The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) has reached a critical turning point. As the reform discussions mature, it is time to take the next steps. To remain the ‘same’ in terms of its mission, IGF must change in terms of operation. Not evolving into IGF Plus could make the Forum irrelevant.
The IGF in its current form is not able to fully address some of our most pressing governance challenges, which could hasten the ongoing disintegration of the internet. Long gone are the days when common tech standards alone could ensure an integrated internet. Today, the preservation of a global and interoperable internet can only be achieved if there are spaces where citizens, companies, and countries can protect their interests while realising their potential for economic and societal growth.
The IGF can become a ‘digital home’ of humanity through its mandate from the World Summit on Information Society (2005), its policy mileage dating back to 2006, and its smart balance of ‘multi’ approaches by being a multistakeholder body anchored in a multilateral space (the United Nations).
This text aims to contribute towards the vibrant discussion about the Leadership Panel, the IGF, and digital governance in general.
5 REASONS for the IGF Leadership Panel
1. Policy footprint: increasing the relevance of IGF as a space to address digital policy
The IGF policy footprint has been shrinking. Back in 2006, the IGF became the only global hub for addressing internet governance. Today, initiatives are mushrooming worldwide in the form of calls, commissions, and panels as countries and companies search for solutions for digital challenges. Additionally, what were once dedicated tech gatherings such as South by Southwest and the Lisbon Web Summit are quickly becoming policy forums with data protection, AI, and cybersecurity high on the agenda.
The real question is why the IGF has not evolved into a space where citizens, companies, and countries can address their policy concerns. For example, why did the Christchurch Call debate not land at the IGF? Or, why do so many data and AI partnerships and discussions bypass the IGF. One of the reasons is that many decision-makers are not aware of the IGF.
And even if they are aware of it, they see it as a single annual event. The IGF is rarely perceived as a facility available throughout the year for multistakeholder and multidisciplinary policy discussions. There is also a lack of awareness that the IGF can facilitate variable speed and architecture of policy debates. For example, governments, businesses, and civil society can gather around issues of their concern and move on without being blocked by consensus while, at the same time, remaining open for anyone to join the debate.
The IGF has some unique advantages compared to most other policy spaces: it adheres to core values of the UN and the global community; it ensures the transparency of all deliberations and representing; it is a simple entry point for all those who cannot follow the ever-increasing number of parallel digital governance processes. This includes, in particular, small and developing countries, as well as marginalised groups.
All of these elements should be communicated to decision-makers worldwide. It could be one of the main functions of the Leadership Panel, which can act as the IGF’s (much needed) ‘salesperson’. This function could broaden the IGF’s footprint and contribute to the realisation of the IGF’s potential as a public policy good for inclusive, informed, and impactful policy deliberations, in accordance with SDG 16.
2. Louder voices: amplify IGF messages and expertise
The IGF is ‘shy’. In the global media, it barely exists. It does not well convey the knowledge, experience, and expertise generated in its work. Being shy is fine on a personal level, but for international initiatives, it is an obligation to communicate what is being done. One immediate example can be seen in the ongoing pandemic crisis. Namely, there was very little international awareness that the IGF was among the first bodies that practised remote participation and hybrid meetings, dating back to IGF 2006 in Athens.
The Leadership Panel with the prominence and prestige of its membership can better amplify the knowledge and expertise the IGF is home to.
3. Policy conveyor belt: linking the IGF to other policy spaces
It is essential that policy development transcends boundaries and organisational structures in order to overcome the risk of the IGF simply serving the limited number of IGFers. As the UN ToR on Leadership Panel stipulates, the policy conveyor belt should move in both directions to and from IGF.
The Leadership Panel should help connect the body to the broader UN system, technical communities, major digital gatherings, and business organisations and networks, to name a few.
As digitalisation becomes mainstream within traditional policy spheres – such as health, trade, and the environment – the Leadership Panel could assist this ongoing transition by connecting the various policy dots.
4. Genuine inclusion: from nominal to substantive participation
Increasingly, internet governance spaces are becoming spaces of exclusion. Rather than formal exclusion – as most of these spaces are nominally open for anyone to join – it is a much deeper exclusion due to, mainly, a lack of capacity and resources to participate. Ultimately, the voices of small and developing countries and marginalised communities are very weak in the internet governance space, including the IGF.
One of the main reasons is the sheer number of policy processes – amounting to more than 1,000 worldwide – that is simply beyond the policy reach of most communities, companies, and countries. In order to deal with this policy disadvantage, small actors often argue for a ‘one stop shop’ or any solution that could make overwhelming complexities more manageable.
The Leadership Panel, together with help desks and other aspects of the strengthened IGF, could help bring ‘missing’ actors into the IGF and other digital processes.
5. Policy efficiency: reducing forum shopping
(Un)intentionally forum shopping is becoming the modus operandi of global digital governance. Actors are creating new spaces or hop from space to space where they believe they can maximise their impacts. It is noticeable, for example, in the field of digital standards where prominent actors look for forums that provide them with the greatest potential to advance their interests. And we are now seeing it unfold in AI governance where new initiatives are seemingly multiplying on a weekly basis.
The Leadership Panel, together with mapping of governance processes and greater transparency across the field, could increase policy efficiency and reduce forum shopping in digital governance.
5 CONCERNS for the IGF Leadership Panel
1. The Leadership Panel is only one aspect of IGF Plus
The Leadership Panel is only one step toward IGF Plus. Some other structural changes are required, including the development of help desks to assist ‘missing’ actors in digital governance processes. IGF Plus also requires spaces where each stakeholder group can discuss policy issues in their own tracks. Parliamentarians reconvened their own track at IGF 2019 in Berlin. Governments who have often voiced the need for their track could get their space within the wider IGF framework. The same applies to business and civil society.
2. IGF and Digital Compact
It is not clear if and how the IGF and the Leadership Panel can contribute to the process towards developing the Digital Compact, to be adopted in 2023.
Both the IGF and the Digital Compact are mentioned in the same section of the ‘Our Common Agenda‘, the UN SG’s visionary plan for dealing with the world’s future challenges, including digital ones.
The missing link between two processes could be interpreted as intentional constructive ambiguity living to IGF, Member States to develop necessary interplays. One should definitely avoid two parallel processes. The Leadership Panel could help in communicating the need for convergences between IGF deliberations and discussions on the Digital Compact.
3. Preserving IGF as a space for vibrant discussions
One justified concern is that any reform of the IGF should not endanger what is already achieved in terms of inclusive and vibrant debates among those who follow and attend IGF meetings. Adding a negotiation component that is driven to draft outcome documents would endanger current IGF dynamics.
This justified concern, which is used often in criticism of the Leadership Council and the move towards IGF Plus, is based on a few false premises. Firstly, in the ToR for the IGF Leadership Panel, there is no indication of drafting policies.
Secondly, even if the IGF and the Leadership Panel would like to provide ‘prescriptions’, it would not reflect the current way of dealing with digital governance issues worldwide. If you analyse digital governance, you can see that every issue is a delicate trade-off, reflecting two main complexities: that concerning the impacts of digitalisation on society ranging from security to human rights and the economy and that related to the wide range of interests triggered by digitalisation.
Thus, digital governance is much more analogue – a spectrum of shades and colours – than binary prescriptions. What IGF Plus and the Leadership Panel can do is to communicate a wide range of views and options as they are presented in IGF deliberations. This richness and diversity of policy proposals and solutions would be particularly useful for decision-makers worldwide. The Leadership Panel should ensure that IGF outputs (be they messages from annual meetings, reports from Best Practice Forums and Policy Networks, etc.) land on the table of policy- and decision-makers and receive the necessary attention.
4. Avoid capturing by vested interest
This is a justified concern often mentioned in debates on IGF reform. The very strength of the IGF – its informal structure and lack of rigid rules – could be easily turned into a weakness. Namely, this ‘loose’ structure could be captured by actors with considerable human, institutional and financial resources. Let say, any stakeholder – including AI bots in online events – could register and send hundreds of ‘participants’ to an IGF workshop who would each have a right to speak. The best ‘immunity’ against policy capturing is transparency from funding structure to, for example, reliable data on the composition of proposed vs. adopted proposals for workshops, number of speakers from various actors and stakeholder groups, etc.
Concern over preventing policy capturing can be seen in the ToR of the Leadership Council. The process of proposing candidates for the Panel is open to anyone. The composition of the Panel will be very diverse in terms of stakeholders, regions, and other ‘diversities’. The UN SG went a long way from his formal prerogative to simply appoint the Panel according to his discretion. While the architecture of the Panel can prevent policy capturing, transparency in the Panel’s work should be continuous in order to safeguard against this risk.
5. Solve terminological confusion
Internet Governance Forum could be a misnomer as the IGF becomes more ‘digital’ than the internet, focusing mainly on issues triggered by TCP/IP driven networks. As it would be difficult to change the name of the IGF, it is nonetheless important to recognise this evolution towards ‘digital’ as a whole. Thus, the Leadership Panel should become more ‘digital’ in its work, communication, and focus.
While building on these five reasons and five concerns, the IGF Leadership Panel should accelerate the evolution of digital governance in general and the IGF in particular. It should build on the great achievements of the IGF, its community, and, in particular, the small secretariat.
We have all the ingredients to move the IGF into a new phase while adhering to its core values. Paradoxically, the strength of the IGF, since its beginnings at the WSIS, is that it has always been equally (un)acceptable for all actors. In Tunis, the IGF emerged as a reasonable compromise between those who argued for a new UN body that deals with the internet and those who did not want any discussion whatsoever on internet governance within the UN system. Today, we have to revisit this compromise in new circumstances and strike the right balance between a wide range of interests, positions, and perceptions.
The Leadership Panel as a part of the efforts to strengthen the overall IGF, is a timely move on the journey towards inclusive, impactful, and informed digital governance.