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The UN Wants to Fix The Internet

Gregory Francis

A beacon of transparency and true international cooperation packed up this week as participants in the 5th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) made their muted good-byes. No one is sure whether they will meet again next year or, if they do, under what circumstances. That's because the UN is looking to fix the IGF, a puzzling task for the busy UN since the IGF is manifestly not broken.

The New Commonwealth

The IGF is rare among international organisations in that it is characterised by real cooperation, and a genuine interest in ensuring that the Internet becomes a tool that touches every life for the better. Some governments take part: they are interested in continuing the growth of the Internet as a pillar of transparency or "democratisation." Industry participates because companies are building the Internet and providing its content, and they want governments to stay out of the way. User communities engage in pursuit of common standards, more accessibility, and special attributes that cater to constituencies who need particular attention. And they do it, all of them, with improbable civility, well-informed good humour, and a general spirit of co-operation. This co-operation is all the more unlikely since the IGF only came together when governments suspected that the G7, and the United States in particular, were exerting too much influence over the Internet. The annual IGF meeting was spawned, like some public policy manatee, without a discernible head or tail, fangs or paws, in an attempt to change that. As a consequence, the IGF has little order; there are no Communiqu├ęs, Work Programmes or Final Acts. Funding is voluntary. Anyone can participate. It was given a secretariat of two bodies, and a lifespan of five years.

That's Enough Democracy

Those five years are up, and the UN is poised to assert more control. The General Assembly will shortly decide whether to renew the mandate of the IGF, or whether to bring it into the more rigid structure of the United Nations, where civil society and industry have no seat, and where the G7 have as much say over matters as the unelected representatives of places such as Myanmar, Brunei, or China. It is a fact that an environment where Brunei's vote counts as much as Brazil's, where geologic processes apply, and where committee structures are as numerous as they are cumbersome has not the least hope of keeping pace with technology and innovation that feed the development of the World Wide Web. So why is the UN getting involved, and does it really matter?

Wake Up

The decision of the General Assembly matters. It will create the framework within which the Internet will flourish or stagnate in the years to come. And on this point the IGF is clear. In the earnest language of confessions the world over, it has reaffirmed to its membership the value of what it has done and the breadth of what it can do. It has cleverly, and somewhat boldly, announced its next meeting in Nairobi in 2011. And why not? By declaring itself open for business, it sends the UN a message to keep things as they are, that if it ain't broke don't fix it. But broken is in the eye of the beholder, and certain governments are now squaring up to ensure that this functioning, equitable, open thing, the IGF and the Internet which it aims to keep safe, are better controlled from New York, and by extension from Harare, Pyongyang, and Beijing.

Exit Strategy

It is unclear at this point which way the General Assembly will go. But the IGF stakeholders with the wherewithal to do so must now turn from a consideration of the merits of IPv6 to more practical matters. They must begin to provide for the common defence of a free and unconstrained Internet and focus their efforts on New York. At the General Assembly they will need several tools. First, they will need champions. The US and other open societies must be energised to lead the way: they will need to talk to countries from all parts of the globe to ensure that there are many and divers voices raised in defence of the IGF. They need to communicate the risk of failure: UN representatives have a lot on their plate, but prioritising the IGF should not be left to disconnected diplomats more interested in vote swapping than in universal pluralism. Finally, when the IGF's champions do get the attention of the national delegations in New York, they need a clear message: when the vote comes, Support the Status Quo. It is not enough to leave the charter of the IGF to the word smithing of untutored UN diplomats. When writing a Terms of Reference, the smallest detail can constrain a group in ways that can severely curtail its effectiveness. Any emerging drafts will require monitoring, and informed rebuttals. Governments that care, with the stakeholder community standing behind them, must work the issue.

The Fault, Dear Brutus...

If the IGF membership fails to organise itself quickly and effectively, there will be years of suffocating UN oversight to unwind — that is once promise the UN can deliver on. If it succeeds, however, the multi-stakeholder approach that has allowed the IGF to flourish would be brought to an untimely end by the very diversity it has come to champion.

By Gregory Francis, Managing Director at Access Partnership

Related topics: Internet Governance


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