Internet Governance

The value of not making decisions…some reflections!

Over the past month or so, the issue of whether the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) should be able to reach determinative and binding decisions has re-emerged placing multistakeholder governance again in the spotlight. This debate over the role of the IGF in the international decision making governance environment is certainly not new and we believe it is time for a thoughtful and constructive look at possible evolutions. Too many discussions recently have criticized and cast a cloud over the value of multistakeholder governance.

Helpful to recall the IGF was never meant to have a decision-making function. Assigning to the IGF a non-decision making function was a wise choice and demonstrated a certain degree of maturity in understanding that, at the time, pubic policy issues were only starting to show their complexity and the different stakeholder groups were not ready to engage in discussions that would result in binding outcomes. The compromise was a soft and flexible governance model that would bring people together and would provide a platform for deliberation, discussion and exchange of ideas. To this end, we should not lose focus over how the mere fact that the IGF has consciously not taken the role of a decision-making body has worked to the benefit of Internet governance and the discussions surrounding it.

Multistakeholder governance mechanisms produce decisions all the time. Organizations like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), in its limited technical mandate, have used multistakeholder structures to discuss and produce binding policy recommendations on issues regarding domain names. There are numerous multistakeholder governance models/mechanisms, and there is no assumption that all multistakeholder governance mechanisms should be the same or should aim for the same procedural outcomes. This is becoming particularly important for more general public policy issues that the international community is involved with. It is one thing to make decisions about domain names and it is a completely different story seeking to make decisions about privacy, intellectual property rights or human rights, when there are such conflicting policy interests, no central “assignment function” and very different views between states. Even in the context of child pornography and abuse, where there is consensus over its illegal status, binding decisions have been proven difficult for the international community.

Many have found a space to discuss Internet public policy issues without the pressure of reaching decisions extremely helpful; a space is needed where we inform the dialogues and shape the decisions we will later be asked to take in other fora. This is the IGF and this is another face of multistakeholder governance. It is not an issue of whether it is good or bad – it is just different. It is what we need to keep the discussions going, to challenge ourselves, to challenge others and to challenge and test ideas. This does not make decision making less important or less relevant; it just identifies non-decision-making as a viable and necessary alternative to existing governance models.

Thanks to the non-decision making character of the IGF we have been able to make progress on many issues we were able to identify, and/or debate. The non-binding nature of the IGF provides the flexibility for having free-ranging and open discussions we would not be able to have in a rule-making and rule-enforcing environment. The pace of Internet development and evolution makes traditional forms of intergovernmental cooperation challenging; it does not question their efficiency, but it does pose some hard questions as to where and when decisions are helpful. As public policy issues continue to evolve alongside the Internet’s technical development, the international community is still in the process of figuring out how to best deal with them and identify the locus of where they can be discussed. In this context, the Internet Society has taken the first step in outlining a framework of “how broadly the issues themselves and the approaches to address issues are understood and agreed upon”.[1]

The IGF mandate is somewhat ambiguous. While it allows for the possibility of making recommendations, it adds a strong caveat. The qualifier “when appropriate” practically excluded making recommendations, as this is diplomatic language for preventing hasty decisions. However, the IGF is evolving and maturing and the community seems ready to move ahead. This can mean many things and one example could include the ability of the IGF to produce consensus-based, voluntary-adopted recommendations. These recommendations could serve as a point for reference for all stakeholders and could assist in crystalizing positions and ideas.

The multistakeholder governance model has proven its worth. As the challenges intensify and new ones appear we should not turn our backs on current models of multistakeholder governance. The IGF is ready to take the next step – and, in fact took some new steps at the recent IGF in Bali.