The end of this year will see yet one more effort by some governments to grab greater control of the internet when the United Nations General Assembly meets in New York.
As an appetizer to that main event, the annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) took place this week in Brazil and at the center of the debate was how decisions over the internet’s future evolution should be made.
Will it be “multistakeholder” which means that everyone including governments, business, the technical community and civil society has an equal say? Or will it be “multilateral,” which means that governments will be in the driving seat, with the other groups invited to advise in ways that governments devise?
That has been the underlining theme of the conference leading to seemingly endless references to both “multistakeholder” and “multilateral” systems. Given the diverse crowd, the word “multistakeholder” won in terms of repetition and publicly stated defense.
But in the surest sign that the world’s governments remain divided over the issue, the official “chair’s summary” [PDF] of the conference provided on the last day made no mention of the issue, talking instead in generalities such as “facilitating policy debates”. Only in the United Nations would the key discussion point of a conference be deliberately omitted.
The fact that the event was held in Brazil was also a conscious compromise. Brazil sits midway between two groups of governments.
On the left lie the US, UK, and most Western nations who are argue for the multistakeholder approach, not least because as a whole their societies will have far greater sway on decisions if all parties are at the table, rather than just governments.
On the right lie the more authoritarian regimes of China, Russia, Iran and so on, who see the multistakeholder model as a constant constraint on their efforts for greater influence over the evolution of this global communications network.
Brazil, along with India and Turkey, sit in the middle. And while India was recently been persuaded to come out in support of the “multistakeholder” approach, both Brazil and Turkey has played the middle ground arguing that, to them, “multilateral” means governments and other stakeholders.
It is a distinction that is taking up a huge amount of time and energy in internet governance circles with seemingly no movement either way.
This is not the first time this tension has played out. The first big governmental punch-up was back in 2005 at the World Summit on the Information Society (IGF) – the event where the Internet Governance Forum was created as a compromise to shifting control of the internet’s functioning away from the US government and a number of technical bodies, including, most significantly, ICANN.
Following the world summit, there were almost annual efforts to expand government influence, the biggest ones playing out at the four-year Plenipotentiary meetings of the UN body that deals with technology, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). In 2010 and in a lesser degree in 2014, efforts to expand the ITU’s remit to cover the internet were attempted but beaten back.
Things came to a head back in 2012 at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) when the same argument played out over an update of the international rules covering telecommunications. In the end, a strong push for greater government control led to a damaging split and a treaty that almost all Western countries simply refused to sign.
This time around, in 2015, it is the 10-year anniversary of the WSIS process that is being used for another push. (The UN loves 10-year anniversaries.)
The IGF itself
The IGF is an odd animal. Created in 2005 as an outcome of the big WSIS fight, it tries to blend UN government-led culture with the business and technical community approaches to conferences.
The blend has never quite worked however, leading to an odd combination of slow and formal events tacked onto the front and back of more discursive workshops.
Every year, attendees complain about the entire morning of the first day being taken up with a long slew of official speeches that few listen to. Yet each year the formal speeches grow longer and more numerous. Meanwhile, the number of workshops also grows each year, despite seemingly constant efforts to make them more manageable. And combined, it makes the event unwieldy and difficult to manage.
In just the latest demonstration of this poor mixing, the chair of a key session on the last day was booed when he was forced to shut down the public mic after just 30 minutes in order to keep to schedule. The schedule was another long list of largely uninspiring speeches from VIPs.
The irony was not lost on attendees who had lined up in order to express their appreciation of the multistakeholder model and the importance of keeping the IGF as a free and open forum, even as they were told to sit down so their elders and betters could make speeches written for diplomats thousands of miles away.
This year’s IGF was big and busy thanks in large part to the fact that the UN General Assembly will decide for a second time when to “extend its mandate” – or, in other words, approve another five years of the annual meeting.
Running to stand still
And it is that decision – the renewal of the IGF for a second five-year term – that will be the entry point for the broader politics of the UN General Assembly in December. A WSIS+10 document has been produced through lengthy, and tedious, discussions held in the past few years.
In reality, the document says nothing much of interest and could just as easily have been written 10 years ago. But, as with many things in the UN, victory comes in arguing to a standstill.
If nothing happens, the status quo will largely be maintained with one important exception: this time next year, it is expected that the US government will finally yield control of the so-called IANA functions to domain overseer ICANN.
That transfer will remove a key driver for some governments to support the Chinese/Russian perspective on internet control. Without Uncle Sam in control, the multistakeholder arguments seem less hollow and more reasonable.
And that is why attendees at the IGF in Brazil face the rather unsatisfying spectacle of having to close what by all accounts has been a dynamic and interesting conference by listening to diplomats read dull scripts intended to gently nudge other diplomats into doing nothing in a month’s time.