IGF's Brexit Moment

By Gregory Francis
Gregory Francis

When people feel powerless, they sometimes push for change at any price, and in the absence of a guillotine reach for institutions instead. This makes some sense: at worst it feels good, and at best if you believe things can't get any worse, then what's to lose by shaking them up?



Calling the Floor

Normally potent members of ICANN's community — people and entities for whom the sensation of powerlessness is largely unfamiliar — are nonetheless feeling that way in respect of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). This imperfect and misshapen pollywog, half one thing and half another, born into a purposeful life but aging now into a grumpy adolescence, has a lot that's wrong about it: opaque, quixotic and inflexible governance, spasms of excessive partiality, a seemingly systemic inability to reform or face up to its own shortcomings (in this it behaves like most of us)… A long list of grievances forces us to ask whether the IGF is now so incorrigible that we must, as a matter of good governance (or just plain mercy) call time on our hapless beast.

A World Without You

The Community should not decide the fate of the IGF in the way an impetuous majority of Britons chose to leave the European Union: without undertaking some scenario planning. Start with what we know: that celebrity funerals demand a good eulogy. The IGF would have at least two.

Version 1 would be written by the euthanisers themselves: the IGF served its purpose and was effective as long as it lasted. It proved that multistakeholderism was the right model, if one that has now been transposed onto more steady, structured, and predictable groups, the WSIS Forum not least among them. The IGF saw us through so much: early ICANN Inc, Net Mundial, the IANA transition, the Labors of Senator Cruz. RIP IGF, thank you for showing us the way.

Version 2 would be written differently, but the authors would not be so obvious: the IGF's failure proves the multistakeholder model failed in concept and execution. Its formlessness became such a risk to the stability of the Internet that even the last of the Old Believers, the business constituency, piled in with the fatal blow. But now we have heard the Community, and return the governance of this shared resource to where it belongs — along with other delicate matters such as climate change, whales, spectrum, the peaceful uses of outer space — to an intergovernmental body. Do not fear: in this process we learned that the Internet community must have a voice and be heard, and we will almost certainly pay lip service to this aspiration; for now, please form an orderly queue outside the room while the State Councillors consider your rights to petition (be patient).

Version 3

In this version, the IGF doesn't die. Rather, when the business constituency and other dissatisfied stalwarts cede the field, they are replaced by governments who, in their International Strategy of Cooperation on Cyberspace or elsewhere, have already announced their intention to reform the IGF into a more structured thing. In combination with UNESCO, a newly constituted Dynamic Coalition on Appropriate Internet Content, a new Joint IGF-WIPO-ITU Policy Committee, the unruly cornerstone of the multistakeholder model would retain its pride of place. In its new form, it would turn out senior-level communiqu├ęs and policy recommendations on the need for alternative governance arrangements, standards for the use of content, the proper and complete internationalization of ICANN, and robust system alternatives to ensure redundancy. These calls would echo, if not appear in advance of, the same demands made at the UNGA and ITU. Consensus would then be broad and deep across the multistakeholder landscape. Where would you go to disagree?

Keep the Baby and Make Other Plans for the Bathwater

There are a hundred ways to improve the effectiveness and the IGF, some of them even achievable (tolerate individual demands less, insist on matters of principal more, drive more structured engagement with the UN General Assembly's Second Committee, revert to the Tunis Agenda mandate, seek commitments to transparency from MAG members, expand the MAG, increase the scope and timelines for staging IGF events, identify more specific annual themes, put more resource into diversifying government participation). But exasperation is not the optimal point of departure for good policymaking. The Brexit referendum was an uninformed step the value of which was never challenged by much thought for what really would follow. The result looks to be more isolation and an intellectual vacuum filled by the very European countries England spent the past 500 years competing with. The ICANN Community knows how to recognize a bad example when it's in front of us, so in considering whether or not the IGF should be rescued, ask first what happens if we set it adrift.

By Gregory Francis, Managing Director at Access Partnership

Related topics: ICANN, Internet Governance

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