The Internet Governance Forum, or IGF, is the main space for debate on Internet governance worldwide and aims to create an environment for dialogue among the key players in this ecosystem. However, given the fact that it is an event of multistakeholder nature, the IGF encounters some difficulties related to maintaining the expectations, interests and engagement of the different sectors involved in the forum. This article, therefore, aims to present some on the challenges faced by the global IGF in recent years.
What is the IGF?
The Internet Governance Forum, or IGF, is an annual event devoted to discussions on policies related to the technical, regulatory and social aspects of the Internet. It is the result of a series of deliberations at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) aimed at establishing a space for multistakeholder dialogue on the network of networks’ governance.
The forum was built under guidelines of transparency, inclusiveness and horizontality, with the intent to become a forum where actors from civil society, governments, the private sector and academia could discuss the challenges and future of a connected society.
The meeting’s schedule accepts proposals from the global community, which are evaluated by a working group called Multistakeholder Advisory Group, or just MAG, responsible for selecting the workshops that will be held at the forum. The criteria for evaluating activities take into account multistakeholderism, geographical diversity and gender equality.
It is possible to cite numerous advantages brought by the forum to the global community, being the emergence of similar initiatives of national or regional character one of the most relevant ones. These initiatives surpass the mark of 80 national and regional IGFs today.
Initially, the annual meetings were designed to constitute a period of five years, beginning in 2006. In 2010, however, there was an extension of activities for five more years and finally, in 2015, the forum was extended to the next decade. The IGF of 2016, therefore, was the first of this new series.
The IGF involves a variety of cultures and expectations. At the same time, there are governments familiar with protocols of intergovernmental meetings, the private sector in search of concrete and commercial results, NGOs and activists that lead the discussion to human rights defence, and academia and the technical sector focused on technical or theoretical approaches.
In this context, the great difficulty faced by the forum is the conciliation of all the interests involved and the maintenance of the commitment and participation of these groups.
This article, therefore, aims to discuss the challenges of engagement faced by the global IGF in recent years, focusing on governments, pursuing to identify some of the factors that offer barriers to the engagement of this group.
The quantitative analysis was based on the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee publication “Report on the first ten years of IGF”.
What is multistakeholderism?
The choice for the multistakeholder model refers to the history of the Internet itself, since its origin, evolution and functioning are the result of the participation of several sectors of society.
Internet governance is not the first field to adopt the multistakeholder model, but it is recognized as a recent and successful implementation.
Its origins go back to the discussions delegated by the Internet Governance Working Group and during ICANN’s creation, which proposed a model without a leading authority or interest group that would be responsible for conducting the discussions, but a horizontal, inclusive and participatory dynamic in which each stakeholder could have a space to defend their own interests. It is, therefore, a system that involves a network of shared rights, duties and responsibilities in a transparent, open and participatory decision-making process.
“[Internet governance is] the development and application by governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that influence the evolution and use of the Internet.” (extracted from the WGIG Report)
However, despite the notoriety of the model applied to Internet governance and its acceptance and recognition by the community, its own definition does not achieve consensus and still remains object of divergence by some of the actors involved in the ecosystem. In the same way, its implementation equally finds dissent, according to some authors.
The very definition adopted by the WSIS Internet Governance Working Group leaves much to be discussed when it does not include the technical sector and academia.
Another controversy is related to the attribution of roles to interest groups, since the dynamicity of stakeholders’ involvement in the ecosystem poses considerable difficulties when allocating and defining the performance of each participant within specific limits.
In addition, there are barriers related to equal participation of all stakeholders, seeing that they find themselves in diverse conditions regarding economic power, expertise and political influence. It is impossible to put the material conditions of a developed country government and a civil society organization from the Global South on equal footing, for instance.
In this sense, the NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement tried to predict, in its final text, the existence of “checks and balances” mechanisms to counterbalance the deliberative power of Internet governance actors.
However, even with the existence of debates about the disparity of conditions in which the stakeholders are positioned, the challenge of balancing influences faces barriers in the absence of parameters and criteria used to define qualitative participation of each group. That is, there are no efficient means to assess the extent to which processes are designed to effectively incorporate the perspectives of all stakeholders involved.
For this reason, there is a growing wave of skepticism about multistakeholder processes, and the model is routinely questioned by the actors involved and by external agents. This wave, of course, is reflected in the IGF annual meetings.
Governments, Multistakeholderism, and the IGF
National States appear as actors with competence to formulate Internet-related policies within their jurisdiction.
However, the decentralized nature of the Internet poses some challenges to the traditional authority of governments, which offer some resistance to adapt to the legitimacy and representativeness exercised by other sectors involved in the ecosystem.
It is challenging to determine criteria to evaluate the engagement of each of the groups in the multistakeholder model, and there are alternative ways of measuring stakeholder participation.
One of these ways is to observe the activity and presence of each one in the Internet Governance Forum, which presents itself as the most substantial event for discussion on the topic.
In numerical terms, the initial years of IGF were marked by a relative balance between participants from the various sectors. The initial editions maintained an average participation close to 20% of the total present in the event coming from each of the stakeholders.
However, the years brought the rising of an overwhelming majority of participants from civil society organizations, reaching 44.6% in 2017 and 45% in 2018. Simultaneously, there has been a significant reduction in the participation of the private sector and the technical community, which represented only 11% of participants last year.
Governments, on the other hand, remained relatively stable, with 28% in 2006, 23% in 2008, 28% in 2009, 24% in 2010, 26% in 2012, 17% in 2013, 24% in 2014, 22% in 2015 and approximately 20% in the subsequent years.
Numerical assessment is frequently used to measure the involvement of sectors, but it is a standard considered inefficient because it does not qualitatively evaluate the performance of these groups in the processes and debates. Another measure for analysis would be the stakeholder division of annual workshop proposals submission, which would reveal not only the presence, but also the initiative and the active participation of interest groups.
The same scenario is repeated locally. In the Brazilian IGF in 2017, government participants constituted 16% of the total attendees, but the sector ranked last in the number of proposals submitted, with only 10% of the total.
The percentage of attendees per sector, therefore, does not necessarily reflect the quality of participation and initiative of this group. Although governments have maintained a constant and numerically balanced presence rate in recent years, they have received the last positions when measuring proposal submissions for workshops, which shows, within the limits of this analysis, a certain participatory gap.
IGF Engagement Challenges
- Acceptance of the multistakeholder model by governments
Historically, a key challenge in the adoption of multistakeholderism by the public sector is that of accepting the model as legitimate, given that governments tend to see themselves as representatives of their respective populations, even coming from states that maintain questionable democratic processes.
There are, therefore, difficulties on the part of this sector in interpreting the same representativeness and legitimacy coming from the other stakeholders.
In this sense, Internet governance has already witnessed several articulations from governments and organizations of a predominantly multilateral nature to bring the formulation of Internet-related policies to the traditional scenario of political discussion between states.
These initiatives can be illustrated by the regulatory and leadership efforts within the International Telecommunication Union, the influence of some national governments on ICANN-governed processes, or the creation and maintenance of non-multistakeholder events parallel to the IGF.
In 2018, for example, the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference was scheduled for the same week as the Internet Governance Forum, creating, even if unintentionally, a clear interest dispute between the actors involved in both ecosystems.
- b) Asymmetry of power between governments
Likewise, there is another discussion about asymmetry of power between the states and the unequal influence levels of developed countries when compared to those from developing ones. In all meetings with data on geographical origin of attendees, for example, North America and Europe accounted for more than 35% of those present.
It is also important to emphasize that the regional diversity of attendees is highly influenced by the location of the event. The host country is generally responsible for a significant amount of those present. In the Joao Pessoa IGF, for example, 49% of the people attending the event were Brazilian. In this sense, issues involving the budget required for hosting the forum are decisive for participation.
Despite being an event officially linked to the United Nations, the IGF fits in as an extra-budgetary project and is not funded by the organization itself. Thus, the maintenance of its activities happens through sponsorship and high investments made by the host country.
The high costs involved in organizing the meeting also prove to be a barrier to a large number of countries interested in holding the forum. The greater ease on the part of developed nations to afford hosting such events is also reflected in IGF participants, who end up being predominantly from host countries or geographically close.
For the Global South, which does not have the same amount of available public resources, the budget turns out to be a determining factor of participation, having fewer representatives when the meetings take place in the Global North.
It is also worth noting that in 2019 a cycle of three meetings held in European countries — Switzerland, France and Germany — will be completed.
Challenges related to the format of the event
The IGF was planned with the intention of being a neutral process, not duplicated and non-binding. In other words, whatever discussions would take place within the forum, it was clear that such discussions should not be deliberative or substitute for international agreements.
Although organized under the competence of the United Nations, the IGF does not have the character of a forum where there are political negotiations, deliberations or motions.
The main idea involved is to build debates that will form part of a multistakeholder agenda. After all, the IGF is a space where individuals from more than 140 countries engage in discussions and acquire the potential to disseminate the knowledge gained in regional and local contexts.
However, even though it is a forum in which diverse debates take place with the participation of the best experts in the field, the only formalizations on the conclusions drawn in the workshops are the reports of the sessions, which are often succinct and do not cover the complexity of the views. In addition, there is no way to ensure or encourage debates to be disseminated subsequently by participants.
For these reasons, the lack of a formal outcome document is one of the criticisms suffered by the forum around the world. The absence of more concrete results of the IGF meetings has made it difficult to meet the expectations of some interest groups, especially governments, who could use the documents produced at the meeting to formulate local policies.
The document produced during NETmundial, for example, served as a basis for legislation and policy formulation at local level.
The Internet challenges the sovereignty of national states to legislate and enforce regulations, since the transnational nature of networks makes the mediation of all the interests present in a connected society ineffective when done exclusively by governments.
In the same way, current technologies are transforming the nature of sovereignty traditionally conceived by the Westphalian model, increasing the participation of non-state actors and designing a highly efficient mechanism of distribution of power over information.
Much influenced by the very origins of the Internet, the model adopted for its governance is multistakeholder. That is, it counts on the participation of different actors affected in its processes.
Multistakeholderism, while representing a considerable advantage in terms of democratic participation, has some blind spots, such as representativeness, equal footing and influence among interest groups.
Just as the multistakeholder model is not without criticism, the IGF, as the most important event for the Internet governance ecosystem, also experiences challenges of engagement and balance of power among stakeholders, requiring reflection on the expectations of each sector involved.
Many governments are reluctant to legitimize the participation of other sectors as representative bodies. Likewise, they are additionally in divergent positions among themselves within the IGF, with a predominant participation of national authorities of developed countries. Moreover, the data on government participation and workshop proposal submissions also suggest an engagement gap when it comes to the forum.
At any rate, the international regime for the Internet continues to be constantly changing, requiring regular involvement on the part of the diverse groups acting in its governance.
According to Kahn, the key to success for the Internet is to ensure and encourage stakeholder engagement by creating a conducive environment for security, development and democratization of the use of information and communication technologies.
Governments, in this context, occupy the primary role of applying the principles and asserting the conclusions reached in the discussion bodies of the forums, hence requiring a more active engagement by the sector.
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