Last week, Mexico hosted the 11th Internet Governance Forum (IGF), an annual UN-convened conference where diplomats, tech experts, companies, academics and non-profit groups discuss anything and everything related to the internet. This was the first IGF since the UN General Assembly renewed its mandate last year that required the forum to improve, particularly in terms of attracting greater participation from stakeholders in developing countries.
If the 3000 registered participants at last week’s IGF is anything to go by, the new and improved IGF is a success. New topics such as international trade agreements and the future of the digital economy reflected wider global angst about globalization and job loss. There was also increased visibility of gender issues in workshops, although panel composition in many non-gender based sessions still showed a significant bias towards men. Sustainable development figured prominently in the discussions as part of a global effort to use information and communications technologies (ICTs) to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Part of the success of IGF, however, is not its official program, but its side meetings. With such a wide range of issues under discussion, the IGF is perhaps the best opportunity participants have each year to meet others who normally attend separate meeting circuits. This use of IGF as a facilitator for connecting with others goes back to the original intent of the IGF as documented in the 2005 Tunis Agenda and probably should be marketed more to encourage greater participation from governments, many of whom are still suspicious about the usefulness of a forum that does not make decisions.
Despite improvements, the IGF is still chronically underfunded and struggles to deliver on everything asked of it. Like many internet ventures, volunteerism and ad-hoc funding from supportive governments, nonprofits and tech companies keep it afloat. It is not clear, however, if this strategy will last until the end of the IGF’s second mandate in 2025 given the increasing number of events added to the annual internet governance calendar, each which increasingly demand a slice of stakeholders’ time and resources.
In addition, the rise of nationalism in many countries could further erode governmental support for IGF, which is fundamentally an exercise in international cooperation. Another complication is the creation of the multistakeholder and unfortunately named Science and Technology and Innovation (STI) Forum under the auspices of the SDGs. Originally, the intention was for the STI Forum to steer clear of ICTs and concentrate on science, technologies other than ICTs and innovation. However, ICTs and the internet are so integral to science and innovation that overlap has become inevitable. With developing countries being highly committed to the SDGs, which are closely aligned with their needs, and less committed to the IGF, which is still viewed skeptically as supporting a U.S.-centric view of what the internet should be, there is a risk that the IGF could lose government and private sector interest. Throughout its life, the IGF’s biggest moral support has always come from civil society. Sadly, moral support does not pay the bills. If governments and the private sector refocus their scarce resources on the SDGs, then the IGF may find itself being absorbed somewhere else or abandoned altogether.
Ultimately, the resource and overlap challenges facing the IGF are a symptom of the challenges associated with defining internet governance, which currently incorporates both governance of the Internet (how the protocols work, etc.) and governance on the Internet (how should content be regulated online, etc.). There are no “electricity governance” forums where participants discuss anything and everything that use electricity, or “road governance” forums where cyclist health issues are discussed because cyclists use roads. Instead, cyclist health is rightly considered part of health portfolio instead of the roads portfolio. But in internet governance, any issue that has an internet connection is currently subsumed into the increasingly distorted basket labeled “internet governance.” The larger the basket, the harder it is to manage.
Supporters of the IGF need to be more discerning in their definitions of what is of relevance and what should be nudged back to the venues that have traditionally dealt with a particular topic. For example, issues of human rights and trade online are probably best dealt in venues that have explicit responsibilities in those areas, such as the UN Human Rights Council and the World Trade Organization.
Part of the problem may be that those venues are not always as open and multistakeholder as the IGF, which has therefore attracted forum shoppers not able to influence the decision-making processes of traditional multilateral venues. The ultimate solution to saving the IGF may be to ensure that older international institutions take on some of the characteristics of the IGF, allowing stakeholders to gain confidence in them, and prevent the IGF being overburdened with issues that are best dealt with elsewhere.