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.

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