|Multi-Stakeholder Public Policy Governance and its Application to the Internet Governance Forum|
The annual meetings of the IGF have been attended by approximately one person for every million Internet users. Whilst deliberative democracy does not require all impacted parties to be represented, so long as all relevant perspectives are, such a low rate of participation casts doubt on just how diverse and inclusive the IGF really is. Neither is the low level of attendance at annual IGF meetings—which is easily explained by the cost of global travel—the only indication of its limited reach. In comparison to ICANN at an equivalent stage of its development, the IGF is also little known amongst Internet users, rarely the subject of media attention, and has prompted limited academic interest.
The IGF’s limited mindshare reflects its failure to engage with the Internet community in its native element: that is, online. It is oddly anachronistic that the IGF, whilst seeking to become a key institution of Internet governance, was conceived from its genesis as an annual meeting held in person, with online tools as a mere adjunct. This contrasts with many of the institutions of Internet technical coordination and standards development reviewed in Chapter 2 (most obviously the IETF) for which online mechanisms are the primary mode of engagement. Indeed this is typical of decentralised transnational organisations of the Internet age, including a number of others examined throughout this thesis such as the ASF, APNIC, Debian and Wikipedia.
In Chapter 4, the use of online mechanisms in the manner employed by these organisations was highlighted as an important means of redressing the lack of democratic participation in transnational governance institutions and networks. Indeed, it can be argued that the Internet is a vital enabling force for the mechanism of transnational governance by network, just as the printing press was for representative government before it:
This multi-stakeholder governance approach is a major conceptual innovation. But it only became practicable at the global level because of the existence of online tools facilitating: access to information (Web sites without costs of paper duplication), remote participation (webcasts, blogs), iterative consultation processes (mailing lists and forums) and soon, collaborative drafting (wikis). Indeed, multi-stakeholder governance requires a combination of physical interactions and “intersessional” online collaboration that only the Internet itself allows to envisage.
Internet Governance is therefore not only the governance “of” the Internet and “on” the Internet. It is also, in a certain way, governance “enabled by” the Internet, or in other terms, the embryo of a “Governance for the Internet Age.” The global network demands a new type of governance; but it is also the tool that makes this new governance possible and shapes it in its own image: real-time, participatory and distributed.
This subsection of the thesis will therefore focus on the use of online tools in advancing transnational participation in the processes of the IGF.
In Chapter 4, a distinction was drawn between two conceptions of the democratising role of online processes. The first, described (though not canonically) as e-democracy, is very much that which has informed the approach of the IGF Secretariat. In this conception, online participation serves essentially as an extension of the physical meeting. That is, it is largely concerned with providing a channel of communication (generally passive and one-way) between remote participants and those present in person at IGF meetings. It does not involve independent online deliberation, save in a form strictly secondary to, and tightly integrated with, that which takes place face-to-face.
Although the e-democratic model has its limitations, this is not to suggest that its programme is not important in its own right. On the contrary, given the prohibitive cost of international travel particularly for disadvantaged stakeholders, streamlining communications between physical meetings and remote participants is essential if those meetings are to be adequately inclusive and diverse.
However the second conception of online or digital democracy, termed Internet democracy in Chapter 4, is equally important in broadening participation in the fulfilment of the IGF’s mandate, yet has been entirely neglected by the IGF’s Secretariat. On this conception, parallel online processes should supplement rather than merely supporting the physical meetings, in order that they might redress some of the limitations inherent in the latter.
Even granted that its approach has been limited to the former conception, the IGF’s implementation of e-democratic mechanisms has been as deficient from a deliberative democratic standpoint as its structure and processes are. The four categories of tools for online democratic deliberation discussed in Chapter 4 were those for synchronous and asynchronous discussion, document preparation and decision-making. However since the IGF has been structured simply as a discussion forum, without the capacity to fulfil its policy-setting role, the only online mechanisms that have been put in place for the IGF have been those to facilitate discussion; that is, the first two of the above categories.
What passes for synchronous discussion is the transmission of the proceedings of the IGF’s plenary sessions and workshops to remote participants via webcast, and the selective relaying of remote participants’ input to the floor of plenary sessions by a moderator. However, this does not allow for an adequately interactive exchange; for example, it was typical in Athens for the input of remote participants to be delayed by as much as half an hour (if it was relayed to the meeting at all), by which time the face-to-face discussion had long moved on, and the introduction of the remote input became disruptive and irrelevant. In Rio, perhaps recalling this experience, fewer remote participants took the trouble to attempt to interject comments or questions. Others had trouble accessing the webcasts of the plenary meeting.
These problems could have been addressed if a more accessible technology than webcasting had been selected for use at the meeting, such as Jabber chat as used by APNIC. Since a real-time transcription of proceedings at the plenary meeting is generated in any case for projection to the front of the main venue, this could easily also have been copied in real time to the chat forum to enable all users (including those without the high speed access required to access the webcast) to follow the meeting’s progress instantaneously.
As a complement to this, comments from that chat forum could have been displayed on a large projection screen at the venue alongside the English transcription/translation, in near real-time (perhaps lightly moderated for obscenity and plainly irrelevant content). This would have afforded online participants a much more equal and interactive voice in the plenary discussions than they have yet enjoyed, but without interrupting the flow of the proceedings. Such a facility was in fact developed for the Rio meeting, but the Secretariat did not permit its use.
Moving on to asynchronous discussion tools, the extent of the IGF’s use of these has largely been confined to the Secretariat’s SMF Web forum, which is limited by its fixed list of topics and unthreaded format. There has also been no attempt to integrate its content into the discussions at plenary meetings, save that general reference was made to the messages posted in the Web forum in two of the synthesis papers.
The risk of such a disconnect between online tools and the offline processes that they are intended to support was recognised at the outset by a number of stakeholders. At the first open consultation meeting in February 2006, Jovan Kurbalija of DiploFoundation noted, “there is a considerable difference between availability of online tools and their integration in working procedures. There is a gap that should be bridged in order to have proper integration of those online tools.” During the same meeting, ICANN blogger and lawyer Brett Fausett put forward a solution:
I would like to recommend that you appoint Internet rapporteurs or list managers to manage and steer the online discussions so they move forward productively. Unmanaged, open forums unread by the leadership of the IGF can quickly become black holes for public comment, creating the illusion of participation while providing no meaningful access to the IGF. These rapporteurs who would work with the Secretariat would participate in the online forums and help define areas of consensus and highlight areas of disagreement for further work or discussion.
Given the limitations of the Secretariat’s official forum, the IGF Community Site, along with a number of independent blogs linked from that site, soon became the dominant fora for asynchronous online discussion around the Athens meeting. In principle, this distribution of online discussion is consistent both with deliberative democratic theory—in which the public sphere is constituted as an “associational network”—and also with the value of decentralisation that is a persistent feature of Internet culture (and which is reflected in the IGP’s proposal for a “Distributed Secretariat” for the IGF).
On the other hand, on a practical level, the dispersal of asynchronous discussion across the Internet greatly complicates the task of integrating those discussions with those of the plenary body, particularly given the Secretariat’s failure to support those other discussion fora by promoting them to participants or linking to them from its Web site, let alone by appointing rapporteurs to participate in and report on those discussions. The multiplication of fora for discussion, as an example of decentralised collective action, also has the potential to reduce rather than to increase the transparency of the process.
The need to draw distributed online discussion in to the mainstream of the IGF’s processes has been acknowledged by the IGF’s Secretariat. Nitin Desai remarked during the May 2006 consultations, “I’m sure there are NGOs who are reading this and typing away stuff on some blog or the other, commenting on this. But we are not getting that comment here, you see. So give some thought to ... how do we bring the outside in?”
One possible response is to maintain that just as it is a fundamental responsibility of the IGF’s Secretariat to provide a venue for an annual plenary meeting at which all interested stakeholders can attend and collaborate, so too it can be characterised as its responsibility to provide an equivalent venue online. Thus scholar Mary Rundle has recommended that intergovernmental organisations involved in Internet governance should provide a “one-stop-shop web portal that ... offers online discussion tools,” rather than requiring participants to proactively track numerous online fora in order to participate in online policy discussion. The intent of the original IGF Community Site was to provide such a “one-stop shop” portal.
A weakness of this response is that whilst it recognises the importance of facilitating the integration of online discussion into the IGF’s plenary processes, it downplays the desirability (and likely inevitability) that online participation will be decentralised. An alternative approach that balances the values of integration and decentralisation is the development of a loose framework for the aggregation of content from diverse sources under a single domain, through Internet standards such as RSS (Really Simple Syndication) and the utilisation of metadata to tag related resources so that they can be automatically grouped together. This has also been a project of the Online Collaboration Dynamic Coalition, though only partially realised in the second incarnation of the IGF Community Site.
Besides synchronous and asynchronous discussion, the other categories of online tools for democratic deliberation are those for authoring documents and making decisions. Since these are being considered here only for e-democratic purposes (that is, the support rather than the replacement of in-person deliberation), their application will be limited to the proposed multi-stakeholder bureau and to the dynamic coalitions, since it is not suggested that the plenary body should draft documents or take formal decisions at its annual meeting.
Presently, both the Advisory Group (as the prototype of the proposed multi-stakeholder bureau) and most dynamic coalitions operate electronic mailing lists on which texts and decisions are discussed, and a number of the dynamic coalitions also operate wiki sites for collaborative document drafting, as previously WGIG also had, though with limited success. Whilst a number of more sophisticated tools were examined in Chapter 4, one of the main obstacles to the successful implementation of any online tools for democratic deliberation, as borne out by WGIG’s experience, is the reluctance of governmental representatives to use them.
If the purpose of these tools is only to support rather than to substitute for face-to-face processes in which governments do participate, and so long as the two parallel processes are adequately bridged or integrated by appointed or volunteer rapporteurs, then the disuse of e-democratic mechanisms by governments is not a problem in itself. Indeed, enabling multi-modal means of engagement encourages the broadest possible participation from those with a preference for the use of one mechanism over another.
Where it can become a problem is where the disinterest of governments results in the provision of e-democratic mechanisms being neglected by the Secretariat, to the detriment of other, less well-resourced stakeholder groups. One strategy to address this, as suggested by Robert Guerra, now of ICANN’s ALAC, at the May 2006 open consultations, is that “capacity-building focused towards governments on how to use these technologies could be part of the capacity-building exercise for the IGF.”
Another reason why governmental representatives should be encouraged in the use of online tools for democratic deliberation is that there are some purposes for which online tools can achieve what an annual face-to-face meeting cannot. Examples of circumstances in which online tools are either a better means, or even the only practical means of realising multi-stakeholder democratic participation in the activities of the IGF include:
Addressing complex and contentious issues, the resolution of which exceeds the capacity of the annual meeting but which could be addressed through a more sustained programme of intersessional activity. Lynn St Amour of ISOC stated in Athens, “I don’t think people can come together for four days and have a discussion and believe we have addressed the technological, political, social, cultural ramifications of something that’s so vast.” Whilst this is undeniable, there is no such limitation on the scope of the issues upon which the IGF could deliberate through an ongoing process facilitated by Internet communications.
The drafting of documents, which is at best an impractical undertaking for a large-scale plenary meeting (the WSIS output documents, for example, had been drafted during a long sequence of preparatory negotiations before the formal plenary sessions even opened). However it is a much more manageable undertaking for an extended process of deliberation managed using online tools.
Although in some cases the drafting of such texts could be left to dynamic coalitions (which case was dealt with under the previous heading), this might not always be appropriate; for example, no relevant dynamic coalition might exist. Similarly the bureau itself cannot begin upon the preparation of a text before the plenary body has reached at least partial consensus as to what it should contain, and it is difficult to build such consensus without being able to develop a draft text for discussion. An open, democratically deliberative online process offers a better alternative in these cases.
Face-to-face meetings tend to perpetuate divisions of status, race, gender and disability that are anathema to democratic deliberation, and which online discourse more easily and naturally overcomes. Whilst the dynamic of a face-to-face meeting (incorporating such subtleties as body language and inflection of voice) may be more difficult to convey by accessible means online, so too there is a dynamic to online discussions that cannot be replicated in face-to-face meetings. In such discussions, participants, represented by screen name or avatar, speak with a level of vigor, frankness and equality that is difficult to achieve in person.
Whilst the above observation applies to synchronous online discussion, asynchronous mechanisms also possess a unique dynamic of their own. For example, they allow for each respondent to take more time to consider his or her response than would be possible in a face-to-face meeting, and even easily allow for the pertinent points raised by a thread of previous messages to be referenced (“quoted”) in the body of the respondent’s contribution; indeed, this is commonplace in email and newsgroup discussions.
To give another example, wiki software automatically records the history of revisions to a document, thereby allowing any given revision to be easily placed in a precise temporal context. No matter how diligent the work of a rapporteur seeking to bridge online and offline discussions, it would be impossible for the subtlety of mechanisms such as these to be adequately represented in the face-to-face context.
In sum, it is a quixotic endeavour to seek to constitute the IGF’s annual plenary meetings as the principal mode of engagement amongst its stakeholders for every purpose, when there are some purposes for which that meeting and the e-democratic processes set up to support it are not, and can never be adequately suited on their own. Rather, independent processes of Internet democracy are required to supplement (not merely to support) the IGF’s face-to-face deliberations in order that the IGF’s mandate may be fully and adequately addressed. Three such processes can be identified as possessing the highest priority.
The first is an analogue of the recommendation made above that the plenary meetings should be augmented with speed dialogue sessions that follow each of the panel sessions. One way in which these speed dialogues sessions could benefit from the unique dynamic of online synchronous discussion is for the table groups present in person to be supplemented by “virtual” table groups. Each virtual group, convening using a synchronous discussion tool such as IRC, would be of a similar size to a face-to-face table group, and would be staffed by a moderator who would guide and focus the deliberation and summarise its output for presentation to the larger plenary body. The same practice could be applied within workshops seeking to produce output for introduction to the plenary body.
Second, online asynchronous discussion should be established as a parallel and complementary process to discussion in person at plenary meetings. Consequently, when preparing its summaries of the contributions and discussions of stakeholders, and when assessing the consensus of the plenary body, the bureau should be required to take into account the views emerging from democratic deliberation in the IGF’s online fora on an equal footing with those expressed by participants deliberating in person.
However, before online discussion groups can be taken as deliberative democratic fora in their own right, they will have to satisfy similar criteria of multi-stakeholder, democratic structure and process as those that have been put forward for dynamic coalitions. This means that a much narrower class of such fora will qualify to deliver their output to the bureau for direct consideration, than those which could interface with the plenary body under the e-democratic conception. In particular, it would be necessary to ensure that:
the group is adequately diverse and of multi-stakeholder composition;
the group’s membership is open and its operation transparent (for example, discussions should not be silently moderated);
the group’s size may however be limited, and if necessary divided into sub-groups;
all relevant perspectives are represented within the group (including the use of the same background briefing material that is put before the plenary body meeting in person); and
the services of moderators or facilitators are provided to ensure that the group adheres to a deliberative democratic process (for example, that its members acknowledge each other’s equal capacity to contribute).
These rather stringent criteria do not necessarily preclude the operation of decentralised discussion fora organised from the grass-roots, in competition with any official fora established by the Secretariat. As an example of this, the IGP organised a Global Deliberative Dialogue on Internet Governance as an online analogue to PrepCom 3 of the Tunis phase of WSIS. Although it was open to all participants, the dialogue was distinguished by the participation of panelists from the Internet governance community, a facilitator who “encourages everyone to join in the conversation, ensures that all aspects of the topics are considered and keeps the conversation focused,” and a summarizer who would draw together highlights of the discussion from each day.
But equally, there is no reason why a single forum that fulfills the above criteria could not meet the IGF’s need for asynchronous online discussion, just as there is presently only one such forum for face-to-face discussion at the IGF’s annual plenary meeting.
A third new online process for the IGF, that is independent of and supplementary to those that can be realised offline, is a mechanism for collaborative drafting, such as a wiki or one of the other tools for collaborative authoring described at Section 220.127.116.11. This facility could be employed in at least two circumstances:
where there is consensus within the plenary body that a statement, declaration, policy or other soft law document is called for, but not yet sufficient consensus as to its content for the bureau to begin to draft the document; and
to enable diverse stakeholders to develop written contributions and submissions for the IGF collaboratively, rather than, as at present, doing so in isolation.
ICANN provides an example of such an online process in action, with its grass-roots developed ICANN Wiki, which hosts an experimental online Consensus Poll to develop an ICANN policy on gTLDs. There is no reason why the Secretariat—or, as in ICANN’s case, the community itself—could not provide similar facilities, as an adjunct to online deliberative discussion fora, for the development of texts at a grass-roots level within the IGF.
Based on the approximate attendance at each meeting of 1300 as a proportion of the 2006 estimate of 1.13 billion global Internet users: ITU, ICT Statistics Database (2005).
See Section 18.104.22.168.
See Section 22.214.171.124.
It will not directly address the other democratic uses of online tools, such as the advancement of accountability and transparency, which have been already been dealt with above.
See Section 4.3.4.
See Section 126.96.36.199.
Or IRC as used by a number of online civil society organisations, such as EFA, for their general meetings.
See Section 188.8.131.52.
See Section 4.1.3.
Actually Atom, a variation on RSS, is the official IETF specification for content syndication: IETF, The Atom Syndication Format (2005).
This is a small part of the W3C’s larger semantic Web project; see generally Berners-Lee, Tim & Fischetti, Mark, Weaving the Web (1999), chapter 13.
See those of the dynamic coalitions on Privacy and Online Collaboration at http://wiki.igf-online.net/.
See Section 184.108.40.206.
See Section 220.127.116.11.
See Section 18.104.22.168.
See Section 22.214.171.124.
A fine but important distinction exists between this and the narrower e-democratic conception of online discussion described above, whereby such discussion is taken simply as an input into the deliberations of the plenary body at annual meetings, rather than being equivalent to and potentially a substitute for face-to-face deliberation. On this broader view, it is not necessary for the output of a deliberative online discussion to be confirmed by the group attending the IGF’s plenary meetings in person, as their deliberation on substantive issues possesses no greater legitimacy than that of the online participants (perhaps to the contrary, since those able to attend in person are likely to be a more privileged and less diverse group overall).
See Section 126.96.36.199.
See Section 188.8.131.52.
Such a forum may still of course need to be sub-divided into groups of manageable size, as the speed dialogue sessions are to be subdivided into table groups.
See Section 184.108.40.206.