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Amplifying the Internet Governance Forum: Will the New IGF Leadership Panel Make the Difference?

On August 16, 2022, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres nominated ten high-level and eminent persons to serve in a new IGF Leadership Panel (ILP). The ILP includes luminaries like Vint Cerf, the father of the Internet, Tomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia, and Maria Ressa, the Philippine woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021. It is an interesting mix of “usual suspects” and “fresh blood.” Together with the Chair of the IGF Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG), Paul Mitchell, the new UN Tech Envoy, Amandeep Singh Gill and the past, present and future hosts of the annual IGF (Poland, Ethiopia, Japan), the fifteen ILP people should help to transform the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) into an IGF+ and to give the UN based multistakeholder discussion platform a higher political profile.

From WSIS to IGF+

The IGF was established by the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005. It was a compromise. WSIS could not agree on the formation of a new intergovernmental Internet organization. The alternative proposal, to establish a multistakeholder discussion platform without an own decision-making capacity, was a “low-hanging fruit” nobody could refuse.

There was a good reason why the IGF was designed for “discussion only.” The fear was that an IGF with a decision-making capacity would turn the new discussion platform into an intergovernmental battlefield. The hope was that a discussion-only platform would open minds, mouths and ears to allow all voices and arguments to be expressed and heard, to stimulate free and frank dialogues among all stakeholders on equal footing. The expectation was that knowledge and wisdom produced in the IGF discussions would enable decision-makers to find innovative solutions. Those decisions should not be made inside but outside the IGF by mandated policy organizations, businesses and civil society ventures.

The IGF became a success story. It became the big annual marketplace for information and ideas around Internet-related technical and political issues for thousands of experts from around the globe. It is much more than “another talking shop.” It created productive mechanisms such as Dynamic Coalitions (DCs), Best Practice Fora (BPFs) and Policy Networks (PNs), which produce valuable reports and reasonable recommendations. On the local level, more than 150 national and regional IGFs replicated the multistakeholder model. In recent years, high-level political leaders such as the French president Emanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the IGF with opening speeches.

However, this mechanism has its weaknesses. There is no procedure in place which channels the “theoretical ideas” from the IGF into “practical actions.” There is no “landing place” for multistakeholder knowledge and wisdom. Tangible outcomes remained limited. The IGF secretariat in Geneva is understaffed and underfinanced.

Furthermore, the world of the 2020s is rather different from the early 2000s. In 2005 regulation in cyberspace was seen by many stakeholders as a barrier to innovation and a vehicle for censorship and protectionism. This has changed. In the 2020s, regulation is seen more as an instrument to enhance cybersecurity, promote fair digital competition, protect human rights, and combat Internet misuse. Twenty years ago, Internet Governance was a technical issue with some political implications. Today, it is a political issue with a technical component.

But there is a problem with this multifaceted landscape: All those new intergovernmental and multistakeholder processes are widely disconnected. Each new group has its own “bubble.” We see new political “silos.” Such a diversified and disconnected conglomerate of mechanisms and platforms contradicts the nature of the global Internet, where not only devices but also problems are interconnected. The “silo approach” can lead to conflicting and contradicting regulations. To find sustainable and workable solutions, a “holistic approach” is needed. In cyberspace, “the left hand” should know what “the right hand” is doing. The IGF is an ideal place to work hand in hand.

The idea to amplify the IGF into an IGF+ was developed by a UN expert group on digital cooperation, co-chaired by Melinda Gates from the Microsoft Foundation (USA) and Jack Ma from Alibaba (China) in 2019. In its final report, titled “The Age of Digital Interdependence”, the group reached a broad agreement that improved cooperation will need to take “multiple diverse forms, and that governments, the private sector and civil society will need to find new ways to work together to steer an effective path between extremes of overregulation and complete laissez-faire.”

The IGF+ model was proposed as one of three options for enhancing the global Internet Governance architecture. It was aimed to address the IGF’s current shortcomings as the lack of actionable outcomes or the limited participation of government and business representatives, especially from small and developing countries. When UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres presented his “Roadmap on Digital Cooperation” in June 2020, he picked the IGF+ idea as his first option.

Multilateralism embedded in a Multistakeholder Environment

In 2005 the fear was that the UN could “overtake” the Internet. This fear has gone. In his “Roadmap” from June 2020, Antonio Guterres offers the UN not as the “world government of the Internet” but as a platform for a “multistakeholder policy dialogue” and as a “facilitator, mobilizing partnership and coalitions between governments, citizens, civil society, academia and industry.” That may sound banal within the Internet community. But many governments still doubt whether opening the UN doors to non-state actors is a good idea. They see it as a risky infiltration of state sovereignty.

When governments accepted the Tunis compromise on the multistakeholder approach, their understanding was that this could work for the Internet, not for the world. But now, the Internet is the world, and there is no world anymore without the Internet. Two different cultures are colliding. But this clash offers more opportunities than risks. And indeed, nowadays, it is a fact that progress is hardly possible in solving Internet-related public policy issues without the participation of business, the technical community, and civil society. The Multilateralism of the 2020s is embedded into a multistakeholder environment.

The establishment of the position of a “UN Envoy on Technology,” the introduction of a “Parliamentarian Track,” and the “IGF Leadership Panel” were singled out by Antonio Guterres as key elements of an IGF+. The Covid crisis slowed down the implementation process, but two years after the presentation of the roadmap, the traffic lights to move forward towards an IGF+ are now green: Amandeep Singh Gill, a diplomat from India and former Chair of the Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (GGE LAWS), has been picked as the UN Tech Envoy. The Interparliamentarian Union (IPU) in Geneva is organizing the IGF Parliamentarian Track at the forthcoming IGF in Ethiopia. And the members of the IGF Leadership Panel had been appointed in August 2022.

Will the Leadership Panel, the Tech Envoy and the Parliamentarian Track help to overcome the IGF shortcomings and bring political relevance to the multistakeholder discussion platform?

The Risks and Opportunities of the IGF Leadership Panel

The idea of the establishment of an “IGF Leadership Panel” in Guterres “Roadmap on Digital Cooperation” triggered a controversial discussion.

Opponents argue that a new panel will lead to conflicts with the IGF Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG). It will duplicate existing work, increase bureaucracy and raise costs for an IGF secretariat, which has only limited resources. A “high-level top-down approach” would undermine a project inspired by the philosophy of “bottom up, inclusive, open and transparent policy development.”

Supporters argued that the IGF lacks political relevance. It produces a lot of reasonable output, but the “IGF Messages,” published on the IGF website, go into nowhere land and are widely ignored in intergovernmental negotiations bodies such as the Open-Ended Working Group on cybersecurity (OEWG), the Human Rights Council (HRC) or the World Trade Organisation (WTO). To close the gap between the discussion layer (multistakeholder IGF) and the decision-making layer (intergovernmental negotiations), it needs a “bridge builder” with a recognized authority and unquestionable legitimacy to bring the IGF messages into the negotiation halls.

The mandate of the new ILP now includes many of the arguments of the supporters. The panel should provide strategic inputs, support high-level and at-large stakeholder engagement, raise funds, exchange IGF outputs with other relevant fora as intergovernmental negotiations and facilitate the input of these decision-makers and fora to the IGF’s agenda-setting process, leveraging relevant MAG expertise. This is a very fine-tuned and balanced mandate, which avoids giving the new unit a policy-making capacity, but offers enough flexibility for a creative enhancement of communication among various constituencies.

The primary role of the panel is to serve as something like a “post office”: To bring messages from the IGF, which are emerging in an open, inclusive bottom process, to relevant decision-makers, and, vice versa, to bring the problems of the negotiators back into the DCs, BPFs and PNs of the IGF, to broaden the perspectives of all involved and engaged stakeholders.

So far, so good. And indeed, there are a lot of opportunities for the ILP. If the former president of Estonia, Tomas Hendrik Ilves, is addressing the diplomats in the OEWG negotiations in New York, his voice is probably more recognized as the presentation of an excellent report from the BPF Cybersecurity by an academic person. If Maria Ressa, the Nobel Peace Price winner, is telling the members of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, what the IGF had produced to enhance the protection of the right to freedom of expression, this could make a difference. Or when the new chair of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), the Mexican woman Maria Fernanda Garza, tells the WTO eCommerce expert group, what the multistakeholder IGF discussion has developed on building frameworks for digital trade, this could open the eyes of trade negotiators, who live in their own world, very different from the world of the global Internet community. All this could make the IGF politically more relevant.

But there are also risks. Fortunately, the panel’s role is not to develop policies but to enhance communication among the various silos in a very distributed global Internet Governance Ecosystem. But will the panel of 15 distinguished personalities accept the role of a “postmaster” and find a common language? How will the panel link itself to the broader IGF community? What happens if frictions appear between the MAG and the ILP? The MAG Chair is an ex-officio part of the panel, but does he have a “veto right”? To whom is the panel accountable if it picks IGF outcomes and brings them to UN negotiation bodies? Who does what?

The IGF now has 15 captains, but do they have an effective crew that will work in the engine room? Will the captains be satisfied that their primary role is not “to lead” but “to serve”? And how the IGF secretariat in Geneva, UNDESA in New York and the new office of the Tech Envoy will work hand in hand? What happens if they move in different directions? Will they deliver what the global community is expecting: avoiding a cold cyberwar and promoting peaceful coexistence in cyberspace, bridging the digital divide, creative innovations and an open, free, global, interoperable, trustworthy and secure Internet, based on the values of the UN Charter and the UN Declaration of Human Rights?

Towards a Global Digital Compact

The first stress test for the UN Tech Envoy and the IGF Leadership Panel is already ahead of us: As part of his “Common Agenda,” UN Secretary-General has proposed that the forthcoming “UN-Summit on the Future” should adopt a “Global Digital Compact” (GDC) in September 2023. And in 2025, the review of the WSIS outcomes is on the UN agenda. WSIS+20 will be another milestone on the road towards 2030 and the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And WSIS+20 has also to reconsider the mandate of the IGF. A lot of things to do.

By Wolfgang Kleinwächter, Professor Emeritus at the University of Aarhus

He is a member of the Global Commission on Stability in Cyberspace, was a member of the ICANN Board (2013 – 2015) and served as Special Ambassador for the Net Mundial Initiative (2014 – 2016).

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