A view of the informal interactive consultation on the World Summit on the Information Society. This informal interactive consultation with stakeholders from the technical community, private sector, academia and civil society takes place at UN Headquarters ahead of the WSIS+10 High-Level Meeting in December 2015. (UN Photo/Kim Haughton)
A view of the informal interactive consultation on the World Summit on the Information Society. This informal interactive consultation with stakeholders from the technical community, private sector, academia and civil society takes place at UN Headquarters ahead of the WSIS+10 High-Level Meeting in December 2015. (UN Photo/Kim Haughton)

This year’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is feeling the hot breath of the UN General Assembly on its neck. Just a month from the IGF closing ceremony, a High-level Meeting reviewing the implementation of the outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) will take place, on December 15-16, 2015, in New York. Ten years ago, as the Summit drew to a close, Internet governance and financial assistance to bring information and communication technologies to the developing world were by far the most contentious negotiations, threatening the success of that four-year process. The IGF was one of the most visible and successful of the WSIS outcomes, so its performance and future are a significant part of the High-level Meeting agenda.

The IGF emerged from the WSIS a rather strange beast. It is housed in the United Nations, and holds annual meetings that draw more than 2,500 people from all stakeholder groups with an interest in how the Internet is governed. Government officials attend, but so do business people, civil society activists, Internet technologists, academics and the staff of international institutions. All this happens, despite the fact that the IGF has no budget, no permanent staff, and does not engage in formal negotiations. In fact, it is specifically prohibited from producing binding outputs. Instead it brings “all relevant stakeholders” together to discuss issues about how the Internet is governed, and to “help to find solutions to the issues arising from the use and misuse of the Internet, of particular concern to everyday users.” The high politics going on at the General Assembly, as they prepare to review the IGF, have certainly changed the tone of this year’s meeting.

For a start, there are many more senior government officials present for the tenth meeting than in other years. National delegations of several countries include Ministers and Vice-Ministers. They are participating in the sessions intended to encourage policy discussions, but as you might expect they do not engage deeply with the issues. Instead their statements commonly take the form of brief advertisements for their country’s efforts to encourage Internet access for their people. In most cases the speeches also incorporate highly coded messages that set out their positions on the eventual outcome of the High-level Meeting, and try to influence the latest draft document.

One particular word, or better stated, the absence of one particular word is raising strong concerns among the IGF attendees. That word is “multi-stakeholder.” The word appears only once in the Tunis Declaration and Action Plan, the 2005 document that emerged from the WSIS, yet it may be the most used word in the field of Internet governance. It is shorthand for the list described in the Declaration, which includes governments, the private sector, civil society, academics and technical experts, intergovernmental organizations and international organizations. No one can go to the IGF, or to any other meeting where Internet policy is discussed without hearing the word used repeatedly. And yet, mysteriously, the word does not appear in the draft text for the High-level Meeting. Instead there are many references to arrangements that are “multilateral with the full engagement of all stakeholders.”

This may seem a small change to a casual observer, but in the charged world of Internet governance, it is seen as an effort to change a basic concept, spearheaded by a coalition of governments that do not support an inclusive governance style. The governments of Brazil, Macedonia, Turkey and others insist that for them “multilateral” includes the concept of involving all stakeholders. Yet dictionary definitions say it is agreements “usually among governments.” The IGF participants from non-governmental organizations see this as an effort aimed at taking away their accustomed roles, sometimes roles they have carried out since the Internet was born. And some governments agree strongly, such as the United States.

So the political manoeuvring continues to build as the UN moves toward its High-level Meeting next month. It certainly has brought out antagonisms in the IGF meetings that have not been seen for several years. The final outcome from the High-level Meeting will deliver a strong indication of whether the peaceful coexistence between governments and those who operate and use the Internet will continue or not. The stakes are high. If either side in the argument believes it has lost badly, the future of the Internet as a single, interconnected and generative part of contemporary life will be threatened.

Of course the Internet is facing many other threats as a result of the basic disagreement over who or what institution should be in charge. If governments, businesses, and civil society groups including technical people and academics cannot find common ground upon which they can build trust, the Internet itself is threatened. Lack of trust, competition among standards, uncoordinated approaches to content issues – the list is a long one – could lead to fragmentation of the single global network we all depend on as individuals, as economies and as societies.

That is why CIGI, in partnership with Chatham House, launched the Global Commission on Internet Governance. The Commission brings together a globally-connected group of high level experts in a range of disciplines, each of whom brings a vital perspective, and often fresh eyes, to the discipline of Internet governance. By commissioning an ambitious program of research and developing a number of practical recommendations, the Commission hopes to help to break some of the logjams that threaten our personal, social and economic well being. Their report is scheduled for release in early 2016.

The stakes are high. If either side in the argument believes it has lost badly, the future of the Internet as a single, interconnected and generative part of contemporary life will be threatened.
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.