IGF: A Forum in need of reform

14 Sep 2011

The internet is changing the world. Like the printing press before it, the
internet is transforming the way humans interact and instigating change,
which is spreading through all elements of life.

It brings with it a huge range of challenges and opportunities, not least the
challenge of governing in a world which is fast changing, decentralised and
trans-boundary.

The issue of governance was on the agenda at the World Summit on the
Information Society in 2003 and 2005. The model adopted was the Internet
Governance Forum – an annual open forum where all stakeholder groups
(governments, businesses, civil society and the technical community) come
together to discuss internet governance issues.

The IGF does not make decisions or recommendations but allows multi-
stakeholder, bottom-up policy to be made and shapes norms through an
inclusive global dialogue.

The sixth Forum was held in Nairobi, Kenya, at the end of September, but
the future of the IGF is uncertain. Various countries have tired of the dialogue
approach and calls for new internet policy bodies abound. Many of these
come from developing countries concerned that the ‘institutional gap’ is being
filled by actors who are economically or politically powerful. These include
the OECD, the Council of Europe, and global companies, many of whom are
western-based.

In recent months, IBSA (an initiative by India, Brazil and South Africa) has
called for a new global body, and China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan
have jointly suggested ‘an international code of conduct for the information
society’.

These challenges to the multi-stakeholder model are worrying. Top-down
policy making is not well-suited to the internet, which is a fast-changing
network of networks – some of which are publicly owned, the majority
private. Furthermore, the inclusion of stakeholders other than governments
is essential to prevent heavy regulation and protect openness, inclusivity and
consideration of the broader public interest.

At the same time, some concerns about the IGF are genuine, and if it does
not contribute effectively to governing the internet, it will be sidelined.

As we look towards the 2012 IGF in Azerbaijan, the challenge is daunting,
but clear: the Forum must realign itself to be effective in the changing world of
internet governance.

A working group on improving the IGF is investigating whether it might make
non-binding recommendations. This would be a positive move, enabling it to
more directly influence decisions in other forums.

Similarly, in Nairobi we heard growing calls for the IGF to develop a set of
multi-stakeholder principles for internet governance by 2015. As the only truly
global principles, these would have significant influence.

There were also calls for human rights to be the main theme of the next
Forum. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is, in many senses, the
international Magna Carta, such a theme would allow all stakeholders to see
shared valued in a people-centred internet environment.

Dixie Hawtin