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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

 

Internet Governance Forum Takes Shape
 

Milton Mueller posts to ICANN's Non-Commercial Constituency discussion list:

Desai asks for advice on "themes" and program committee; no date set for first meeting. IGP encourages civil society actors to submit preferred "themes" such as human rights, freedom of expression and privacy, as few governmental or business entities are interested in those topics.

February 20, 2006. The open consultation in Geneva on the emerging Internet Governance Forum Feb. 16-17 managed to build consensus around a few features of the new institution, including open participation, a 4-day time span for the first meeting, and a structure that combines large plenaries with breakout groups.

The Chair of the meeting, India's Nitin Desai, concluded by issuing a call for participants to propose a structure for the "multistakeholder group" that would vet the Forum's agenda, and asked for more public input on the "themes" or discussion topics for the agenda of the first meeting in Athens. The meeting was marked by tensions over "multistakeholder governance" and efforts by some governments and business interests to make certain topics off-limits to the Forum.

Nearly everyone who spoke gave rhetorical support to the "multistakeholder principle" - the idea that governments, business and civil society should be equal partners in developing policies through the IGF. In reality, governments of all types constantly chafed at the new model, and repeatedly threatened to revert to old ways. The government of Iran openly complained that it had to listen to so many civil society voices. The European Union, though committed enough to the principle to set up a special meeting with civil society actors, had similar trouble accepting diverse views. Some governments even proposed that the forum have three separate Bureaus, one for governments, one for business, and one for civil society -- an idea that, if implemented, would confine the different stakeholders to separate decision making silos and eliminate true cross-sector dialogue. Nevertheless, the meeting itself was run on an equal status basis.

Sharp exchanges took place over the nature and scope of the themes or issues the IGF could take up. As expected, business and Western governments urged the IGF to avoid anything controversial or anything that intersected with the activities of existing international organizations. They tended to favor spam and cybercrime as focal topics. Some complained that these participants viewed the IGF as a once-off annual meeting rather than as a true policy development process feeding into more authoritative venues. Brazil and other G77 nations, on the other hand, wanted to use the Forum to develop "public policy principles" for the coordination of internet resources, and -- picking up on a proposal from the IGP -- saw a role for it as a vehicle for the development of an Internet framework convention. It became apparent that efforts by the EU and Australia to keep the IGF away from those topics was motivated by their attempt to resolve the unfinished WSIS business by means of private, bilateral, government-to-government negotiations with the United States. Civil society actors present at the meeting strongly opposed those efforts, noting that if the truly important and controversial issues were removed from the Forum and confined to govt-govt meetings, then para 72 of the WSIS agenda has been completely abandoned and the Forum's promise of broader, more open and inclusive form of policy development has been rendered hollow.

The structure of a IGF "Program Committee" or "Bureau" was another key area of controversy. This would be the representative body designed to make decisions about agenda and some content. IGP proposed a 12-person council, composed of 5 government representatives (one from each geographic region), 2 business, 2 civil society, and 2 academic/technical, plus the chair. Most Western governments, the private sector and civil society supported a small body, which they preferred to call a "program committee" in order to emphasize its limited powers. Some governments, however, wanted a larger body which they could populate with representatives of their preference, turning the thing into a top-heavy and politicized decision-making authority.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Desai summarized the results as follows:
* A date for the first IGF will be announced in a few days.
* The Forum will have open participation.
* The first IGF meeting in Athens will take 4 days
* There will be a plenary and space for smaller meetings.
* Participants were asked to fix their ideas on three major themes and transmit them to the Secretariat by March 31.
* It will be a UN process and thus will need a host country agreement
* There was no consensus on a management structure, or even on what to call
the representative decision making body. Desai did, however, rule out separate bureaus. He asked participants (especially governments) to consider this issue and respond by Feb. 28. Once the UN process constitutes it, they will solicit names from the various stakeholders and that will take several weeks.
* In a victory for the civil society advocates, Desai concluded that the text of the WSIS Agenda doesn't rule out any topic. What the Forum discusses, he said, is
just a matter of priorities.

There were strong demands for some kind of regional process to accompany things. Desai noted that such a process can't get off the ground easily, as it must involve the regional commissions. All in all, the outlines of the new Forum are still hard to discern, but in those areas where consensus was reached the results were not bad.

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