Internet Governance on the Global Stage

February 26, 2013
Customers surf the Internet at an Internet cafe in Beijing, China (June 2009). (AP Photo/Greg Baker)

This week, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) will begin its open consultations, in preparation for the 2013 IGF annual meeting to be held in Bali, Indonesia. To learn more about the IGF’s role in global governance, we speak to CIGI Research Fellow Mark Raymond, who is currently working on the Global Security Program project Organized Chaos: Reimagining the Internet.

CIGI: What is the IGF and what is its significance to global governance?

Mark Raymond: The IGF — or Internet Governance Forum — is affiliated with the United Nations (UN) system. Formed after the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis in 2005, the IGF was created to give the international community a place to talk about the Internet and Internet governance–related issues.

The IGF is meant to be an open discussion forum and includes representation from  nation-states, corporations and civil society groups. There is a well-established consultative system for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) at the UN, but it’s even easier at the IGF. It’s deliberately designed to be an open body and a place where issues can be talked about. What that means, though, is that the IGF has no decision-making power —it cannot make decisions on Internet governance.

The meeting coming up at the end of February is a preparatory meeting for the annual plenary session this fall. Part of what they’ll be doing at this prep meeting is cleaning up old business from the 2012 IGF annual meeting, where the theme was “Internet governance for sustainable human, economic and social development,” but they’ll also be looking forward and thinking about what the theme will be for Bali.

CIGI: Why are the preparatory and annual meetings important?

Raymond: Well, the IGF is indispensible to the process of solving international problems through talking. It gives a release valve for actors with frustrations about how the Internet is governed and how it’s working. The IGF also provides a laboratory for talking about new ideas and gives a structured process where you can check in and develop relationships within the Internet governance community.

I don’t want to oversell it; it’s relatively indirect. The IGF isn’t a critical international security institution by any means. However, the recent New York Times report about Chinese hacking behaviour indicates that there are huge security threats. These threats are not only related to the theft of corporate information and trade secrets but also now increasingly involve states probing for vulnerabilities in government systems and also in critical infrastructure such as oil and gas pipelines and electrical grids. One of the key questions in the New York Times piece is whether these China-based hacking groups are part of the People’s Liberation Army or contractors affiliated with it —it looks fairly certain it is one or the other. There is at least reasonably good circumstantial evidence that it is state sponsored, if not done by state institutions themselves. Further, China is hardly the only major state that has, or is developing, such capabilities. The United States, for instance, has not denied reports that it was behind the Stuxnet virus and the attack on Iranian centrifuges. Russia has been a haven for cybercrime and is also suspected of making attacks against its neighbours Georgia and Estonia.

Historically, the IGF hasn’t been as high profile as, say, the UN General Assembly. It may become more prominent as Internet governance takes a higher place in the international agenda, but I don’t think it will ever hit the scale of the General Assembly or Security Council. There are certainly a host of Internet-related issues, not only on security but also on the economics of the Internet, on privacy and on human rights. The dynamics of the specific issues, which will have massive consequences for society, are very different, but in terms of the overall global agenda, Internet issues and climate change are two leading contenders for prominence in the next generation.

CIGI: Will cyber attacks come up at the IGF?

Raymond: In the last two years, we’ve really seen a massive increase in awareness of cyber attacks. But countries often like to handle security-related matters in a very sensitive and low-key way, rather than taking it to a public forum. So it’s unlikely, but it’s possible.  It’s also perfectly possible for companies and civil society groups to raise these and related issues at the IGF. That’s likely to attract less attention and will be less diplomatically sensitive.

CIGI: Is there any forum that runs parallel to or competes with the IGF for authority in Internet governance?

Raymond: I suppose the most direct competitor would be the ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) meetings, which take place three times a year. ICANN is a California-based non-profit and, unlike the IGF, it holds critical decision-making authority. It is responsible for administering the naming and addressing systems — a key part of the Internet.

Similar to the IGF, ICANN is designed to be very open. Anyone can participate, although board meetings and sessions with security-related aspects may be closed. Because ICANN has said it has no ambition to be the single authority on Internet governance, the IGF has a broader lens. I think it’s fairly safe to say we’ll continue to see something like the IGF — civil society will likely demand it. Civil society could probably organize something like the IGF on its own, but there would be funding problems and less state participation.

If Internet governance and more of the core functions, including the ICANN function, move into the UN, and if states like Russia, China and the Arab bloc are successful in centralizing and creating a more authoritarian version of the Internet, the question is whether the IGF would continue to work in a similar way or also become more closed. In that case, we would probably see a replacement from civil society, at least in Western democracies.

So there are a number of plausible future scenarios for the IGF or something like it.

CIGI: As you discussed, the IGF is an open, multi-stakeholder forum. Are all voices equal or are some more powerful than others?

Raymond: Talking about whether or not a voice is more powerful than another is difficult because, as mentioned, the IGF lacks decision-making authority. But in any social setting, it’s clear that some actors are more influential than others. There are a variety of reasons for this. People tend to listen to you if you have resources, if you are charismatic and if you embody values that people like — these factors can give you power. That is true with the IGF, just as it is true anywhere else.

However, the IGF isn’t one constituency, so civil society groups may think that a particular NGO is really an important, influential part of the system. Corporate groups may look to a leading company. Governments may look to states that they are aligned with. Western states may look to the United States or United Kingdom. For instance, the bloc of states led by Russia, China and some of the Arab states, which has a different idea of what Internet governance looks like, has attracted broad support from across the developing world.

In general, we tend to see a fracturing or a grouping of actors based on shared interests and values. This isn’t surprising and we shouldn’t see it as threatening, inherently problematic or something we need to fix. We’ll never see monolithic opinions on something as important and complicated as the Internet. It will be a matter of governing effectively through finding common groups and cooperating where possible.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.