- New gTLD database
The IGF: a bridge to nowhere?
by .Nxt | 5 Jun 2012 |
Leaderless, broke and mired in bureaucracy, the Internet Governance Forum will become an historic relic unless its supporters act
Pont d'Avignon and the IGF: dangerous similarities. Pic credit: Twicepix
"Sur le pont d’Avignon," the song goes. "L'on y danse… L'on y danse tous en rond". On the bridge of Avignon, we dance, all in a circle.
Those taking part in three days of discussions over the annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) last month were 200 miles north of Avignon, at the UN headquarters in Geneva, but that didn't prevent them from dancing in circles.
Hours of formal interventions covered everything from the number and format of sessions, to a funding shortage, to the lack of a political or organizational IGF head, to concerns that the meeting is being held in human-rights-abusing Azerbaijan. But when the dancing ended and everyone returned home, the IGF remained entirely untouched, motionless in the fast-flowing river of Internet governance.
What most modern visitors to the Pont d'Avignon (or Pont Saint-Bénezet to give it its proper name) don't realize is that it is no longer a bridge at all. It stops halfway across the Rhône, the result of a flood in 1668. The bridge had dealt with a number of floods in its history: each time collapsing, each time rebuilt. But in the end, it was abandoned.
The IGF on the other hand has recently suffered its first flood - a renewal process that saw it stripped of its two main organizers and much of its money. But just like Pont d'Avignon, the IGF remains of crucial strategic importance, and so people are looking to rebuild it.
In the former's case, it was at the time the only fixed crossing between Lyon and the Mediterranean Sea. In the case of the IGF, it connects those that believe governments alone need to be in charge of the Internet, with those who feel having governments as the sole actor is fundamentally wrong in an ecosystem which has been built upon business, technical experts, civil society and standards bodies all having an equal voice.
Unfortunately, as things stand, the current, inadequate efforts to rebuild the IGF are likely to be swept away with the next flood: due in just three years with the next review. After that, it is not certain it will return at all.
Living on a flood plain
Nitin Desai and Markus Kummer were largely responsible for the IGF's initial success. Both were edged out and their posts remain vacant 18 months later.
When plans for the IGF were first drawn up in 2005, it was just one of a number of new bodies that would help manage the complex task of an evolving Internet.
The Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) proposed the 'Global Internet Governance Forum' (GIGF) as a "central debating forum for governments" alongside three decision-making institutions: the Global Internet Council (GIC); International Internet Council (IIC); and Global Internet Policy Council (GIPC).
Following high-wire diplomacy at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), only the GIGF survived, with a vague notion of "enhanced cooperation" filling in the role of the three Internet councils.
As a result, and despite its successes, the IGF has had to live with the fact that it is the only body that came out of the WSIS process. Moreover from day one some governments - notably China, Russia and Saudi Arabia - have been trying to make it less a 'debating forum' and more a decision-making body. This approach has been fiercely resisted by those who fear such a change would effectively hand control of the Internet to the United Nations. That fight is not going away any time soon.
From its conception, the IGF has operated in a no-man's-land between the United Nations - which has oversight over IGF structures it can't actually control - and the Internet community - which has run the IGF for six years but is beholden to the UN for its structure, staff and meeting venues.
This approach could, under the right circumstances, be a catalyst for innovation: private sector initiative with inter-governmental support. Indeed, for the first three years it produced remarkably good results, thanks mainly to its two architects - special advisor Nitin Desai, and executive coordinator Markus Kummer. But despite their efforts, it was impossible to escape the fact that the IGF lives on a political flood plain.
When first Kofi Annan left as UN Secretary General; then Jose Ocampo gave way to Sha Zukang as Under Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) the resulting sea-change swept both Desai and Kummer from their positions, taking with them the IGF's organizational, financial and political firepower.
Neither role has been filled in 18 months - something widely believed to be deliberate - leaving the forum in desperate need of leadership.
A catalogue of problems
With no one to direct the rebuilding process, the IGF has been subject to improvement-by-committee. After nearly two years of work, an official working group (the CSTD WG) produced a series of recommendations so obvious and anodyne that it was never likely to have the slightest impact on the forum's functioning.
Even so, warring parties managed to strip it of what little worth it held by simply "noting" the report in a communiqué to the body above it in the UN hierarchy.
Of more importance is money. UN budgets are being cut and the IGF has no voice within the system. Previous sponsors are withholding their contributions until UNDESA names a new executive coordinator. UNDESA in turn claims it can't hire someone until it has the funds. (It would be easy to conclude that he who controls these two key positions of Executive Coordinator and Special Adviser effectively holds the future of the IGF in his hands.)
Both sides appear to hope that "business" will stump up the missing millions, and yet there is currently no good reason for it to do so. The IGF represents little real value from a business perspective: there is no opportunity to sell products and services, and if execs want to network with key decision-makers they can do so far more cheaply and effectively elsewhere.
Other problems abound including: an unfocussed agenda with too many sessions and highly variable quality; outdated meeting formats and structures (the previous meeting's 22 opening speeches reads like a punch line to a joke); the Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG), which sets the agenda, is unwieldy and ineffective; and the whole process suffers from an overabundance of policy people with little or no experience of actually running conferences.
Instead of making the forum a success, the MAG is dancing round in circles
Nevertheless, the IGF remains an important venue that possesses great potential if those in a position to make change choose to act rather than passively follow.
The impasse over the IGF's leaders has to be broken. The MAG should simply name the man who has effectively been running the show for 18 months, Chengetai Masango, as interim Executive Coordinator, and confer upon him the relevant authority. That would solve a major operational problem and free up much needed resources.
Pressure should also be applied to force a decision on the special adviser's appointment, bypassing the difficult and not so popular Sha Zukang, going directly to the Secretary-General if necessary.
The MAG needs to do its job and actively seek funding from those in a position to give it - but with one crucial difference: ask them what changes they would introduce to make the IGF more relevant and effective. A five-minute conversation would likely prove more useful than the two-year committee process that ended up recommending nothing of value.
The IGF should also take advantage of the leeway granted by its special status within the UN system by behaving and acting differently. There is nothing that forces the IGF to make its meetings resemble mini-summits. The format sets the tone, and even the most practical and sensible Internet representatives start to act like UN delegates when placed into that environment. The IGF and in particular the MAG needs to scrap the self-defeating formality and get on with the task of running an interactive forum.
And lastly, the IGF needs to identify what success looks like for it and then ruthlessly follow a path in pursuing those targets. The IGF was created in large part to explain why the new and novel systems that currently drive the Internet ultimately produce better results for everyone. It's time it started to demonstrate that belief and in so doing give governments and regulators a good reason to attend a meeting where no decisions are made.
That would mean some thought and imagination in looking at different structures and for different crossing points on the river of Internet governance. But without such an effort, the IGF can ultimately expect to follow the fate of Pont d'Avignon and end up as little more than an interesting relic of history.