The retreat from the IGF?

Today an elite group of our peers is being transported to Glen Cove NY for the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) Retreat on the future of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Last year the UN general assembly approved a 10 year future for the IGF. UNDESA the UN designated administrator for the IGF secretariat felt responsible and decided to do something. Decided without an initial consultation with the IGF even though there had been an open consultation that would have been a perfect opportunity.

In many ways this retreat and the way it was organized seems wrong. The IGF, initiated by the UN as a result of an WSIS Tunis Agenda, was supposed to evolve through a bottom-up multistakeholder process (BUMP). Instead the IGF is largely run in a top down manner from the UN. Its secretariat is accountable to UNDESA, not to the IGF Community.  Ten years into the life of one of the Internet’s more visible examples of multistakeholder process, it should have been inconceivable for UNDESA to arrange a retreat without first consulting with the IGF community and the Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) that it had chosen to coordinate and facilitate the work of the IGF. The MAG nominally advises the UN Secretary General, but in general works under UNDESA supervision. The UNSG may pay occasional attention to internet public policy, but the world being what it is, I don’t think he spends much of his time worrying about the IGF.

In 2012 the CSTD Working Group on the IGF gave the IGF a mandate to improve itself, and while the MAG, of which I am currently a member, has made some of the improvements they recommend, mostly it has just tweaked around the edges, not really knowing what it was allowed to do and often timid about deciding what needed to be done.  It has made few reform recommendations to the UNSG. Lately the MAG had started to innovate and had made some inroads into organizing the year round effort that would make the IGF more that a yearly gathering, enabling it to move beyond the talk shop stage. This year, with a new mandate and a new Chair, it was gearing up an effort to tackle the CSTD requirements in becoming a year round organization with genuine output – output that could serve as input to other internet governance organizations: that is, advice – or at least a clue – on relevant internet public policy issues. That was brought to a halt by the retreat.  All of a sudden, once the retreat was announced all discussion of innovation stopped, the work was undercut. The focus became fixed on the mysterious retreat, with people striving to get rooms at the resort, so that they could be in the room where it happens. Everything else about the IGF became secondary. The IGF, after finally being freed to work for the next 10 years without the need for a constant blessing by the UN, was halted by the UN yet again.  Another year lost, wasted on UN intrigue about an retreat on the future, instead of moving ahead with purpose. One year lost out of the precious 10 we had been given.

In some ways, though, it may not be turn out to be the unmitigated disaster I saw when the retreat was first announced.  After the internet community started to complain about the unilateral manner in which UNDESA decided to hold this retreat, UNDESA appeared to listen and took some mincing steps toward a multistakeholder attitude.  They decided to give the various stakeholder groups a chance to pick a few of the retreat participants.  Up until this retreat stakeholders had always submitted names into a black box, and always marveled at the mystery choices that emerged from the UNDESA selection process. For the first time ever, the stakeholders actually got to pick some of their representatives.  This was an ‘innovation’ worthy of celebration; almost made it seem like UNDESA was finally understanding something about the self determination necessary in the form of participatory democracy that is presented by the multistakeholder model; i.e. allowing the non-governmental stakeholders to pick those who would represent their interests – a privilege that has always been accorded the governmental stakeholders. There is further evolution needed in this area, but a start is a good thing

Unfortunately, however, the commitment to openness that has been achieved in the IGF, was not allowed by UNDESA for the retreat.  There will be no streaming of the discussions to be held in Glen Cove.  All discussions will be under Chatham House rule in that while ideas may be later discussed, it must be done without attribution. While there may be documentation of the points made, there will never be a transcript of the discussions.  This is a sad step backwards for the IGF and for meetings related to the IGF.  It yet remains to be seen whether the attendees will be allowed to use twitter during the meetings, though it is understood that some plan to try.  There was a suggestion to allow for an official secretariat based twitter reporter for the meeting, one that could ensure that the Chatham House rule was met while putting out neutral information about the the discussion. This idea was, however, apparently rejected. The return to opacity will make accepting the retreat’s legitimacy a challenge, as the only report will be that done by UNDESA of that which they consider worth reporting.

This retreat marks a fork in the road for the IGF.   The meeting could result in the IGF becoming firmly seated under the velvet glove of the UNDESA, just another of the many efforts within this UN bureaucracy. That is, it could lose its multistakeholder character, and with it its reason for existing at all.   This can happen even if the retreat does not recommend such a course, all it takes is for the normal process of  unchecked growth in UNDESA’s influence over the IGF to continue.  

On the other hand, the retreat could result in the empowerment of the IGF and of the MAG to do the work of improving the IGF as envisaged by the multistakeholder group of the CSTD Working Group on IGF improvements.  The hold that has been put on bottom-up innovation by this retreat could be removed, and though time has been lost, the IGF and MAG could get back to work on building efforts that span from meeting to meeting without interruption.  One of the more disruptive elements of the current IGF, other than this retreat, is that most of the effort is reserved for annual preparation for the yearly meeting, with most everything going into hibernation each year after that meeting, only to be reawakened once the new appointments to the MAG were made by UNDESA many months later. An organization that starts and halts, sleeping a third of each year, can never develop to its full potential. For the IGF to succeed in reaching its potential it needs to be unfettered and to be allowed to develop as a bottom-up organization.

Once upon an time, the IGF was a dream for multistakeholder participation in creating public policy on the Internet.  Today most of the dream is tangled up in UN bureaucracy and the will of those governments who do not wish to see the multistakeholder dream of participatory democracy come true. In the worst case, taking this fork in the road will empower those who hate the multistakeholder model. Will the UN squelch this quest for greater democracy?  And will the UNDESA retreat on the future of the IGF be the tool they need to do so?

In the best case, however, UNDESA may come to value some of what the multistakeholder process is all about and come to value the IGF as an effort worth nurturing, instead of controlling. Perhaps it is time for me to hope for the best case.

 

It could happen.

The myth of the New gTLD bottom up multistakeholder process

The myth of the ongoing gTLD round, often repeated as the reason for ICANN Corporate decisions, is: every thing ICANN Corporate does is  based on the ICANN Bottom Up Multistakeholder Process (BUMP).

Petitioners and appellants are often told that the Application Guide Book (AGB), and the program that ensued, was the product of this ICANN bottom up multistakeholder process. Unfortunately, this is not quite the case. As ICANN now discusses the possibility of power sharing between the ICANN Community and ICANN Corporate in the absence of US National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA) oversight, the New gTLD program – as an example of ICANN’s bottom up multistakeholder process, provides the opportunity for a case study in the evolution of ICANN’s model. Additionally as ICANN starts to move toward possible subsequent gTLD rounds, the community will need to understand the conditions under which the round was run, so that the ICANN policy and implementation processes can be improved.

I do not argue against the value of the New gTLD program. I still believe that we are in the necessary process of creating opportunities for expressive and meaningful domain names that serve global registrants and users. Domain names that can serve communities, and domain names that can serve businesses, institutions and interests of every variety in a multitude of languages and scripts, are a good thing. We are starting to see the early blooms in the domain name garden, though with some Internationalized Domain Name (IDN) bare patches. We are seeing the emergence of new categories and innovative uses for domain names.

I do not blame those in the ICANN Global Domains Division (GDD) who are diligently trying to implement the AGB in all of its complex manifestations. Nor do I suspect them of any ill intent in using the myth of a multistakeholder approved AGB to keep the community in check during the implementation. Many of them joined ICANN Corporate after the AGB had been approved by the ICANN Board. They accepted the given dogma concerning the AGB being the result of a well formed bottom up multistakeholder process. How could they know about its real history? Additionally the leadership was new to the multistakeholder model, and in many cases were just quoting what they had been told without really understanding the multistakeholder environment within which they were situated.

Many parts of the New gTLD process were subject to multistakeholder participation and survived the AGB and the subsequent implementation, relatively unscathed. On the other hand, some important parts of the GNSO recommendations for the program were “bent, spindled and mutilated.” Decisions were made by the Board without GNSO consultation. The staff that developed the multiple versions leading up to the AGB,  largely different from the current GDD staff, frequently rejected the comments made by the GNSO and the rest of the ICANN Community on their Draft Application Guidebook (DAG) revisions. There were many cases in which the principles, recommendations and guidelines of the original GNSO recommendations were ignored. As the process continued and as ICANN staff continue to improvise to meet emerging issues, the GNSO recommendations are rarely, if ever, referred to, quoted or listed as the basis for decisions. Most people are, I expect, unable to even find the GNSO recommendations on the ICANN New gTLD website. Is it unreasonable to expect that the recommendations that are the foundation of the program would remain a visible reference for the program? In a time when the broader Internet community is looking at ICANN accountability and its adherence to bottom up multistakeholder processes, it is important to look at the New gTLD program and the degree to which it has really functioned as a community driven bottom up multistakeholder process.

Yes ICANN is a multistakeholder organization and yes, the New gTLD program had a large component of multistakeholder direction. But in doing the implementation, ICANN Corporate took lots of liberties with the way they interpreted the GNSO policy recommendations, doing so in a manner that occasionally appears incompatible with the spirit of the GNSO recommendations. To list just a few examples:

  • First and foremost the process was supposed to be predictable: “New generic top-level domains (gTLDs) must be introduced in an orderly, timely and predictable way.” Except for the most intense cynics among ICANN watchers, there are few who think the New gTLD program has been predictable. I wonder was this first principle of the New gTLD program ever discussed when changes to the program were being considered? Was this first principle posted on a wall somewhere so that every staff member was working to make sure the program was predictable?
  • Within the GNSO recommendations, it was intended that there be an opportunity for those in contention for similar strings, to negotiate and possibly even change the gTLD under application to a related string,  eliminating contention. The example of 3 applicants for .bear was frequently cited during the policy development process, an example in which after discussion the applicants in contention might have been able to agree on .ursus, .teddy and .gummy. ICANN refused to allow this process into the AGB because it was too hard and might have caused some of the initial evaluation to be re-run. No matter how many comments there were on this issue, ICANN stood firm in its refusal.
  • The GNSO specifically requested that it be possible to have further discussion and re-reviews after the initial string similarity review. This request was rejected by ICANN Corporate. We have seen the continuing confusion and conflict that ensued from this rejection. Many of the confusing similarity issues, such as a string and its plural, should have been re-reviewed, without the need of Requests for Reconsideration, the Independent Review Panel (IRP), and serious anxiety.
  • The GNSO recommended that “There must be a base contract provided to applicants at the beginning of the application process.” While a base contract was provided in the Application Guide Book (AGB), this contract changed over time. Changed even to the extent that it now includes the Board’s unilateral prerogative to change the base contract under certain conditions. It is true, the GNSO did not specifically say that it could not be a draft base contract subject to change. But was that in the spirit of the recommendation?
  • The program that was recommended to the Board specifically excluded lists of reserved geographical names. The Board unilaterally decided to add these anyway. The process was to be completely one of dispute resolution, including action by the GAC in respect to country and city names.
  • The program that was presented to the Board by the GNSO was designed to protect vulnerable communities and domain names that were applicable to those communities. Instead of creating a program that supported and protected communities as discussed in the creation of the GNSO recommendations, ICANN Corporate created a gauntlet where many community applications were subjected to death by a thousand cuts.

Today there are few if any satisfactory methods within ICANN by which to redress these and the other deviations from the multistakeholder recommendations for the project. While the NTIA sits in oversight of ICANN, it does not interfere in its day to day operations; NTIA did not act in this oversight role to correct any of this behavior. At least not yet. One of the Affirmation of Commitments (AOC) reviews will soon be dedicated to New gTLD program considerations. The AOC review on Promoting Competition, Consumer Trust, and Consumer Choice (CCT), scheduled to begin in October 2015, includes the following: “ICANN will organize a review that will examine the extent to which the introduction or expansion of gTLDs has promoted competition, consumer trust and consumer choice, as well as effectiveness of (a) the application and evaluation process.“ 

Following that AOC CCT review, when it became time to renew the IANA contract, the ICANN renewal by NTIA could have, and perhaps should have, considered the report of the yet to be initiated AOC review. It is unimaginable, to me at least, that the convergence or divergence among the GNSO recommendations, the AGB and the implementation of the New gTLD program , would not have been significant in the AOC review of New gTLD program, or in the NTIA evaluation of ICANN’s accountability. While the 2015 renewal would have been too soon for such a review, certainly by 2017 or 2019 it would have been available. As the IANA transition may have occurred by then, it may be the ICANN Community that will need to decide on other redress mechanisms for any accountability issues found in the New gTLD program – Uncle Sam will no longer be looking over ICANN’s shoulder to insure that the right things happen, though the US will remain a part of the community as a member of the  ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC). Will the ICANN Community have the ability to do anything about it? With the Community Powers defined in the Cross Community Working Group’s (CCWG) Accountability plan, it may be possible. 

In the CCWG Accountability process, much has been said about Trust. Not trust in any of the particular directors or staff members, but in ICANN Corporate’s ability to live up to the multistakeholder expectations of the ICANN Community. As it was, the implementation of the New gTLD program has been as responsible as any other program at ICANN for engendering the unease and distrust that many express toward ICANN.

While ICANN has a strong multistakeholder tradition, it is one that is still evolving, and it is one where ICANN Corporate has an ability to go around the community’s policy recommendations when they feel it is necessary. This is one of the reasons that with the transition away from US NTIA external oversight and its power to remove the IANA contract from a flawed organization, the CCWG proposed strengthening the commitment to internal oversight. It is a reason why  the CCWG proposed formalizing power sharing between the ICANN Community and ICANN Corporate. It is expected that the community would be able to ensure that such a gap between the multistakeholder recommendations and the ensuing program does not happen this way again. ICANN’s bottom up multistakeholder system has a lot to recommend it. This note has focused on just one of the problems to which it is vulnerable.

Multistakeholderism is not difficult to define,

The study and practice of forms of participatory democracy that allow for all those who have a stake and who have the inclination, to participate on equal footing in the deliberation of issues and the recommendation of solutions. While final decisions and implementation may be assigned to a single stakeholder group, these decision makers are always accountable to all of the stakeholders for their decisions and the implementations.

It is just hard to live up to.

 

 

Public Interest and multistakeholderism

One of the critical issues is the public interest.  What is it?  Who knows?  Who determines?

How are the many interest of the public  brought into a common public interest?

Many say they are working on it.  Some say it is their responsibility.  Others say it can’t be known and thus doesn’t exist.

It can be known. A primary advantage of multistakeholder models is the ability to find the public interest.  These processes. when allowed to run toward an outcome, produce a snapshot of the aggregated public’s view of its interest at a moment in time.  Often that can be a coordinated and balanced view.

Some argue that in Multistakeholder outcomes, only the intersts of the strongest are served.  This is not the case, though the strongest usually do better than others.

There are may types of strength.  Different actors are strongest at different times.  Also the strongest do not get everything in a multistakeholder process, everybody gets something in relation to their strength.

An example of this is NETMundial 2014, whose outcome document had something for every group, leaving every group irritated at how other groups had done.

 

This site is part of my process of writing on Multistakeholder models.  My original intention was to write a book, but instead I have been writing articles and contributions to ongoing multistakeholder processes.  Maybe a book will emerge someday, but in the meantime I would like to share what I have been writing in a coherent (hopefully) manner. 

Conceptually multistakeholder models are being discussed in many fora and arenas.  In addition to my own work, I will collect pointers to other work on this subject.  I hope to create a site that is useful to all students and practitioners involved in multistakeholder models.

Models for Participatory Democracy

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,662 other followers