. We will wish to evaluate from time to time whether this engagement is providing effective and worthwhile results for our constituencies.

We trust that our participation in this Initiative can be accepted with these conditions, and we look forward to working with you to select a balanced, inclusive and capable slate of civil society nominees to join the Coordination Council.

Sincerely,

CSCG Nomcom for NMI Co ordination Council

Participating member coalitions

Association for Progressive Communications, represented by Chat Garcia Ramilo, Deputy Executive Director

Best Bits, represented by Jeremy Malcolm, Steering Committee member

Diplo Foundation, represented by Ginger (Virginia) Paque, Internet Governance Programmes

Internet Governance Caucus, represented by Dr Mawaki Chango, Co-Coordinator

The Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group, (NCSG) represented by Robin Gross, NCSG Executive Committee

Ian Peter, Independent Chair

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.

NETmundial Initiative takes a top-down approach to implementing the NETmundial Principles

Earlier this year, a global meeting called NETmundial was held in Saõ Paulo, Brazil, at which participants collaborated upon a set of norms, or non-binding (sometimes called “soft law”) principles. The NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement that encapsulated these principles was ultimately disappointing. Even so, in some areas it does make some important points (such as that “Rights that people have offline must also be protected online”), and it has been cited as a rough consensus statement of these principles by other influential governance institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council.

The question raised yesterday was, will these NETmundial principles turn out to be “just talk”, like the IGF’s meetings often are, or could they have a real (and hopefully positive) impact on people’s rights and freedoms in the real world? The purpose of the NETmundial Initiative was to make sure that it would be the latter, the hope being expressed that the Initiative could “apply the NETmundial Principles to solve issues in concrete ways”, through a series of activities building upon those principles.

So far, so good. But the execution of the event was a significant departure from the earlier NETmundial meeting in Saõ Paulo with which it shares both its name and a parent in the form of ICANN CEO, Fadi Chehadé (but little else). The Saõ Paulo event was relatively transparent and open to all, from the agenda setting phase through to the drafting, and was executed by a structure of multi-stakeholder committees to which stakeholder groups nominated their own representatives.

The Geneva NETmundial Initiative on the other hand was hosted by the World Economic Forum (WEF), a think-tank of the world’s largest companies. The participants and, from amongst those, the proposed steering committee members, were hand-picked by the organizers rather than being nominated by their own stakeholder groups (as, ironically, the NETmundial Principles set out as a best practice). The agenda was pre-written and released less than two weeks ahead of the meeting, but only after it had already been leaked. As for the meeting itself, much of the time allotted was taken up with closed-door bilateral meetings. In what scant few hours remained for discussion of the WEF’s proposals, little receptivity was shown to those being reopened for discussion, or alternative proposals being entertained.

When civil society representatives took issue with these shortcomings, we were bizarrely accused (here, at 1:15), of being exclusive and elitist for rejecting what the WEF had come to offer. Now, surely nobody will stops the WEF or any other entity, multi-stakeholder or not, from executing initiatives designed to further the NETmundial Principles. But we are entitled to object to what is essentially a pre-cooked, big business initiative (well intentioned as it may be) from co-opting the name of an overtly more inclusive and grassroots-directed Internet governance meeting.

Too often there is a division between Internet governance processes that are truly open, inclusive and transparent on the one hand, and on the other hand those with the potential to actually produce tangible results that make a difference to real people’s lives. Unfortunately the NETmundial Initiative scoping meeting maintains that distinction, in proposing a laudably action-focused agenda to take forward the NETmundial Principles, but by means of a rather closed, top-down and opaque process.

This is an excerpt from Internet Governance and the NETmundial Initiative: A Flawed Attempt at Turning Words into Action published on EFF’s Deeplinks blog.