Why not scrap the UN IGF?

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Why not scrap the UN IGF?
User: terminus
Date: 20/11/2009 2:14 am
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Now, don't get me wrong. I've written to express my support for the continuation of the IGF's five-year mandate. So rather than scrap the IGF, I'd much prefer that it take on board the suggestions that I and others have made - for example, that it form working groups to produce recommendations for the consideration of the broader IGF, and release output documents that reflect the IGF's consensus (or lack thereof) on such recommendations, that the main sessions be more deliberative, and that participation in them not be fractured by too many redundant parallel workshops. Such suggestions have been made not only by me, but by others from civil society (IT for Change, APC) and even some governments (Brazil, France) in Sharm el Sheikh. And in Hyderabad. And in Rio. And in Athens.

But how often do we have to keep making the same suggestions over and over again, before we realise that the IGF is never going to adopt them, because its Secretariat is unaccountable and too hidebound by United Nations protocol, and the MAG has been captured by powerful incumbents?

This year, the problems of an IGF situated within the United Nations have really come to a head. First came the censorship of a poster referring to China's Internet filtering programme, through the discriminatory application of a heretofore dead letter "no posters" policy. Then the gagging of communications during the host country's honorary session on the final day. Finally, Rebecca MacKinnon related how

I and the other panelists have been told very clearly by people in charge that we can't mention specific U.N. member countries, and we're discouraged from "naming and shaming" any other kinds of specific entities as well.

This led to Rebecca being forced to use such ridiculous circumlocutions in her session as "a certain company was required to suspend its social networking services in a certain country because...".

In contrast, delegates freely discussed China's Internet filtering practices at the first IGF in Athens, when a Chinese delegate who denied from the floor that any such practices existed was rightfully met with laughter. So, rather than improving over time as one might expect, openness at the IGF is actually on the decline. Was open discussion then just a creative experiment, to be abandoned along the way once the Secretariat decided it wasn't working out?

Further evidence of this worrying trend came in the selection of speakers for the Taking Stock session on the final day, which was taken out of the hands of the Multistakeholder Advisory Group (which is at least notionally accountable to those who nominate its members), and reserved to the Secretariat itself, who chose mostly speakers from within a closed circle of insiders. (According to a reliable contact, a civil society leader - not from the MAG - was privately approached to help select civil society speakers, but given strict guidelines to follow and made aware that the Secretariat held the right of veto.)

So there are serious systemic issues with the IGF's Secretariat being maintained within the United Nations. True, the idea of moving the Secretariat has recently been raised - but only ever within, not outside, the UN system. For example, Brazil suggested the Secretariat could be moved either to the ITU (which would be a disaster, as that institution has always been hostile to civil society participation), or ECOSOC (but ECOSOC hasn't stepped up to the crease). To forestall these suggestions, the Civil Society Internet Governance Caucus (IGC) was compelled in the Taking Stock session to express unreserved support for the IGF Secretariat, despite its manifest flaws.

In this context, as taboo as the suggestion may be, removing the Secretariat from the United Nations altogether is becoming an increasingly attractive option. After all, the IGF as it is exists now owes most of its deficiencies, and few of its strengths, to its link with the United Nations. And whilst it may seem like a radical suggestion now, it should be remembered that an IGF situated outside the United Nations system was the option that civil society (through the IGC) supported only a few short years ago in its response to the WGIG report.

Let's deal with the inevitable objections, one by one:

  • You're abandoning multi-stakeholderism. Not really. ICANN is a non-governmental forum, yet aims to practice multi-stakeholderism. Anyway, multi-stakeholderism is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end of increasing the inclusiveness (and therefore the democratic legitimacy and effectiveness) of governance processes. If civil society still hasn't achieved meaningful participation in these processes through the IGF as it exists, and has no reasonable prospect of doing so, then we lose nothing by moving on from this failed experiment in multi-stakeholderism and experimenting anew.

  • Taking the IGF out of the United Nations system will scare governments away. Maybe, maybe not. Since the IGF has already developed a degree of social capital during its current incarnation as a multi-stakeholder discussion forum, many governments are likely to stick with it even if it moves outside the UN system.

    But even if governments do jump ship, how much difference will it make? The IGF is already dominated by civil society, and the relatively few governmental delegates who do attend tend to be low-level bureaucrats with little or no influence on government policy back home.
  • The IGF would have less influence within other institutions if it left the UN. Less than it has now, you mean? That scarcely seems possible. Besides, non-governmental policy fora can still be influential within governmental decision-making processes. For example, the Mine Ban Treaty and the Disability Convention were prepared largely at the initiation and with the integral involvement of civil society. Current examples include the proposed Treaty for the Blind and Visually Impaired now before WIPO, which was drafted by the World Blind Union, and this month's civil society-initiated Barcelona Charter for Innovation, Creativity and Access to Knowledge which has received support from a Brazilian government ministry and from European Parliamentarians.
  • The UN is the only appropriate home for the IGF. Why? It is also the only appropriate home for ICANN? Or the WTO? The United Nations represents nation states, but it doesn't represent transnational civil society or the private sector. You can't simultaneously advance the cause of multi-stakeholderism whilst elevating the United Nations as the only legitimate transnational public policy forum.
  • The private sector objects just as strongly as some governments do to the IGF making policy recommendations. At the moment that's true. But the private sector is far more adaptable than governments participating through the UN have proved to be. Consider that the private sector and technical community originally vehemently opposed the establishment of the IGF at all, yet now claim to be amongst its strongest supporters. Civil society and the private sector also have a long record of pragmatically working together in other Internet governance institutions such as ICANN, the IETF and the RIRs, from which governments continue to remain aloof.

    It is no coincidence that most of the policy fora formed since the IGF's first few faltering meetings have been limited either to governments (eg. IMPACT, ACTA) or to the private sector and civil society (eg. the Global Network Initiative, or GNI). The GNI has even stated publicly that its exclusion of governments was a conscious decision made to ensure that it could develop policy quickly and effectively.

So, do I really propose that the IGF's mandate from the United Nations should end? For now, no I don't - it is still a convenient starting point for some day building the multi-stakeholder governance forum that we were promised in the Tunis Agenda, as slow and frustrating as that process is proving.

Having said that, in the unlikely case that its mandate is not renewed, I don't think that this spells the end for the Internet Governance Forum by any means. In fact, breaking free of the shackles of the United Nations may be the best thing that ever happened to it.

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