IGF’s synthesis paper released

The synthesis paper summarizing the substantive contributions made earlier in the year for the Athens meeting of the IGF has just been released (warning: proprietary document format). It is required reading for anyone attending the meeting or intending to be involved in it remotely. The 16 page report (excluding annexures which take it to 22 pages) divides into four main sections:

  • An introduction which surveys the brief history of the IGF;
  • General aspects which covers the nature of Internet governance and the role of the IGF;
  • Coverage of the four broad themes of openness, security, diversity and access selected for the first meeting; and
  • Institutional aspects, which covers issues of procedure and structure.

Overall, the Secretariat has done a good job putting this document together, without manufacturing consensus where none exists (for example acknowledging that there was “no common understanding on how these [intellectual property] rules should be shaped to protect the openness of the Internet and the free flow of information”). I am also pleased that they characterised mine as “a widely held view that the IGF could learn from technical bodies already involved in Internet governance, such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), with regard to collaborative governance and decision-making and deliberative democracy”, though nothing else was said of my contribution. What remains unsettled is how the agreement on the various views set out in the synthesis paper might be reached in Athens, since it does not yet have an appropriate structure within which for such decisions to be made. That should be the IGF’s most urgent priority.

Lessons for the Internet Governance Forum from the IETF

As Antonios Broumas has correctly observed, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) begins life in Athens next week without the means for its participants to agree upon any substantive documents such as resolutions or declarations. Indeed, according to Nitin Desai, the Chairman of its Advisory Group, it is impossible for the IGF to make any decisions, as it “is not a decision-making body. We have no members so we have no power to make decision.” Instead, the only agenda for action that the IGF’s Web site suggests may follow from the first meeting is the emergence of “dynamic coalitions”, which are described as “a group of institutions or people who agree to pursue an initiative started at the inaugural IGF meeting”. However for the IGF to abdicate responsibility for the substantive work of Internet governance in favour of amorphous external coalitions is to reduce the breadth of its mandate. Whilst the closest thing to a constitutional document for the IGF, the Tunis Agenda, does state in paragraph 77 that the IGF is to be a non-binding process, there is a considerable difference between making decisions, and making binding decisions. “Soft-law” documents such as codes, resolutions, declarations, and even model laws, are by nature non-binding. There is therefore nothing to prevent a body that lacks legal authority from developing such documents; if they are well considered and reflect a broad consensus, that body’s stakeholders will tend to adopt them into their own practice, policy or law. If they are not, they will not be. Not only is this commonplace in the development of international (public) and transnational (private) law, it also reflects the way in which Internet standards are developed within the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The Internet Standards Process set out in RFC 2026 provides that an Internet standard is a “specification for which significant implementation and successful operational experience has been obtained” and which “is characterized by a high degree of technical maturity and by a generally held belief that the specified protocol or service provides significant benefit to the Internet community”. Yet it has no binding force; its only force lies in the consensus that has been built up surrounding its suitability as a standard. Although this addresses the objection that the IGF cannot make decisions because its process is required to be non-binding, Nitin Desai in the passage quoted above isolated a second problem in the fact that the IGF “has no members”. This is a question of semantics though, as it could equally be said that the IGF has as many members as wish to participate in it. There are estimated to be over 1000, from government, the private sector, civil society and intergovernmental organisations, attending its first meeting in Athens. But however the IGF’s membership (or lack thereof) is characterised, is Desai correct in identifying it as a problem? If it were a problem, it would be one that equally affected the IETF, as it is structured in the same way. The closest thing to “membership” of the IETF is participation on its mailing lists. And yet the IETF’s experience shows that the lack of a definite membership does not preclude it from making decisions. What it does do is to determine the manner in which those decisions are made. Specifically, it precludes the use of voting, in favour of the use of consensus (“rough consensus”, in the IETF’s case). There is no reason why the IGF could not reach decisions by the same principle. But this raises the final of three problems with the IGF’s capacity to make decisions, and the most valid. As observed by Antonios Broumas in the article mentioned at the beginning of this story, it is simply not structured in such a way as to allow it to do so. There is an Advisory Council, yes (chosen by the UN-appointed Secretariat), but the IGF is otherwise just a series of meetings; four main plenary sessions on the themes of openness, security, diversity and access, and a number of smaller workshops. In comparison, the IETF is divided into eight technical Areas: Applications, General, Internet, Operations and Management, Real-time Applications and Infrastructure, Routing, Security, and Transport. Within each of the Areas are numerous Working Groups established to work on specific projects, usually the development of specifications for a proposed Internet standard. Each Working Group has a Chair, and may have a number of subcommittees known as “design teams” which often perform the bulk of the work in drawing up the specification. Other bodies involved in Internet governance such as the W3C and the ITU, are structured in a similar manner. To facilitate its ability to make decisions, there is no reason (except political) why Working Groups of the IGF could not also be established to focus on particular issue areas, such as for example spam, privacy and interconnection costs. Much as occurs within the IETF, the conclusion of a successful workshop should be a precondition to the formation of such a Working Group, and its formation could be subject to approval of the Advisory Council and ratification of the IGF as a whole. Compare this again to the IGF Secretariat’s conception of the most likely venue for substantive action arising out of the IGF’s first meeting: “dynamic coalitions”. Whilst the IGF may not have a defined membership capable of making decisions by vote, the composition of a dynamic coalition carries far less guarantee of being representative. Additionally, whereas a formal Working Group can be made accountable to the IGF and be required to conduct its affairs with transparency, an informal dynamic coalition is subject to no such safeguards. So of three reasons why it might have been said that the IGF cannot make decisions, only one has been found to be compelling; the lack of a Working Group structure within which for decisions to be made. And that is not so much a reason, as a choice. If there is sufficient will amongst the stakeholders of the IGF that it should have the power to draft soft-law instruments such as resolutions and declarations by consensus, then there is nothing in its mandate that prevents it from doing so. All that stands in the way of an IGF that is effective in developing public policy for the Internet, rather than just discussing it, is the political will needed amongst its stakeholders to create the appropriate Working Group structures needed for it to do so. It follows that the IGF should not be too quick to abdicate its responsibility to unrepresentative and unaccountable “dynamic coalitions”. Instead, it would do well to consider some of the lessons that it could learn from the most successful body that has been engaged in Internet governance over the past twenty years; the IETF.

Reform of the Internet Governance Forum

An excerpt from my forthcoming five minute video presentation to the IGF:

So what needs to be done to address these problems of legitimacy and effectiveness? Here’s an organisation chart that provides some ideas.

There are five main institutions represented here. The IGF means the forum sitting in plenary, as it does in the main sessions at Athens. The Secretariat and the Advisory Council exist already, though they will need to undertake some changes that I’ll make reference to shortly. But we’ll spend most time looking at the two new institutions that I propose; the Working Groups, and the Nominations Committee.

The Working Groups will be composed of any members of the IGF who wish to focus on a particular issue area. This is similar to what workshops do now, but workshops aren’t designed to exist for the long-term, nor necessarily to produce any tangible output. Working Groups will, and they will need to structure themselves to facilitate that, by appointing a chair and establishing facilities to work together on-line as well as at annual IGF meetings.

The Nominations Committee on the other hand has the sole purpose of deciding who should be appointed to the Advisory Council, appointing them for two-year terms. Any member of the IGF who wishes to volunteer to work on the Nominations Committee should be permitted to do so.

You will notice that the IGF is not at the bottom of the chart but at the top. This is because the IGF as a whole should have the final say on any decisions made by its subsidiary bodies, such as the decision of the Advisory Council to approve a new Working Group, or the proposal of a Working Group to put forward a particular code or resolution.

Now it is true that the IGF as a whole does not have a defined membership, and that is represented by the cloud-like shape in the diagram. It is for that reason that both the IGF, the Working Groups, and the Nominations Committee, should make decisions by consensus rather than by voting. This is because consensus does not require proportionally equal representation among the stakeholder groups.

In fact many bodies already involved in Internet governance, including the Internet Engineering Taskforce (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) operate in a very similar manner; the IETF using the phrase “rough consensus” to denote that unanimity is not required.

The Advisory Council is a little different. Because the Nominations Committee can ensure that there is equal representation on the Council from each of the stakeholder groups, it can fall back to voting if it is unable to reach consensus. However aiming for consensus is still important to ensure that the various stakeholder groups do actively collaborate rather than just pursuing their own narrow interests.

Having a multi-stakeholder Nominations Committee determine the composition of the Advisory Council will also allow us to make it smaller and more efficient, because its legitimacy is not derived from a claim to be representative on its own account, but rather from the consensus of all stakeholders. Being accountable to the Nominations Committee, and thence to the IGF at large, will also force the Advisory Council to make its operations more transparent, bringing its discussions out from behind closed doors and private mailing lists.

Secretariat scales down its promises

Quietly (because the relevant page of the Web site still claims to have been last updated 31 July 2006), the IGF Secretariat has been backing away from some of its commitments about facilities to be made available at the meeting in Athens. Most notably it seems to have recanted on plans to facilitate the recording of five-minute statements at the IGF meeting to be played around the venue in a loop. It now seems to expect participants to record their own statements, saying that they “are encouraged to provide these statements both in video (specification: mpeg4 format) and in written document form”, with no longer any mention of them being played at the venue. Further, it is now merely “hoped that volunteers will monitor IM channels and will serve as proxies for the remote participants in making interventions”, rather than as before stating that official IM channels would be defined and monitored. Well, I’ll be doing so, via the IGF Community Site that Kieren McCarthy and I have put together, but what if I wasn’t? In fact, since it kicked off discussion on remote participation, the Secretariat have taken no action on the suggestions made, and have apparently ceded control over remote participation to myself and Kieren. There isn’t even a mailing list for IGF attendees (the closed and hidden IGF Members mailing list is for the Secretariat and the Advisory Group only). Is that too much to ask?

GigaNet slides available

I have just published the slides of my presentation to GigaNet titled ““The Sovereign Right of States”: Why Multi-Stakeholder Policy Development is Possible and Necessary” (which are still worth reading if you’ve read my proposal of the same name, as they’re quite different). You can view them online, or download the source in OpenDocument format, licensed under the same terms as this site.

A brief excerpt to whet your appetite:

How is the IGF doing?

  • The Advisory Council lacks legitimacy
    • Its appointment process was not transparent
    • Decisions are made on a closed mailing list
    • Democratic or consensual accountability is absent
  • The format of the meeting lacks effectiveness
    • Structured as a conference not an organisation
    • No procedures for building consensus
    • Remote participants not treated equally

What needs to be done?

  • The Advisory Council should be reformed
    • It should be smaller and more transparent
    • An open, multi-stakeholder Nominations Committee should appoint its members for two year terms
  • New structures are needed within the IGF
    • Workshops should evolve into Working Groups
    • Formed or dissolved on application to the Council
    • IGF in plenary ratifies this and their output

I have also finished half of Chapter 4 of my thesis on “Collaborative decision-making”, which is the last of it I’ll be able to finish before the IGF meets. You can also read that online or download it, but remember to stop reading after section 4.2 titled “Authoritarian” (ie. before you get to section 4.3 “Democratic”), because that’s the last section that’s finished.

(Oh, there are problems with the references in the downloadable versions of the thesis at the moment. I’m working on it and it will be fixed real soon now.)

IGF workshops

The workshops of the IGF will, unhelpfully, be held at the same time as the main plenary sessions. A much better format would have been like that of APRICOT, in which workshops are held in the days prior to the main conference. But this was another of those decisions made between the Secretariat and the Advisory Group that the rest of us weren’t consulted about and had no say in. There is a significant overlap between a lot of the workshops, which is hardly surprising given that the process by which proposals were submitted was a closed one. If workshop proposals had been developed in a collaborative online process, it would have been possible to consolidate many of them and to schedule them outside the times of the main sessions. (Calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean.) The timetable of workshops has recently been released (how recently I’m not sure – like most updates to the IGF Web site, this one wasn’t included in its rather useless and broken RSS feed). So I have had to decide which sessions to attend, and these are my choices:

Monday, 30 October

15:00 – 18:00 Multistakeholder Policy Dialogue – Setting the Scene A no-brainer, as it’s the only session held that day. Incidentally, the most important one, so thank God they didn’t schedule it against Free Expression or something.

Tuesday, 31 October

10:00 – 11:30 Openness It goes longer, but I’ll probably only be able to stick around for the first ninety minutes of this plenary session on freedom of expression, free flow of information, ideas and knowledge. 11:30 – 13:00 Participation This is one of the big ones, with ICANN, ISOC and representatives of the RIRs and ccTLDs on board. 13:30 – 15:00 IG for Participation A similar topic but from an entirely different angle, and a greater focus on development. It is run by CONGO, whose members include many large NGOs but none with much clue about the Internet. 15:00 – 17:30 – Security Back to the plenary sessions again, to catch most of this session on creating trust and confidence through collaboration. 17:30 – 19:00 – Enhancing Multi-stakeholder Participation in ICT Policy Making Wrapping up with the private-sector’s take on the whole governance issue. I’m not sure I’ll agree with everything they say, but I’ll be interested to hear them say it. Uh, and some time around here I’m also going to eat and sleep.

Wednesday, 1 November

9:30 – 11:00 – Legal Aspects Probably the second most-relevant workshop to my thesis, this sesssion will discuss the reach of various levels of legal system in addressing Internet-related issues. 11:30 – 13:00 – Human Rights and the Internet This session is run by the Council of Europe, which nowadays mainly functions as a human rights watchdog, and its subtitle is “How anonymous can and should we be?” 13:30 – 15:00 – The Internet Bill of Rights Eben Moglen is lined up for this one, so I can’t wait. I saw him before at linux.conf.au, and he received a thunderous standing ovation there. 15:30 – 17:00 – Free flow of information in cyberspace UNESCO is hosting this presentation themed on freedom and openness of Internet communications. 17:30 – 19:00 – Building meaningful participation More of the same from yesterday, but this time co-hosted by the Canadian government. It seems that “multi-stakeholder” means that each stakeholder group hosts their own separate workshops on exactly the same topic. Way to go.

Thursday, 2 November

9:30 – 10:00 – Open Standards It is most frustrating that I will only be able to catch the first half-hour of this session organised by Sun and the W3C, amongst others. 10:00 – 11:30 – Conclusions and the Way Forward I could hardly miss the closing session, giving a summary and assessment of the first meeting and discussing plans for the next one in Rio. (No, you didn’t miss anything; there was no announcement or discussion of the decision that the second meeting would be held in 2007 in Rio. Say after me, “the Secretariat knows best”.) Hopefully they’ll be well into self-congratulatory back-slapping by the time I leave this session early for the next one. 11:30 – 13:00 – Intellectuals in the IGF Policy Process Subtitled “From knowledge to results”, this one is also very relevant to my thesis. David Clark will be there, which should be good. 15:00 – 17:00 – Emerging Issues A token panel of young people will be speaking at this one. Congratulations. Make sure there are no caucasians, though. And put them in wheelchairs.

The IGF’s Drupal site

Kieren McCarthy and I have put together a Drupal site for the IGF which will provide a semi-official site for remote participants to involve themselves in the activities of the Internet Governance Forum through chat, polls, blogs and discussion boards. On the one hand I think it is great that the Secretariat seem to be willing to allow the community to pitch in to build participation fora for the IGF that otherwise probably wouldn’t exist. On the other hand I find it slightly scary that it should be entrusted to a freelance IT journalist and an IT lawyer (well, student now). On another note, Drupal is really impressive. I’ve been using WebGUI before, because I’m a Perl person rather than a PHP person, but Drupal seems much more logical and easy to administer, if a little less customisable out of the box.

The Plaza is back on again

Good news: it seems that the Plaza hasn’t been cancelled after all, only scaled down to what it should have been at first, and made free! In a message received this morning, George Sadowski who is chair of ICANN’s Nomcom, indicated that he and a colleague had assumed responsibility for the event. He writes:

My sense is that the Plaza will consist of a number of tables, each with several chairs, that can be used by people wishing to display projects, ideas, themes or organizations as long as the purpose is directly connected with Internet governance. … At this moment, we believe that there will be no cost to the participants using the tables, and that the host committee will pay whatever costs are associated with the Plaza.

I’d better get to work on my display.

Civil Society Governance Caucus chartered

The Civil Society Internet Governance Caucus is the evolution of a peak body of civil society seeking to be involved in Internet governance, that first came together at the WSIS. Less than a month short of the IGF, voting on the Governance Caucus’ charter has just closed, with the following results: The charter was accepted with a vote of:

  • 56 votes for
  • 3 votes against

Voting style was determined as being open with the opportunity for the coordinators to close a vote, subject to appeal:

  • 19 for Secret ballots
  • 30 for Open ballots

Regarding the method of selecting the Appeals Team:

  • 35 in favor of using a Nomcom
  • 9 in favor of voting

Regarding the method of selecting nominees to other bodies:

  • 34 in favor of using a nomcom
  • 10 in favor of voting

The charter is well worth a read. Although I demur at the suggestion that civil society necessarily constitutes only “progressive” groups and actors – this is too prescriptive – I think that the Caucus has otherwise gotten most everything right, and will be interested to see where it goes from here.

In other news, my presentation for the GigaNet conference has been accepted, so I suppose that I had better start writing it.

Web accessibility does not mean a site needs to be plain.

As a Web developer, part of my job is to understand what a Web site says to its visitors. Does the design attract the target audience; that kind of thing. I’ve just been browsing through the Internet Governance Forum’s Web site for the first time, and was presented with an impression that the site was there purely because there needed to be a site that made such information available, but didn’t really want to attract attention. Given the subject matter, I suspect this is not supposed to be the impression drawn from the site. If the IGF were serious about a setting up a framework where anyone can contribute, it needs to have a site – which is likely the first point of contact for a lot of people – that tells visitors they are serious about what they’re doing, not just with words, and also create a design that attracts people to want to come back – and not just people who have to be there for whatever reason. A bland white/grey/black site that looks like it was designed by someone with minimal HTML knowledge is not the way. For goodness sake, at least have a consistent menu on each page! I think it’s great that they have an accessibility note at the bottom of the home page that states:

“This Web site aims to promote the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). It tries to meet the highest standards set by the W3C. Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can use the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web.”

However, this accessibility does not mean the design needs to resort to the lowest common denominator. If I thought my input would actually be listened to, I might first suggest that the site needs more colour. As Kieran points out on the IGF’s discussion forum, “I can’t go on enough about how much more people interact with websites if they are colourful.” Even what could be considered a very basic design such as the one on this IGF Watch site would attract more visitors than what currently exists. As was also pointed out to me, the “NEW” news posts on the home page are not published in any particular order. One standard that is often adopted when posting news or updates on a Web site is that it is published in reverse chronological order. This is to enable visitors to scroll down the page only as far as the last entry they read, and to know what is most current. I would also like to see in the menu a link to the discussion forum. One advantage to a consistent menu (such as having an external php file that spits out the same menu on each page) is that you only need to change one file, not multiple, when a new menu item is required.