If an important debate of our age is going on right now but you don't know where, no one can blame you. Part of the intrigue surrounding discussion of how the Internet will be governed is deliberate; the current process and forums were conceived by parties who want to make sure that if their agenda fails in one place that they can claw back ground in another. Part of that plan is the byzantine "commitology" of the UN system, which is now frighteningly relevant to the broadband industry and civil society. What follows is an effort to make this clear what, where, when, and how it all will happen in 2011.
What's at Stake
As industry stakeholders determine the risk associated with the multilateral process outlined below, it's useful to take note of some of the proposals that are on the table for the upcoming months in these various forums. Countries such as India, South Africa and Egypt are clamoring to keep negotiations on Internet governance between governments only. Despite some liberal constitutions, the purpose of these countries in respect of the Internet is not strictly liberal. This could lead to the notion of 'internal security' gaining pre-eminence over free movement of information — something that would have an immediate effect on affairs in the Middle East and elsewhere.
How It Will Happen
A soup of forums means that both the debate and the process will be confused. That different groups will be discussing various aspects of Internet governance in parallel (see below) creates a space for mischief-makers, which is why it is important to stay aware of progress in each place. The Internet Governance Forum, formerly the forum of discussion and exchange around governance matters, is now struggling to remain relevant as its funding atrophies and more senior intergovernmental bodies encroach on its turf (there is another warning implicit here: industry should not let the independent secretariat of the IGF go unfunded).
Where Is It Happening
UN General Assembly – The supreme body of the UN, the General Assembly, agreed last December to let the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) live another five years. This is good because the IGF is a civil and measured environment, and has worked well until now. But the existence of a new shadow IGF — the CSTD — ensures that there is an intergovernmental body that can insert itself if that becomes necessary. There are still some governments (most of which occupy the Winner's Foyer of the Human Rights Hall of Fame) that are still cross over that debate last December. At any point, they may develop a new resolution on Internet governance, or create another closed IG oversight group. One to watch.
IGF – The next meeting is tentatively scheduled for 27-30 September, Nairobi. What happens now? The IGF must make its usual topics of discussion relevant to developing country stakeholders, and engage them in a way that heads off their insecurity about governments and civil society being on the same footing. That does not mean bending to the will of governments that want to curtail debate, it means inveigling them a dialogue that is both productive and unthreatening. If those governments think the group is stepping out of bounds (by whatever definition), they can call on other bodies to control the debate.
UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) – ECOSOC is now charged with taking forward the work of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which was the place where multilateral debate on internet governance really kicked off, and which lately convened an amorphous forum to collect ideas about what to do next on Internet governance. This is an old-fashioned pitfall. It's multistakeholder, but it's casting around for an agenda, and some government with a good (if not new) idea about who should be responsible for on-line content is sure to make an effort to shape the debate. Industry must find a way to control this discussion too, and find a way to speak with many voices: through industry representatives, through supportive governments and, where possible, by guiding the work of the secretariat.
Commission on Science and Technology Development (CSTD) – The work of the CSTD is something of a counterpoise to the IGF. If you didn't like the free-wheeling multi-stakeholder nature of the IGF structure, this is the forum for you. It will be governed by the principle of "enhanced cooperation," (which means different things to different people) and provide a much more restrained venue for governments to put forward their proposals for Internet governance. The CSTD working group will include 22 Member States, five representatives of the Business Community, five from Civil Society, five from technical and academic circles, and maybe five Intergovernmental Organizations. It is compiling a Report with Recommendations on IMPROVING the IGF, which will be ready in May. The CSTD in turn reports up to the ECOSOC in June 2011, which then reports to the UN General Assembly. There are many opportunities in this process to get rid of useful recommendations — but that process cuts both ways. Just be sure you support the right kind of "useful."
The next CSTD Working Group on IGF will be held in Zurich on March 24-25. The group will prepare a report based on stakeholder inputs that includes Recommendations for improving Internet governance. This report will be transmitted to the full CSTD in May. In June the ECOSOC will consider it, and transmit it to the UN General Assembly for further consideration in the autumn. What they don't like, they can throw out ("edit") or send back for revising, or simply not recommend. Nonetheless, the first version of the report to be sent to the General Assembly should be strong in its support for industry views. Too much equivocation will be like chum to a shark.
Ignorance of the process will not be a defense when the hundred little steps on the road to balkanizing the Internet passes the point of no return. Industry has been leaving the organization and funding of this debate to governments for a long time. Now they have to pony up.
By Gregory Francis, Managing Director at Access Partnership
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Minds + Machines