After the IGF 2013 – Bali barely relevant in the run-up to Rio

// CGCS Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Ben Wagner discusses the Internet Governance Forum 2013’s relevance in the changing world of Internet Governance.

I’ve recently joined CGCS as a post-doctoral research fellow, and am currently working on a new CGCS project called the Internet Policy Observatory, a research program developed to analyse the dynamic technological and political contexts in which Internet developments and governance decisions take place.  Busy with the preoccupations of relocating across the Atlantic to begin work at Annenberg, I had to miss the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) 2013 in Bali. As I’ve attended every IGF since 2008, I found myself wondering what I had missed.

I’ve spent a lot of time and effort in the last few years in and around the IGF and from 2009 to 2012, running a ‘Dynamic Coalition,’ something like a working group at the IGF on Freedom of Expression and Freedom of the Media. The dynamic coalition brought together a colourful mix of individuals from civil society, business and government working on issues related to Freedom of Expression. In 2009 and 2010, some of our best years, speakers at our meetings included U.N. Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue, the Swedish Foreign Ministry speaking as Chair of the EU delegation and Sami Ben Gharbia of Nawaat.

This year I’ve been stuck to (mostly broken) remote participation, the transcripts on the IGF website and the interesting analysis of various commentators. What is notable at the IGF in 2013 is how little the Internet Governance Forum and the associated ‘IGF/Internet policy crowd’ have noticed the slow descent of the IGF as a forum.  While the Chinese United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs Wu Hongbo might claim that the IGF is the “premier multi-stakeholder forum for policy dialogue related to Internet governance issues,” in the discourse surrounding the IGF online, everyone else, including the Chinese government, is trying to reinvent, marginalize or remove the IGF.

The IGF was initiated as a hopeful compromise developed during the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) in 2005. It was meant to anchor multi-stakeholder governance at an international level without conceding too much power to other international actors such as the U.N. or the ITU. Since then it has slowly been replaced by other venues that are increasingly more relevant and more interesting for key stakeholders. As ‘internet policy’ and ‘internet governance’ have increasingly become appealing research topics to academics and policymakers throughout the past few years,  new conveners, focusing on specific issues, have emerged to compete for a piece of this growing ‘Internet conference’ market. Many of these venues have engaged in similar activities, from the ‘Freedom Online’ conferences discussing Internet Freedom, the London Cyber conferences discussing ‘norms’ in cyberspace or the various UNESCO/OSCE/ITU fora on Internet Governance. Everybody is competing for a piece of the ‘Internet conference attention span.’

In 2013, even those who claim to believe in multi-stakeholder Internet Governance like Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff do not rely on the IGF as a venue for their concerns. Instead, Brazil has created its own ‘multi-stakeholder’ forum in Rio in April 2014 with a mind to respond to some of its concerns about U.S. Internet surveillance. While surveillance was probably the main topic of the Internet Governance Forum 2013 in Bali, it is questionable whether it has any residual relevance at all in that debate. Many of the issues around surveillance centre on national security and issues of state sovereignty and international law. The IGF, with its multi-stakeholder framework and weak governance structures, is ill-equipped to respond to these issues. Most importantly there is little actual power – either functional or discursive – located within the IGF. As a result of that key decision makers have consistently looked for and used more exclusive, higher level or higher impact structures to discuss their concerns.

Given the increasing irrelevance of the IGF, what comes next is all the more interesting. With the IGF’s function as a placeholder for actual governance in Internet Governance increasingly obvious, it becomes increasingly reasonable to ask: Where is the governance in Internet Governance? As such, it becomes harder to defend the status quo, where the IGF acts as a placeholder but doesn’t actually enable governance and instead simply convenes stakeholders. Yet somehow the multi-stakeholder mantra – that following a multi-stakeholder model is the only way to safeguard a free and open Internet – still runs rampant in debates about governing the Internet, as if there were no possible other alternative.

As one scholar from the ‘Global South’ recently explained: “in the old days global corporations sent lobbyists, these days they create multi-stakeholder roundtables.” If there is to be any substantive value in the multi-stakeholder model at all, it needs to be preceded by a power analysis and a critical evaluation of the actual outcomes.

This position is commonly shared by many of those involved in the global caravan of Internet policy meetings. However while most people will in private agree that the existing model is neither functioning nor producing results, little of this filters into the public domain – for fear that it will further encourage states to take over Internet Governance.

If there is a serious debate about how to govern the Internet at an international level– so standard argument goes– this will inevitably lead to a state-oriented model of Internet Governance as proposed by Russia or China. Such U.N. or state-oriented models of Internet Governance have been proposed by both Russia and China in various different international fora and serve as the perpetual elephant in the room. The fear of actually having a debate overlies all conversations about alternative futures in global Internet Governance.

The actions of President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil suggest that this outcome is not a given and that there are numerous different outcomes to an international debate about who governs the Internet. While some of these Brazilian proposals have been developed together with Russia and China, others have been developed with Germany or even ICANN, one of the key global Internet institutions. Since most strongly held views about Internet Governance have fallen apart in the last few years anyway, perhaps now is the time to put many of those concerns on the table.

//Ben Wagner

Featured Photo Credit:Public Domain CC0

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