Date: 13/5/2009 9:36 pm
The biggest bombshell out of yesterday's open consultation meeting came from China:
We feel that the IGF has contributed a great deal in light of its historic mandate. ... But it's not enough for developing countries who don't have enough resources and don't have the capacities to participate in this kind of dialogue without further commitments being made, which is why the points of view of developing countries, especially when it comes to Internet governance, ... are not sufficiently reflected in our discussions, which is why we don't agree that the IGF should continue its mandate after the five years are up.
So we repeat that the delegation of China does not agree with extending the mission of the IGF beyond the five years. We feel that after the five years are up, we would need to look at the results that have been achieved. And we need, then, to launch into an intergovernmental discussion.
Whilst this may seem a dramatic development, being the first high profile defection from what is usually a very sycophantic group, actually China should be congratulated for its frankness. Other stakeholders have long shown the same intent to do away with the IGF - only their tactics have been less direct.
Coming closest to China's frankness has been the ITU, which last November notoriously described the IGF as a "bit of a waste of time" and has been pushing its own World Telecommunications Policy Forum
(WTPF) as a rival forum. But more insidious are those such as Commissioner Vivian Reding of the EU, who do not propose to disband the IGF, but to disempower it as an institution, whilst shifting power into other, less representative bodies.
Reding this month called for the creation of "a multilateral forum available for governments to discuss general internet governance policy issues", which she termed a "G-12 for Internet Governance," signalling a reversal in the EU's commitment made in paragraph 48 of the WSIS Declaration of Principles to discuss such issues on a multi-stakeholder, not merely a multilateral basis.
Were Reding (and China, and the ITU) alone in their intransigence, the long-term failure of the IGF might not seem so assured. But it has long been evident that the other powerful incumbents in Internet governance - including not only the United States but also the US-dominated private sector (Tech America and ICC/BASIS) and technical community (ICANN) are singing the same tune - just more diplomatically. They may not call for the IGF to be dissolved, but they are happy for it to fade away - at least in terms of its policy advisory role.
Now, it could be argued that China is right. Underneath all the platitudes in the Secretariat's synthesis paper on the desirability of the continuation of the IGF
runs an undercurrent of feeling that the IGF has failed to meet expectations. Even Bill Graham of ISOC acknowledged at yesterday's meeting that "a large number of our respondents found that the forum has not yet had a direct impact on their governments or their institutions."
So, since governments are really only committed in developing Internet governance policy amongst themselves, it may be better to terminate the IGF in its present form, than to allow it to continue as an ineffectual parody of what it was meant to be.
True, it's just a shame that China had to be the stakeholder to make this bold point, since its motivations are transparently undemocratic - it was, for example, the only stakeholder at yesterday's meeting to openly oppose the inclusion of Internet rights and principles as theme for an IGF main session.
But from whichever source the realisation comes, given that the WSIS dream of a new consensual model of multi-stakeholder engagement in policy development has failed, it may be that we have to bite that bullet and fall back on the ugly alternative of agnonism - the recognition that the engagement of governments and civil society in global politics is inherently dialectical and conflictual, and that they will never truly deliberate as equals.
This might not even be such a bad thing. It need not in fact spell the death of the IGF, but rather its rebirth; as it would free the institution to make a clean break from its stifling Secretariat and the United Nations system generally. It could instead reconstitute itself as an independent private international institution much like ICANN itself, that would seek to participate on an equal footing in whatever institutions hold real power in Internet governance in the future, perhaps including Reding's new G-12 (or IG20, as Wolfgang Kleinwaechter had presaged it).
Do I, then, now advocate that the IGF's mandate not be renewed? Not quite. Perhaps I am an incurable optimist (though this post might not suggest that), but I do still sense that there may be enough goodwill amongst its stakeholders to push the IGF to greater things.
As previous posts have illustrated, even Nitin Desai is starting to seize this vision; talking yesterday of how the IGF should "give a certain preference to a group of workshops which say, 'Yes, we all talked about this, but we then came together, and we have a common statement which we would like to present to the plenary.'" - exactly one of the most important features that the IGF lacks at present.
Another positive perspective expressed yesterday by a governmental representative (admittedly, not a typical one) came from Bertrand de la Chapelle, who addressed the concern about the merger of workshops in saying:
I think the danger we have is to continue on some topics with the silo approach where one workshop addresses one component or one angle and the other workshop addresses something else, maybe a completely opposite view and they never are forced to interact. So it is not a forced marriage, it's forced interaction maybe.
So whilst the IGF may not have achieved its mandate yet, there are yet signs that it still might come to do so in the future - though it might take another five years, or ten, or fifty. Whilst new institutions such as the G-12 may rise alongside it in the meantime, I have faith that in an era that now demands and expects multi-stakeholder engagement, their exclusivity will be their eventual undoing, and that the IGF, in some form, will remain.