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A Consociational Bureau for the Internet Governance Forum

The principle that Internet governance “is a joint effort which requires cooperation and partnership among all stakeholders” (Geneva Declaration of Principles, para 20) has become axiomatic since it was first agreed at WSIS, and is fundamental to the IGF as a “new forum for multi-stakeholder policy dialogue” (Tunis Agenda, para 72).

However at the same time as this principle has been universally embraced, some of its implications, that would require the four stakeholder groups identified in the Tunis Agenda to collaborate on the development of joint policy recommendations (Tunis Agenda para 72(g)) have met with resistance.

That the strongest resistance has come from those stakeholders with the greatest investment in the existing Internet governance regime (including the United States government and its allies, the private sector and the Internet technical community) should cause no surprise to the political scientist.

However, it does point to the need for the autonomy of these actors to be preserved so they may participate in the fulfillment of the IGF’s mandate with confidence that in doing so they will not be undermining their own existing political and economic power.

The consociation (or consensus democracy) is an institutional design for the sharing of power between heterogenous stakeholder groups, which although well established in democratic theory, has not previously been studied in Internet Governance scholarship and thus not considered for the IGF.

One of the most significant characteristics of the consociation is that the stakeholder groups are granted the right of mutual veto on all issues of joint concern. The effect of this would be that in order for a proposal to become a recommendation of the IGF, all stakeholder groups would have to be in accord.

Although the IGF is inherently a consensual body, the distinction between the consociational model and other proposals for the development of recommendations by the IGF is that these are not (just) to be made by “rough consensus” between all stakeholders in undifferentiated mass, but (also) by full consensus between groups.

A feature of this model is that it institutionally reflects the political reality that the most powerful stakeholders will not actively participate in an IGF with the capacity to develop recommendations that they have not sanctioned, yet it affords the same power of veto to all stakeholders on an equal basis.

A second feature is that whilst not detracting from the need for all stakeholder groups to collaborate on the development of policy recommendations, it also institutionalises the reality that those groups will deliberate upon such recommendations separately when deciding whether to exercise their right of veto.

How can this model be put into practice for the IGF? It would be difficult to do so solely at the plenary level, since although the IGF’s open plenary body could be given the opportunity to deliberate upon issues and form a “rough consensus” view on them, sorting participants neatly into decision-making units by stakeholder group is rather more ambitious.

The Tunis Agenda suggests an alternative, by calling (in paragraph 78) for the formation of “an effective and cost-efficient bureau to support the IGF, ensuring multi-stakeholder participation”. The IGF has no such bureau at present, but only an Advisory Group, which as the name implies, is appointed by and exists merely to advise the UN Secretary General.

Admittedly, the word “bureau” has become a dirty word within the IGF (much as the term “working group” had before it) largely because of the misconception that it implies a traditional intergovernmental structure. But this clearly is not what paragraph 78 anticipates. And, in truth, it doesn’t matter if (like “dynamic coalition”) some other euphamism is used to describe this new multi-stakeholder committee.

But by whatever name it is called, one of the key distinctions between it and the existing Advisory Group is that its members will be appointed by the stakeholder groups themselves. This can be achieved by using a multi-stakeholder nominating committee whose members would be randomly selected from a pool of volunteers, and which would fill an equal quota of seats for each stakeholder group, taking into account the need for diversity.

The multi-stakeholder bureau would also no longer be beholden to the United Nations Secretary-General, but because it has been more democratically appointed, would have the legitimacy to make decisions on its own account. Even so, the principle of subsidiarity requires that any decision-making that could be taken at a grassroots level still should be. Thus it will still be for the plenary body to develop a “rough consensus” view on any policy recommendations that the IGF might make.

Where the multi-stakeholder bureau would step in, however, is in declaring that rough consensus and reducing it to a formal statement. Whilst the recommendation would be drafted in a collaborative process involving all stakeholders within the bureau, in fulfillment of its consociational character it would then be up to each stakeholder group to ratify (or alternatively to veto) the recommendation in its final form.

Whilst it might be objected that this would make it all too easy for a particular stakeholder group (governments, say) to veto a recommendation upon which both the bureau as a whole and the plenary body had agreed, it must be understood that governments already possess that power. The IGF is inherently a consensual governance network, which cannot bind any stakeholder to anything.

All that the consociational structure does is to institutionalise this existing effective power of veto in a manner that upholds the conceptual equality of each stakeholder group, and allows that group to deliberate upon the exercise of its veto in a manner compatible with its own procedural norms (for example, face-to-face diplomacy in the case of governments, and perhaps an open mailing list for civil society).

It is only through reforms such as those advanced here, transforming the IGF’s servile and impotent Advisory Group into an autonomous and legitimate multi-stakeholder bureau, that the IGF can develop the capacity to fulfill its mandate that was agreed in the Tunis Agenda.

By Jeremy Malcolm, Trust & Safety Consultant and Internet Policy Expert

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Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Sep 24, 2007 5:44 AM

The problem you highlight here is that the civil society groups, by and large, have been marching to the beat of their own drum.  And while they may be active users of the internet, they have zero idea about how the internet works, what kind of policies are set to govern it etc.

And quite a few of them are rather more competent at, say, organizing programs to save people from AIDS, and rescue abused women, than using a computer for more than MS Office and IE.

That makes for a fundamental disconnect.  You have a vast group of POTENTIAL stakeholders there, in civil society. Yet, they completely and utterly lack the capacity to do much - not because of access issues but because they need to be familiarized with what is going on, before they can have a meaningful stake or participate meaningfully.

Demanding a stake for them without that little detail being addressed is well.. meaningless.

Jeremy Malcolm  –  Sep 24, 2007 6:53 AM

Points taken. But firstly, the disconnect you refer to is one reason why capacity building is has been set as one of the operational mandates for the IGF in paragraph 72(h) of the Tunis Agenda, and has been taken up as a cross-cutting priority for the first two meetings.

Secondly, on my view (I realise that opinions differ on this because the documentis so maddeningly inconsistent), the Tunis Agenda does not recognise the Internet technical community as a distinct stakeholder group, but rather as a segment of civil society and the private sector.

So we are not just talking about, to borrow your   examples, AIDS activists and women’s groups seeking an entree into Internet governance, but rather the Internet community itself seeking to assert its right of self-governance, which must be reconciled with the claims of other policy authorities such as governments.

Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Sep 24, 2007 7:09 AM

I take your point there.  The tunis agenda states -

the full involvement of governments, the private sector, civil society and international organizations

I rather suspect a lot of the internet community would squeeze into the “private sector” rather than into civil society.  You know, Cisco, Juniper, AOL, Microsoft .. all those you see active in the IETF, as well as in industry collaboration + best practice bodies like MAAWG.

Those that don’t fit in there would certainly fit into civil society.

Let’s put it this way though. Anyone trying to claim that either of these two is anywhere near a cohesive community (particularly, civil society - a very broad and amorphous term indeed) is not going to get too far down a path towards consensus building.

Before you actually assert a claim for an entity to self governance, you need to find some better way to demarcate that entity than the very convenient catchall of “civil society”.

Governments, and even Industry (at least any kind of industry player that has enough interest in internet governance to fund trips to Athens and Rio and New Delhi) have lots of experience cooperating, and in building consensus that is a lot smoother than anything civil society can cobble together.  That’s due to shared forums, a kind of homogenous similarity of players in this field ..

Alessandro Vesely  –  Oct 3, 2007 10:57 AM

We insist in using the word democracy somewhat inconsistently. (As it literally means power to the people, when it is not direct, it is not such.) The Internet provides a mean to practice a truly democratic governance at a global scale for the first time in the history of mankind. Thus, it would be really sad to acknowledge that it is not able to govern itself. At that point, someone should state that the western model has failed, as Gorbachev did for the eastern one when its time came.

As a practical hint, I would mention the software used for gathering the GPLv3 license text. It enables remote users to directly propose changes to the wording inside a current draft, and discuss it at their will. Periodically, an open committee has to reassemble the text into a new draft, which implies trip funding. However, the work of such a committee is rather technical than political, given the circumstances. I am so enthusiast of the way it works that I wonder why don’t we use that instead of National Parliaments.

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