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Why only Business can save the Internet from itself
by Kieren McCarthy | 8 May 2012 |
It's time for Internet organizations to ditch the palace politics and grow up
Starting next week, the United Nations in Geneva will host a series of back-to-back meetings with a broad focus: deciding the ways in which the future of the Internet will be decided.
Most meetings are open and attendance is free. And yet, despite the low barriers to entry, one key demographic is largely missing: business.
For example, of the 300 people registered with an online website covering the first of four conferences (the WSIS Forum), only 26 identify themselves as coming from the private sector, and of them, only 11 are not from specialist Internet infrastructure companies.
The same pattern is repeated at the conference that follows: consultations over the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). And business numbers will fall even further for the last two: "enhanced co-operation" and the annual meeting of the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD).
Each of these will have a significant impact on the environment in which the Internet will develop - the rules of the game - and yet, business is largely absent. Furthermore, this under-representation is repeated across virtually all the organizations that define Internet policy and governance. So why is there such a low level of business engagement? And does it really matter?
In answer to the second question, yes it does matter, a great deal. Without the pragmatism and efficiency that business brings, the Internet is heading down a path to chronic mismanagement. As to the first, the answer lies in the structures that have been painstakingly built over the past decade to guide the future Internet; structures that were supposed to replicate the democratic Parthenon yet increasingly resemble an incestuous Palace of Versailles.
If you build it, they might come
In a keynote speech last year, US Assistant Commerce Secretary Larry Strickling told one of the main Internet policy organizations, ICANN, that he was disappointed with how it had developed and was performing.
ICANN is largely responsible for the "multi-stakeholder" approach to decision-making, which in the broadest context means that everyone impacted by a decision should have an equal say in its development. This model has been slowly adopted across the Internet policy world and the US government has decided it wants to see if it works in other industries and markets.
The problem, as Strickling noted, is that while it is good in theory, in reality multi-stakeholderism doesn't have much of a pedigree. "The Obama administration is fully committed to the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance," he stressed. "But when we seek to extend it to other areas of Internet policy, the obvious questions we get are, 'Where has the model been used before, and how well has it performed?' And it's important that we have success stories to point to, and we very much want to point to ICANN as such an example."
There have been various efforts to define what this multi-stakeholder model is or looks like, most recently by two academics from the Silicon Flatirons Center at the University of Colorado, Joe Waz and Phil Weiser.
Waz and Weiser identified a number of attributes including openness, transparency, accessibility, accountability, data-driven and consensus-based. However there are just as many that put the systems in a less positive light:
ICANN is famously dysfunctional, but even structures built with an eye to its flaws have fared little better. The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) doesn't even bear the burden of having to make decisions, and yet, despite an encouraging start, each year has seen an increase in palace politics to the detriment of broad, democratic participation that it claims to champion.
A recent refresh of the IGF's main organizing body - the Multi-stakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) - was heralded as bringing in 33 new members to the 56-member body. Yet, like a Russian Presidential election, the choices were oddly familiar.
Another characteristic of the Internet policy and governance worlds is the extraordinary number of meetings that take place across the globe every year. One recent joke was that you could be at a different Internet meeting in a different country every week of the year. It is not that far from the truth. But despite its global reach and enormous societal impact, the same names and faces appear again and again on the stage or podium, too often providing reflections on a meeting they attended elsewhere only a few weeks earlier.
An entire sub-culture that increasingly represents an Internet elite has developed. Flights and accommodation are paid for by the same organizations that host most of the meetings, creating a self-contained circle of influence. Members of this Internet elite are rewarded (often self-rewarded) with positions on the numerous committees, working groups and councils that are formed with unusual regularity and which then fund the costs to attend other meetings (in order to highlight the good work they are undertaking). As a result, and due to the excessive cost of following this process independently, such positions are jealously guarded. When procedural rules dictate a change in the individual, a small pool of candidates and a selection committee made up of the same group of insiders, frequently return another in the group.
Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest impacts of this culture is reduced participation from outside. For a computer network so central to modern life, the Internet policy and governance actors are frequently surprised by the low numbers of people that are involved (and just as frequently produce recommendations that the situation be looked into).
This culture is growing. The most recent budget put out by ICANN showed that it was increasing the number of fully paid attendees (including flights, accommodation, meals and a daily stipend). Now just under 200 or the 1,500 attendees at ICANN's three meetings a year (most recently in Costa Rica, Dakar and Singapore) have their costs paid in full.
On top of that, a new budget process where the organization's own groups can ask for additional funds saw 32 requests, 24 of them approved, of which over 90 percent were to cover the cost of going to other meetings or running "outreach" sessions.
It's not just ICANN: a recent recommendation to improve the IGF specifically highlighted the need for additional funds to fly people to the meetings and cover their costs while there.
Why business does not engage
For anyone from a commercial background, it is immediately obvious why business is a poor participant in this Internet policy merry-go-round.
The costs are excessively high both in financial and resource terms. As well as the cost of flying them around the globe, few companies can justify losing key staff for months every year. What's more, due to the unpredictable nature of most Internet organizations, it is never clear when or how a decision will be made, making it difficult to show some kind of return on the expense.
Internet organizations run long meetings, usually five days but often with one or two days of pre-meetings, and to compound that, little effort is ever made to clearly explain what is being decided and why it may be important. Large documents are posted without context or executive summaries, and often just days before they are formally discussed.
This results in what insiders, with a certain amount of pride, call "a steep learning curve": a curve that all too often acts as a brick wall. The "business constituency" of ICANN claims to reach over 50,000 companies but has, in total, 50 members of which at least six are single-person entities. The IGF's MAG has called for greater contributions from business for three years running and been met a stony silence.
What business would bring
So what would business bring to the table, and why it is imperative that Internet policy and governance organizations change their systems to accommodate them?
For one, the very fact that business representatives cannot spend weeks at a time travelling to what are normally holiday destinations would be a bonus to organizations increasingly under pressure to produce results.
The agendas of most Internet policy conferences are horribly bloated. At a large business conference, there is typically a maximum of five concurrent sessions; at an Internet conference, the average is eight. There are also too many conferences each year with too much overlap of material, and not enough time in between for sufficient progress to be made.
Business would bring efficiency to decision-making that is sorely lacking. Since there is no pressure on most attendees to reach agreement in a given timeframe, meetings are frequently given to long and repetitious reflections. Agendas are rarely completed in time, and deadlines are broken with impunity.
A more business-like approach would see a lot of the unnecessary verbiage in official documents pulled out, or relegated to an appendix, and decision points pulled to the front. Pragmatism would enable faster consensus and cut down on the excessive personal effrontery that is frequently seen, particularly on sticky topics. More effective budgeting would question whether the additional cost of travelling to remote and exotic locations was really justified.
But perhaps most importantly, greater and more professional engagement from business in the Internet policy and governance worlds would limit the value of an insider culture, increase the likelihood that key positions were selected through result rather than favor, remove obstacles to change, and reduce willingness to passively accept failure.
For all these reasons and more, the organizations that define the future of the Internet have to recognize that a lack of participation is a reflection on them and not on the millions of people that use the Internet every day. It's only a matter of time before the Internet comes knocking at the doors of those who purport to represent them. By then it may well be too late.