Internet Governance @ the 8th IGF: a critical debate has begun

23 Oct 2013

Something very interesting is happening in Internet Governance circles. I write this from Day 2 of the 2013 Internet Governance Forum, a UN-convened multi-stakeholder dialogue that brings together people from all over the world to discuss Internet policy issues.

A few weeks before the IGF, a coalition of Internet technical community organisations launched a statement, the "Montevideo Statement on the Future of Internet Cooperation", in which the CEOs of the organisations did the following:

  • They reinforced the importance of globally coherent Internet operations, and warned against Internet fragmentation at a national level. They expressed strong concern over the undermining of the trust and confidence of Internet users globally due to recent revelations of pervasive monitoring and surveillance.
  • They identified the need for ongoing effort to address Internet Governance challenges, and agreed to catalyze community-wide efforts towards the evolution of global multistakeholder Internet cooperation.
  • They called for accelerating the globalization of ICANN and IANA functions, towards an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing.
  • They also called for the transition to IPv6 to remain a top priority globally. In particular Internet content providers must serve content with both IPv4 and IPv6 services, in order to be fully reachable on the global Internet.  

Separately, following her speech at the UN General Assembly criticising the United States re the Snowden revelations, the President of Brazil has announced her intention to call together an event next year to discuss changes to the Internet Governance framework. While not directly related to the Montevideo Statement, the two are both Internet Governance initiatives and are being debated together.

Here at the IGF, some of the "catalysing" referred to in the second bullet has been happening. The coalition called together meetings over the past few days of a range of technical community and civil society actors to consider the Statement, and to discuss also the Brazil meeting. 

This is a complicated story that newcomers to "Internet Governance-ism", as I sometimes call it, will most likely shrug shoulders at. But it matters in the end to everyone who ever uses the Internet. If you don't know about it that much, read the next few paragraphs - if you feel au fait, skip over them (they are italicised for reference).

There are a bunch of things that people use the Internet for that create issues. Issues like spam, cybersecurity, economic development, interjurisdictional conflict, all arise from the rise of the Internet. But unlike say the technical coordination of names and numbers (what ICANN does), or the development of Internet protocols (hello the IETF), nothing exists to resolve global approaches to what might be called "use" problems arising from the Internet.

The Internet Governance Forum provides a place to discuss these issues, but not one to resolve them. It is carefully structured as a multi-stakeholder discussion forum. It is very valuable in those terms, but can't solve the "do something" need some of the issues give rise to.

Various intergovernmental institutions discuss these issues in some ways - the ITU, other UN agencies and so on - but none with a particular mandate or ability to resolve them.

So there is a fear, in parts of the technical community, that growing perceptions of this "gap" in Internet Governance could lead to multilateral institutions stepping in to fill it, perhaps in uncoordinated or inappropriate ways.

In tackling the future challenges these issues create, noting they go beyond technical coordination, there are two approaches in the field for consideration.

One is to encourage States to have multilateral, Treaty-based institutions deal with them - either by adjusting mandate/s for existing institution/s, or by creating a new institution, where countries can determine an approach and make calls where required.

Another is to have what we in the technical community would call a multi-stakeholder framework or process to deal with these problems. This could be attached to existing institutions (e.g. the IGF itself), or could be in a new institution altogether.

The latter is our preferred approach. Multi-stakeholder frameworks or processes for Internet Governance give everyone an equal say - states, companies, technical community representatives, civil society representatives and so on. They bring all those diverse perspectives together and come up with solutions that, generally speaking, all stakeholders can support.

It seems obvious to me that any framework that brings all relevant players to the table with a real say is better than one which privileges States alone -- but equally obvious that States themselves might have difficulty with that. It's a difficult balancing act, no question.

That is the debate that is kicking off here, and which will flow through to the Brazil summit next year. Can a new multi-stakeholder framework be developed for Internet Governance that allows these issues - called "orphan issues" by some - to be tackled? (They are "orphan" because existing multi-stakeholder institutions and frameworks don't deal with them.)

Of course, in any debate, huge questions arise. The technical community organisations have succeeded in kicking off a lively debate, that is for certain.

After a couple of days in this overwhelming forum of the IGF, here are some of my initial questions:

  • Is it actually possible to design a multi-stakeholder framework for these "orphan issues"? So far, multi-stakeholder approaches have worked well for technical matters. But the orphan issues are classic matters of public policy, where States are used to being the main actors. Could a system be designed where they were happy to share power with the wider community?
  • Can a hugely diverse Internet Governance community come to a sensible consensus about how such a new framework would work? With technical community, civil society, business, academia, governments and others all involved, and no existing mechanisms that can resolve anything, it will be very tricky to pull together a coherent plan that could work.
  • How much effort should the technical community put into catalysing such a framework? The orphan issues aren't matters of technical coordination, but the way they are dealt with can affect technical decisions. More importantly, if there isn't a viable multi-stakeholder option on the table, and orphan issues default to state-led forums, there may be pressure for all other Internet Governance issues to fall into state-led forums too. That would put the Internet at serious risk, but is something to be considered. There is also the matter of the mandate technical community organisations have in kicking off such a wide-ranging debate.

I am sure others are articulating different questions but these are front of mind for me, coming from an organisation that has a key role in the technical community due to holding the delegation for the .nz top level domain.

The thinking and the debate are stimulating for sure. The debate will carry on this week, but there is clearly change afoot: I haven't met many who think the status quo in Internet Governance is exactly right. Evolution and change are required. This bold effort to shape the debate will echo on as time progresses.

Interested in your thoughts.

Jordan Carter


Internet Governance @ the 8th IGF: a critical debate has begun

These are interesting questions raised by Jordan. Unfortunately the answers are likely to lead in one of two directions:

(i) A new genuinely multi-stakeholder international forum with capacity to make things happen is established. This will inevitably take over from, and replace, the IGF. It will become bogged down in determining outcomes and will fail to allow the type of open discussion currently taking place in the IGF which has lead to these propositions in the first place.


(ii) Governments will establish a "super GAC" which excludes non-government players. Worse, it is very possible that this "super GAC" (where, BTW, the 'A' no longer stands for 'advisory', at least to the ICANN Board, but stands for 'administration') will be comprised of perhaps 20 governments rather than the current 140 or so members of the current GAC. This has already been proposed in some circles.

Either way, the prospects for a good outcome are not cheerful. I would love to be proven wrong and have something coalesce around (say) an ISOC core where governments played an appropriate role alongside other multi-stakeholder groups but will not be holding my breath.

Cheers, Frank
Frank March
President, InternetNZ, and
NZ representative on the GAC