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Considerations on the High-Level Panel’s “Internet Governance Forum Plus” Model

The Fourteenth Annual Meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) will convene in Berlin three weeks from tomorrow. One of the highlights of the meeting could be the main session on Internet Governance and Digital Cooperation that is to be held on Day 1, 26 November 2019. The session is to consider some of the recommendations contained in the June report from the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, most notably the panel’s proposal to revamp the IGF so that it could serve as an institutional home for initiatives on “digital cooperation.” Inevitably, there are potential benefits to the proposed “IGF+” model, but there are also ambiguities and potential shortcomings that would need to be discussed and thought through. This post addresses some of the latter issues. The text is also a chapter in a book of short comments that is to be released at the IGF—Wolfgang Kleinwächter, Matthias C. Kettemann, and Max Senges, (eds.): Towards a Global Framework for Cyber Peace and Digital Cooperation: An Agenda for the 2020s. Hamburg: Verlag Hans-Bredow-Institut, 2019. The complete volume is to be posted online in the coming days.

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The UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation released its report in June 2019. The report is to be discussed at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Berlin in November 2019.[1] The report proposes consideration of what it calls three possible architectures of global digital cooperation: an Internet Governance Forum Plus; a Distributed Co-Governance Architecture that would assemble transnational policy networks under an umbrella “network of networks,” apparently operating outside the United Nations system; and a Digital Commons Architecture that would promote the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by assembling multi-stakeholder “tracks,” each of which could be “owned” by a lead organization such as a UN agency, an industry or academic consortium or a multi-stakeholder forum.

In addition, the report invites all stakeholders to commit to a Declaration of Digital Interdependence. It also recommends a multi-stakeholder alliance, involving the UN, to create a platform for sharing digital public goods; the creation of regional and global digital “help desks” to assist governments and stakeholders in understanding digital issues and developing their capacities; a Global Commitment on Digital Trust and Security; and the marking of the UN’s 75th anniversary in 2020 with a Global Commitment for Digital Cooperation.

It is important that the UN Secretary-General has taken a strong interest in digital issues and convened an effort to inject new ideas into the global governance discussion. Insofar as some of the panel’s proposals are reasonably anodyne and focused on normative declarations and information-sharing, they may navigate the waters of inter-state rivalries to adoption. However, it could prove more difficult to attract the necessary buy-in and commitment to a new operational model for global digital cooperation.

The report’s schematic presentation of the three alternative models may present hurdles to an inclusive and systematic assessment of their merits and feasibility. Indeed, just three of the report’s forty-seven pages are devoted to specifying what are really the panel’s main “deliverables.” This was an interesting choice, inter alia, because probing questions about the models were raised in some of the outreach meetings conducted during the panel’s work.[2] In any event, the final product does not offer much more detail than the initial sketches that were shared.

One could argue that in some cases, it makes sense to frame a proposal for international cooperation in general terms and then pursue elaboration and a sense of collective ownership in the public vetting stage. After all, the 2005 report of the Working Group on Internet Governance did not provide extensive detail in proposing the creation of the IGF. But the IGF was pitched as primarily a space for dialogue and collective learning, which is a less demanding construct than a complex operational system intended to engineer new types of collaborative outcomes that include policies and norms. In addition, the historical context is very different today from that of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), and the models go beyond the issues debated and the multi-stakeholder processes undertaken since that time. As such, one also could argue that more functional and political explanation of the models would have helped to facilitate the international community’s engagement.

To illustrate the challenges ahead, this brief chapter highlights some of the issues raised by one of the models: the Internet Governance Forum Plus. All three models merit analysis, but space limitations allow room to assess just one, and as this volume is a contribution to an IGF meeting, the choice seems apt. Moreover, the IGF+ might be viewed by some actors as the most viable of the three since as the IGF already has a UN mandate, an institutional form of sorts, and governmental and stakeholder support. In contrast, the other two models could require heavy lifting to get off the ground, especially in the midst of a recession in international cooperation that has extended even to the Universal Postal Union.

The one-page IGF+ model has four main components. First, there would be an Advisory Group based on the IGF’s current Multi-stakeholder Advisory Group (MAG). It is not clear what the advantage would be in dropping “multi-stakeholder” from the group’s name. The report also explicitly limits its role to preparing annual meetings and identifying policy issues to be explored. One can imagine concerns being expressed on one or both of these points.

Second, there would be a Cooperation Accelerator that would catalyze issue-centered cooperation across a wide range of institutions, organizations and processes. The Accelerator would “identify points of convergence among existing IGF coalitions, and issues around which new coalitions need to be established; convene stakeholder-specific coalitions to address the concerns of groups such as governments, businesses, civil society, parliamentarians, elderly people, young people, philanthropy, the media, and women; and facilitate convergences among debates in major digital and policy events at the UN and beyond.”[3]

This is a demanding mandate that would be difficult to fulfill. The old adage that everyone wants more coordination, but nobody wants to be coordinated, is relevant here. Given the diversity of actors’ interests and orientations in the broad digital policy space, the case for pursuing such cooperation and convergence would have to be compelling. Making that case would require a well-functioning team of actors with knowledge of diverse issue-areas, significant political skills, the contacts and local knowledge needed to organize diverse transnational coalitions with different agendas, and sufficient status to be able to facilitate convergence among governments and stakeholders in multiple UN settings “and beyond.” The report says that the Accelerator “could consist of members selected for their multi-disciplinary experience and expertise,” but the status of those members and the process for their selection are not indicated. Assessing candidates for these roles and getting support for the selections made could prove challenging. After all, just populating the MAG has proven controversial at times, and it is (apparently) just a conference program committee.

Third, there would be a Policy Incubator that would help nurture policies and norms for public discussion and adoption. This ambitious structure “should have a flexible and dynamic composition involving all stakeholders concerned by a specific policy issue.” While their precise status and modalities of selection are not mentioned, presumably, these stakeholders would need serious expertise as well since their mandate would be even more substantive than that of the Accelerator. The group would “incubate policies and norms for public discussion and adoption,” something that is often difficult in more well-established and supported international institutions. And in response to requests from actors (who presumably would meet criteria that excludes e.g., trolls and promoters of purely private agendas), the Accelerator would “look at a perceived regulatory gap, it would examine if existing norms and regulations could fill the gap and, if not, form a policy group consisting of interested stakeholders to make proposals to governments and other decision-making bodies. It would monitor policies and norms through feedback from the bodies that adopt and implement them.”

It is interesting to consider how this mechanism might operate in relation to the established patterns of (dis)agreement among governments and stakeholders on Internet governance and wider digital issues. For example, consider the question of identifying and filling policy gaps. The UN Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation on Public Policy Issues Pertaining to the Internet spent years locked in divisive debates about whether there were any gaps and “orphaned issues” that required new cooperation before it closed down without an agreement. Moreover, regulation is a complex arena that is heavily institutionalized across governments and involves specialized and expert agencies. If the requests do not come from the entities with responsibilities regarding the gap, they may not welcome an IGF-based group approaching to say, “we hear that you have a gap and are here to help.”

More generally, some actors might perceive the proposed Cooperation Accelerator and the Policy Incubator as insufficiently “bottom-up” in approach. Accelerator members would identify points of agreement among extant coalitions, consider whether new ones are needed, convene actors, and facilitate the convergence of their preferences. Incubator stakeholders would receive requests to look at gaps and then assemble groups to develop responses. Finding the right balance here would take some refinement, and managing such processes could draw the IGF onto terrain that requires careful treading.

Fourth, there would be an Observatory and Help Desk that would direct requests for help on digital policy to appropriate entities and engage in related activities. Sharing knowledge and information should be a tractable challenge that is well suited to an international mechanism. This author is among those who believe that it would be useful to institutionalize an informational “clearing house” function that utilizes both technological tools and human support.[4] Indeed, as Wolfgang Kleinwächter has noted, the IGF already performs a diffuse kind of clearing house function by bringing together suppliers and demanders of knowledge and information on a wide range of issues, so one could argue that this would be a quite natural fit.[5]

That said, the panel was more ambitious in imagining not just a mechanism for aligning informational supply and demand, but rather a “help desk” that ministers and others would want to call on for rather more. The report proposes an IGF unit with the capacity to “direct requests for help on digital policy (such as dealing with crisis situations, drafting legislation, or advising on policy) to appropriate entities… coordinate capacity development activities provided by other organizations; collect and share best practices; and provide an overview of digital policy issues, including monitoring trends, identifying emerging issues and providing data on digital policy.” All this could require a significant bureaucratic unit, and some of these tasks could be sensitive and are already performed by other international organizations. In parallel, the panel separately recommends “the establishment of regional and global digital help desks to help governments, civil society and the private sector to understand digital issues and develop capacity to steer cooperation related to social and economic impacts of digital technologies,” so the IGF unit would need to coordinate with those entities as well.[6] There are are some operational and political issues to be worked through here.

Turning from the four new units to the broader vision, it should be noted that the IGF+ proposal does not address the questions of IGF improvements that have been much debated over the years. A great many suggestions have been made by researchers, civil society advocates, the private sector and governments, as well as the Working Group on Improvements to the Internet Governance Forum and the UN’s 2016 retreat on advancing the IGF mandate. The report does include a footnote mentioning some of this activity but does not engage with the issues, as envisioning a “plus” layer is its sole focus.

Irrespective of what happens with the “plus,” continuing attention is needed to improving the rest of the IGF. Indeed, the shape and dynamics of the host body would presumably impact the “fit” and operation of the proposed add-ons. Should the IGF remain an annual event that is mostly devoted to workshops, supplemented by some bits of intersessional activity like the national and regional IGFs, dynamic coalitions, and best practice forums? Or, for example, might it be worth considering having meetings focused on one or two themes per year in a NETmundial-style configuration, e.g., globally participatory preparatory processes and efforts to agree on normative outcomes that could inform decision-making institutions? The WGIG report and the Tunis Agenda mandate included the option of adopting recommendations, but concerns about “WSIS-style negotiations” and the political fragility of the new process made such a model too controversial to be considered in the IGF’s early years. Perhaps by now, conditions have matured enough to consider such an option. Maybe some of the other long-standing challenges could be addressed seriously in tandem, such as enhancing the involvement of governments, especially from the developing countries.

Finally, it merits note that the High-Level Panel was tasked with mapping out options for “digital cooperation,” which is broader, more inchoate, and perhaps even more contestable than “Internet governance.” Several considerations follow from this. First, not all of the digital issues of concern today may need additional forms of international cooperation, much less governance. Artificial intelligence, blockchain, robotics, 3D printing and so on may raise policy concerns, but determining the most suitable responses to these requires case-by-case consideration with potential forms following functions. Second, where international cooperation is needed, pursuing it in the IGF is only sensible with respect to clear Internet governance dimensions of the issues.

Third, the fact that “digital” issues are important would not justify changing the name and focus of the IGF, as some actors seem to contemplate. On the one hand, even though the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority transition has reduced the political heat level, Internet governance remains a substantial and complex arena with many outstanding questions that require the international community’s attention. On the other hand, Internet governance should not be subsumed under a broader “digital governance” rubric alongside very different issues. If careful analysis determines that we need new mechanisms for issues that are not about Internet governance, then these should be developed. Perhaps the High-Level Panel’s second and third models could figure prominently in such a process, but that is a different conversation. In the meanwhile, hopefully, the Berlin IGF and related discussions will be sufficient to determine whether the IGF+ model should serve as an important part of strengthening the IGF and enhancing its utility.

[1] The Age of Digital Interdependence: Report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation. The United Nations, 2019. https://www.un.org/en/pdfs/DigitalCooperation-report-for%20web.pdf

[2] In contrast, the panel did an online Call for Contributions well before the report’s release that did not delve into the models and therefore elicited rather little comment on them. See the inputs offered at https://digitalcooperation.org/responses/

[3] All quotes pertaining to the IGF+ model are from page 24 of the High-Level Panel’s report.

[4] For a discussion, see, William J. Drake and Lea Kaspar, “Institutionalizing the Clearing House Function,” in, William J. Drake and Monroe Price (eds.), Internet Governance: The NETmundial Roadmap. Los Angeles: USC Annenberg Press, pp. 88-104. Efforts to launch something akin to this have included e.g., the European Commission-backed Global Internet Policy Observatory, the NETmundial Initiative, and (most successfully) the Geneva Internet Platform’s Digital Watch Observatory.

[5] See Wolfgang Kleinwächter, “Multistakeholderism and the IGF: Laboratory, Clearinghouse, Watchdog,” in William J. Drake. (ed.), Internet Governance: Creating Opportunities for All – The Fourth Internet Governance Forum, Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, 15-18 November 2009. The United Nations, 2010, pp. 76-91.

[6] The Age of Digital Interdependence, p. 5.

By William J. Drake, International Fellow and Lecturer

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