The 10-year extension of the IGF mandate is a testament to the IGF’s significant evolution over the past decade as the leading global forum for dialogue on Internet governance issues. What’s next?
As the Internet continues to evolve at breakneck speed, many critical issues still need to be addressed. A major area is Internet governance. This broad realm encompasses both governance of the Internet (essentially the business of ICANN and other technical organizations) and governance on the Internet (a range of issues affecting services and content, such as privacy and cybersecurity).
Last year, the U.N. General Assembly approved the renewal of the mandate of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) for another 10 years. Born in Tunis at the end of the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the IGF has evolved to serve as the leading global forum for dialogue on Internet governance issues. Since the first forum in 2016, the IGF has been an annual event.
The IGF now gathers a growing number of experts from academia, civil society, governments, industry and the technical community. Traditional topics of Internet governance involve setting rules, standards, policies and providing technical support so that the world can be connected on the global Internet. Going beyond the technical issues, the IGF also deals with complex social, economic and transnational issues related to the use of the Internet.
Getting to where we are today has been both a challenging and rewarding journey that is still in progress.
The IGF has gone through times of skepticism about both its continued existence and its ability to fulfill its mandate. Over time, the IGF has gradually expanded beyond its narrow circle as a “discussion only” forum to include processes that can produce tangible and useful outcomes, seen in the Best Practices Forums (BPF) and the Dynamic Coalitions. The 10-year extension of the IGF mandate is a testament to the IGF’s significant evolution over the past decade.
Earlier this month, over 2000 participants from 83 countries came together in Guadalajara, Mexico, with hundreds more participating remotely, to attend the 11th IGF meeting, the first since the mandate’s renewal.
As in previous years, ICANN’s Board directors, community leaders and senior staff attended the IGF. But unlike past years, the role of ICANN and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions did not take center stage in Guadalajara.
This is thanks to the Internet community that worked hard over the past few years to finalize the transition of the U.S. Government’s stewardship of the IANA functions to the global multistakeholder community. Instead, this year’s debate was focused on lessons learned from the IANA transition as a recent and successful example of a multistakeholder process in action.
With over 200 sessions, the 2016 IGF agenda covered the standard topics of Internet governance such as access, diversity, privacy and cybersecurity; plus more current issues related to online trade, the Internet of Things (IoT) and the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Links between SDGs, Internet governance and the IGF figured strongly on the agenda, with a main session and several other workshops organized on this topic. A common sentiment this year was that the IGF should focus more on the SDGs; a stance that was conveyed clearly during the “Taking Stock” session on the last day.
ICANN’s participation at IGF 2016 was led by CEO Göran Marby and Board Chair Stephen Crocker. Primary objectives were to emphasize the successful IANA stewardship transition as an example of how ICANN’s multistakeholder processes work, and to encourage participation in the ongoing work of ICANN’s Supporting Organizations and Advisory Committees.
ICANN’s goals are to continue supporting the multistakeholder model in Internet governance and contributing to global policy discourse with all interested parties – activities that are within ICANN’s mission and scope.
On the day before the event, ICANN organized a town hall session to reflect on the evolution of ICANN’s multistakeholder processes using the IANA stewardship transition as a case study. Presenters sought views from participants on their experiences with ICANN and how they envisage the challenges ahead.
In addition, ICANN community and organization staff planned and conducted workshops and roundtable discussions on a variety of topics such as the IANA transition, the new generic top-level domain (gTLD) Program, the role of noncommercial users in ICANN, law enforcement in the online world, and Asia and the next billion Internet users.
So, what’s next?
Geneva will host the 2017 IGF next December, and already discussions about strategic focus are underway. Holding the event in Geneva, the second home of the U.N. and to 192 government missions, may boost the participation of governments from developing countries and of non-U.S. businesses, both issues at Guadalajara.
The IGF Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) will meet early in the new year to determine the focus for the 2017 IGF. At the top of the agenda will be how to deal with the call made by many in Guadalajara for more attention to meeting the targets of the SDGs. No doubt, the MAG may want to concentrate on other issues like human rights and global trade accords.
After all, the U.N. Human Rights Council meets in Geneva, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) is based there. Once the focus is set, preparatory work can begin for the Geneva IGF.
All in all, 2017 will be an interesting year in furthering key goals in Internet governance.
Picture credits: kvitlauk
Will large emerging countries manage to reshape internet governance around their national interests? One thing is sure: tomorrow’s internet will not resemble today’s.
In recent years, global issues connected to the internet and its uses have vaulted into the highest realm of high politics. Among these issues internet governance is now one of the most lively and important topics in international relations.
It has long been ignored and restricted to small silos of experts; however, the leaks disclosed by Edward Snowden on large-scale electronic surveillance implemented by US intelligence agencies triggered a massive response to the historical “stewardship” of the internet by the United States.
Not surprisingly, the stakes are high: today 2.5 billion people are connected to the internet, and by 2030, the digital economy is likely to represent 20% of the world’s GDP. In emerging countries, the digital economy is growing from 15% to 25% every year.
Studies evoke 50 even 80 billion connected “things” by 2020. Beyond mere figures, internet governance sharpens everyone’s appetite – from big corporations to governments – for the internet has taken up such a place in our lives and touches on so many issues, such as freedom of expression to privacy, intellectual property rights, and national security.
It is worth underlining that the issue is particularly complex. For some, the governance of the internet should respect free market rules – a deregulated vision carried by the Clinton-Gore administration in the 1990s –, or remain self-regulated by techno-scientist communities as conceived of by libertarian internet pioneers.
For others, the advent of the internet in the area of law-making implies a return to the old rules and instruments, but this would mean putting aside the mutations produced by its practices, most importantly the expansion of expression and participation. For others, again, the ultimate legitimization would consist in adopting a Constitution or a Treaty of the internet which would elevate its governance to the global level.
De-Westernizing the internet?
A number of countries have criticized American “hegemony” over the internet (infrastructure, “critical resources” such as protocols, the domain names system, normative influence, etc.). To a large extent, the internet is the ambivalent product of American culture and the expression of its universalist and expansionist ideology.
As U.S. policymakers emphasized the importance of winning the battle of ideas both during the Cold War and in the post-2001 period, the ability to transmit America’s soft power via communications networks has been perceived as vital.
Consequently, in recent years, particularly since the Arab uprisings, governments around the world have become more alert to the disruptive potential of access to digital communications. Demographic factors are also behind calls for change: over the next decade, the internet’s centre of gravity will have moved eastwards.
Already in 2012, 66% of the world’s internet users lived in the non-Western world. However, the reasons for questioning the U.S.’s supremacy also lie in these countries’ defiance of the current internet governance system, which is accused of favoring the sole interests of the U.S.
While critical of the status quo, large emerging countries do not constitute a homogeneous block. Back in December 2012 in Dubai, when the Treaty to revise the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) was closely negotiated, some countries such as India, the Philippines and Kenya had rallied behind the U.S.
The Dubai negotiations nevertheless showed that these “swing states” – countries that have not decided which vision for the future of the internet they will support – are increasingly asserting their vision in order to get things moving.
Placed under the auspices of the United Nations-led International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the Dubai meeting therefore served as a powerful tribune to both contest American preeminence and call for multilateral internet governance.
More fundamentally, these tensions reflect another conception of the internet, which lays on a double foundation: on the national level, the claim that states have sovereign power over the management of the internet; and on the international level, the preeminence of states over other stakeholders, and the notion of intergovernmental cooperation to debate internet governance.
To this end, the arguments developed fit into a geostrategic context which has been reshaped by the emergence of new poles of influence. They are aimed at making the internet an instrument of both the domestic and foreign policies of one country. The preservation of state order, the fight against cybercrime, and the defense of commercial interests are several illustrations of elements that can be used to justify and advance the questioning of the current system.
China, given its demographic, economic and technological weight, is emblematic of the current “game”. Overall, China has sought to adopt a pragmatic approach: if Beijing does not agree with the concept of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) – the so-called “multi-stakeholder” principle would not guarantee an equal representation between the different stakeholders and regions of the world. It nevertheless integrated ICANN’s Governments Advisory Committee in 2009, and is now very active in promoting its own standards within the organizations where technical norms are negotiated.
Russia, for its part, has put forward several initiatives at the U.N. over the last fifteen years – all of which have built upon a firm opposition to the U.S. and have defended a neo-Hobbesian vision in which security considerations and the legitimacy of states to ensure their digital/information sovereignty play a critical role. Moscow has thus been active within U.N. intergovernmental agencies such as ITU, and regional ones such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the BRICS forum.
And then came Snowden
The stances taken by emerging countries unsurprisingly found favorable echoes after Edward Snowden’s revelations in June 2013. If Russia opportunely stood out by granting asylum to Snowden, Brazil promptly expressed its dissatisfaction.
President Dilma Rousseff, herself a victim of NSA wiretapping, took the lead of a virtuous crusade against the status quo: with the loss of the U.S.’s moral leadership, their stewardship over the agencies which manage the Internet is less tolerated. At the U.N. General Assembly, Rousseff somewhat aggressively criticized Washington, as such showing a will to federate emancipation towards the U.S. dependency.
Brasilia then intensified its diplomatic offensive by announcing an international summit on Internet governance – called NETmundial – to take place in April 2014 in Sao Paulo. In the meantime, Brazilian authorities promulgated the Marco Civil bill, a sort of Internet Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression, protection of privacy and net neutrality. Is the Brazilian stance in a post-Snowden context purely opportunistic?
Interestingly, Brazil appears to be taking the middle ground between the two governance “models” that have been under discussion so far – the multi-stakeholders and the multilateral – in a context where the Europeans have stepped aside.
Since the first World Summit for Information Society (WSIS) in 2005 Brasilia has been promoting free software and advancing a global internet governance model based on its own domestic model. Rousseff’s words fit into a long-term perspective, which sees in the opening of a new international scene – the Web – an opportunity to take the international lead, after the relative failures of former President Lula to position Brazil on international security issues.
The world is not flat
Will large emerging countries manage to reshape internet governance around their national interests? In the shift that was the last ITU’s WCIT meeting in Dubai in December 2012, the excessively polarized debates between self-proclaimed partisans of an “open and free” internet and the supporters of a governance resting on territorial sovereignty sparked off a strained discourse over a “digital Cold War” preceding an “internet Yalta”.
Since Snowden’s revelations emerged, the American reaction has particularly focused on storytelling: since states around the world question the U.S. oversight over the internet, it is because they want to fragment and “balkanize” the global internet – a discourse largely passed on by U.S. Net giants.
Well, the commercial strategies of the major internet companies themselves tend to intensify the fragmentation of online public spaces by creating distortions in internet users’ access to information and content sharing, that is to say by reducing both the openness and pluralism that have made the internet a great social value.
Here lies a powerful engine for contest, as it has been recently the case in Western Europe. Borders do reappear where they were not necessarily expected: Google, Apple or Amazon are building their own ecosystem, from which it is becoming hard to get out.
One thing is sure: tomorrow’s internet will not resemble today’s. Already the power of search engines diminishes the importance of the domain names system; cloud computing, the Internet of things and the spread of mobile internet are starting to radically transform practices and produce new complexities with regards to the internet’s outline and governance.
It is also certain that the situation will remain at a dead end if the two broad and opposed conceptions of the internet persist: a new space of freedom or a new instrument of control.
Photo credit: Paul Downey
There is a need for leadership on the highest political levels to curb a worrying trend towards limiting the open internet, seeking to use internet for intelligence gathering, or for repressing dissent, argues Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake
2015 seems to be a key year for a long-awaited (and long discussed) “reform” of Internet Governance. What are your predictions?
Indeed it will be an important year for internet governance. However, for me internet governance is more than just the scope of responsibilities and procedures in international organizations such as ICANN, WCIT and the IGF.
The broad goals of ensuring the internet remains open and that people´s human rights and fundamental freedoms apply also online, is influenced by decisions made by states and companies every day.
I see a worrying trend towards limiting the open internet, seeking to use internet for intelligence gathering, or for repressing dissent. There is a need for leadership on the highest political levels to curb this trend.
What should be the role of the EU?
[Tweet “The EU should develop a more coherent agenda with regard to internet governance.”]
This means diplomats from the European External Action Service, and Ministers and diplomats from Member States to better understand technology and how it works, and most importantly to push an ambitious agenda.
Civil society organizations and experts can help ensure there is sufficient knowledge, and connection to the various stakeholders.
Is Europe contributing enough to the global debate on Internet Governance?
I believe the EU can and should do more in showing leadership. After the credibility of the United States was hurt by the NSA revelations, the internet freedom agenda should be adopted by the EU, and given more meaning.
We have a historic sense of protecting people from an over reaching state, and need to show leadership in human rights online globally, as we have done with a human rights agenda in the past.
We should work with the US to restore trust and to work along a shared agenda. There are plenty of developing economies that we may consider as ´swing states´ in terms of seeking to pursue top-down governance, or to choose a forward looking internet governance agenda that puts human rights online in the centre.
What initiatives do you expect from the new European Commission?
I will continue to push for better coordination between different Commissioners, and with Member States, in developing a future proof en ambitious internet governance agenda.
Do you think the way ICANN is adjusting its governance is responding to current concerns about Internet Governance?
We have to give it a fair chance. It would be a real improvement if the multi-stakeholder model actually succeeds and further develops. Dominance of any one significant player should be avoided, and that included the United States.
At the same time, fundamental principles and values must be ensured. I will observe and evaluate the impact with great interest, also as a member of the Global Commission on Internet Governance.
How to reconcile the tension between current IG, led by nongovernmental players, and increasing demands for a stronger role for governments? How big is the risk that governments, notably from non-liberal (or undemocratic) countries, could use the current transition to take over more powers over the Internet?
Actually, governments do not depend on internet governance platforms. They can adopt laws without input from multiple stakeholders, while impacting many of them. We see this happening every day. What some of these governments with repressive agenda´s seek, is legitimacy to do what they are already doing.
The transition to more global governance was needed, and should be considered an opportunity to create a more shared responsibility globally. Given the strong interlinkage between economic interests and the open internet, we must seek…
[Tweet “…to convince as many people as possible that repression and fragmentation is a boomerang.”]
I also worry about the role of major companies and significant market players, that put commercial interests above all else, and at the expense of the open internet and its users.
We must ensure that as the internet is to a large extent dependent on private actors, that there is sufficient oversight. I would ideally like to see an internet governance system based on democratic values globally.