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Fourteen Lessons from the Internet Governance Forum


This post is one of the texts featured in the forthcoming publication "IGF: Identifying the Impact" that will be launched at the IGF meeting in Sharm El Sheikh.

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF - the principal global body in the field of Internet governance) has introduced some innovative approaches in managing global policy processes. Some of these may be useful for other policy areas which involve many stakeholders (for example, climate change, migration, trade, human rights). When discussing lessons learned from the IGF experience, it is important to keep in mind one significant difference between Internet governance (IG) and other global policy processes. While other policy processes such as climate change have gradually opened to non-governmental players, in the case of Internet governance, governments were obliged to enter an already existing non-governmental, ICANN-based regime. The IGF has been one of the important elements in this process. Relevant experience from the IGF process is summarised in the following fourteen insights.

1. Lead Effectively: "Sage on the Stage & Guide on the Side"

One of the main reasons for the success of the IGF is the exceptional leadership of Nitin Desai, Chair of the IGF, and Markus Kummer, Executive Coordinator of the IGF Secretariat. Mr Desai and Mr Kummer make a highly efficient team, complementing each others's approaches and skills. Both have considerable diplomatic experience: Mr Desai was in charge of the preparation of several major UN summits; Mr Kummer has had a successful career in Swiss diplomacy. While Mr Desai was managing "the stage" of the IGF main events, Mr Kummer has been building understanding and inclusiveness through timely online, off-stage communication and participation in the major events of the various professional communities gathered around the IGF. Their in-depth knowledge of UN rules, procedures and practice has helped them to find creative solutions and implement the effective, although unwritten, modus operandi of the IGF. Mr Desai explains one element of the IGF's success as follows: "For the dialogue to work all the participants have to recognize that the value of this forum is the presence of the others; but to realize this value everyone must adjust their expectations of how others should behave and, above all, listen rather than just talk."

Nitin Desai and Markus Kummer

As newcomers in the IG field, Mr Desai and Mr Kummer provide a non-partisan contribution to long-standing debates on issues related to ICANN (domain names, Internet numbers and root servers). Their success has also challenged the "urban diplomatic myth" that technical issues must be managed by technical experts. Sometimes, as this case shows, the "diplomatisation" of dealing with technical issues can help overcome traditional disputes in specialised technical communities and move the policy process forward.

2. Build Trust through Proper Timing and Sequencing

The IGF process has gathered people from vastly diverse professional and cultural backgrounds around the same table. Participants do not have a previous history of working for the same institutions, attending the same universities, moving in the same social circles, and other basic elements of trust-building. Trust had to be built in an atmosphere where suspicions were already present either due to past disputes (such as that between ITU and ICANN), to a general feeling of "geo-suspicion" caused by the Iraq War, or to the simple human reaction of "us" versus "them".

Trust-building requires patience and careful sequencing of activities. Each phase of the IGF process was aimed at increasing mutual understanding, and bringing new knowledge and information. The result was a gradual building of trust as well as a highly informed debate. Some proposals, such as an early call to adopt the Framework Convention on the Internet, were rightly declined: the time was not ripe for further formalisation of the Internet governance field. As the recent decision of the US government on the future of ICANN illustrates, some issues can be ameliorated by the passage of time, if they are handled carefully and not allowed to degenerate into a policy crisis. The IGF has been very successful in this respect. Diplomats and policymakers can learn from the IGF about effective trust-building through time and careful sequencing, and also about time and timing in policy processes in general.

3. Let the Policy Process Evolve

Closely related to timing is the importance of letting processes evolve through their own momentum rather than relying too much on detailed planning. Today, there is an obsession for creating logically consistent schemes and measuring input/outcome. Over-managing processes in this way can be counter-productive, because social reality is too complex to be forced into a Procrustean bed of models and schemes. The recent global financial crisis provides an example of how a system based mainly on science and modelling can lead to collapse, if it does not consider the complexity of human beings, with all their weaknesses and strengths.

Relaxed Protocol at the Congress of Vienna (1814)

In diplomacy, the risk associated with over-managing policy processes is well illustrated with the success of the Congress of Vienna (1814) and the failure of the Treaty of Versailles (1919). The Congress of Vienna created the basis for one of the most peaceful periods of European history, without a major war for almost 100 years. The Treaty of Versailles, on the other hand, was dead only a few years after it was signed. In Vienna, the negotiators had plenty of time for their work, but were still able to enjoy the social aspects of their interactions. Slowly, and without a predetermined grand design, they created an effective peace deal. The genius of Metternich and Talleyrand helped achieve this. In Versailles, however, diplomats engaged in a highly organised process in which hundreds of scientists, statisticians and cartographers collaborated to create a "scientifically constructed peace". They even tried to quantify justice, and ultimately created the mess that led to the Second World War. Of course, many other factors influenced the fate of these two agreements, however the stark differences in the very way they were conceptualised provides a convincing argument against over-management of diplomatic processes.

While the IGF cannot be compared to these grand events, its principles are closer to the Vienna Congress approach. Unfortunately, there have not been as much entartainment as in Vienna, but the common factor is an attempt not to predetermine processes beyond a minimum of planning. The IGF processes unfold and take an optimal shape through the collective moulding of all of those involved, including significantly different views.

4. Harness a Variety of Inputs Through Policy's "Long Tail"

The concept of policy's "long tail" is inspired by viral marketing and refers to the possibility of harnessing a wide variety of policy inputs that would normally be lost through the various filters of traditional inter-governmental operations. Individuals and groups have been able to voice their opinions directly to the IGF through personal participation in events, web-communication and remote participation. These new ideas and insights, which would not reach the top global fora in most policy processes, considerably enrich the IGF process. One of the lessons from the IGF is that the first step towards a more inclusive policy process is the invitation for open participation. The full benefit of open and inclusive participation is achieved if a wide variety of contributions are collected, considered and, whenever possible, included in policy documents. Inclusiveness increases the legitimacy of the process and the feeling of ownership among the various stakeholders.

5. Enhance National "Diplomatic Footprints" through Multistakeholderism

Traditionally, since the establishment of nation states and diplomatic services in the 18th century, governments have represented their populations abroad. When Richelieu established the first foreign ministry in France, it took one month to deliver a letter from Paris to Moscow. Today, a message can cover the same distance in a fraction of a second. This leads us to ask whether the mode of diplomatic representation can remain the same, in spite of such dramatic changes in communications over the centuries.

Some aspects of representation will certainly remain the same. States are, and will remain, the principal way of organising human society, with citizens living in defined territories and sharing common national identities. Diplomacy will remain the main channel for the representation of these societies.

In other respects, representation will need to adapt. With more players and more complex issues to deal with, the traditional diplomatic approach shows serious limitations. Even the most efficient diplomatic services cannot provide enough "bandwidth" (i.e., qualified human resources) for exchanges with foreign entities. Better "diplomatic broadband" can be provided through the inclusion of actors from civil society, the business sector, local authorities and other entities in global policy processes. Already, many non-state actors run their "small diplomacies" maintaining contacts with foreign entities, participating in international meetings and shaping the global policy discourse, among other activities.

Some states, such as Canada, Switzerland and the Scandinavian states, recognised this evolution early and have integrated non-state actors in their foreign policy activities through approaches such as "Team Canada" and ambassadors working with non-governmental actors. Unfortunately, this practice is not common in many developing countries, where the "diplomatic bandwidth" is usually very low and restricted to small diplomatic services with limited financial and human resources. In many developing countries, national multistakeholder structures have appeared only during the last few years.

The Internet Governance Forum contributed in a practical manner towards raising awareness of the advantages of multistakeholderism in government circles, in particular among developing countries. Apart from the broader principle of inclusiveness, the IGF's multistakeholderism has demonstrated a practical solution that helps countries to increase their "diplomatic footprint" without dedicating more resources.
Multistakeholder national IGF bodies are appearing and governments coordinate more with business and civil society. Some small and developing states are represented in IG policy processes by non-state actors.

Sometimes, fostering such inclusiveness is mainly a matter of coordination, identifying skilled compatriots and creating a national multistakeholder framework. Dedicated capacity building through training programmes involving various stakeholders from the same state also helps: co-participant in a training programme tend to develop trust and a team spirit.

6. Increase Policy Coherence through Multistakeholderism

One of the main challenges for any global policy process today, including fields such as climate change and migration, is to achieve policy coherence in dealing with multidisciplinary issues. In the field of Internet governance, the IGF serves as an umbrella where different existing regimes, including information technology, human rights, trade and intellectual property can come together. Through the IGF process, various policy communities are discovering that their previously isolated policy areas are part of Internet governance. In some issue areas, such as multilingualism, the IGF helped very diverse organisations including governments, ICANN, UNESCO and ITU to focus in coordinated way on the same topic. As a decision-shaping body the IGF influences policy coherence more than some decision-making bodies. The unusually broad multistakeholder participation diluted the usual "turf battles" between various organisations and provided space for linking otherwise isolated initiatives within a coherent policy process. It also reduced the problem of duplication, where different organisations end up dealing with the same issues.

7. Develop Functional Interplay among National, Regional and Global Policy Levels

In our increasingly integrated world, it is difficult to maintain the traditional architecture of international policy consisting of international organisations on regional and global levels. Instant communications and the growing influence of non-state actors blur the line between the national, regional and global policy spaces. In this globally unified policy space, issues move quickly between different levels and fora. Some players, especially NGOs, use "forum shopping" in order to insert their policy initiatives in the most favourable policy level. Some governments, for example, in the EU, use so-called "policy laundering" If an initiative is not adopted on the national level it is "recycled" through the regional level and re-imported as a country's "international obligation".

In the field of Internet governance, the network of policy fora is highly complex. A wide variety of fora existed long before the IGF was created (international organisations, ICANN, ISOC, various standardisation bodies). In addition, the IG policy actors are highly agile, moving easily from one policy layer and fora to another using modern communications technologies. The IGF has attempted to maximise the benefits and reduce the risks of multi-level policy processes. The IGF coordinates global, regional and national activities through both bottom-up (in the preparation of IGF) and top-down approaches (dissemination of knowledge from IGF). The high transparency of the IGF makes the process less open to "forum shopping" and other policy manipulations. Although the IGF made breakthroughs in this process, much more needs to be done.

8. Develop Communication among Different Professional and Organisational Cultures

Hundreds of books have been written on the theme of how to communicate with people from different national cultures: Arabs, Chinese, Americans, etc. However, experience from the IGF shows that in a policy process, often the main challenge is to facilitate exchange among different professional cultures (e.g., lawyers, engineers) and different organisational cultures (e.g., international organisations, governments, companies). In today’s globalised world, with instant communication, it is often easier for us to communicate within the same professional circles, even across national borders. For example, an American computer engineer may find that he or she has better communication with another engineer in China, than with an American diplomat.

As global issues become increasingly technical (for example, climate change and health), effective inter-professional communication becomes more and more important. Improvements in inter-professional communication can be achieved through training, education and exposure to other cultures. Better inter-professional communication may also contribute to improved policy coherence among different ministries and international organisations. The IGF has made positive steps in inter-professional communication through facilitating effective exchange of ideas among specialists from a variety of professions. A good example of this is the wide professional and institutional diversity of panellists involved in workshop session discussions.

9. Recognize that Technical and Scientific Issues are Not Policy Neutral

The IGF process has clearly shown that any technical issue has a policy aspect, empowering some groups and interests. At some point, technical issues evolve into policy issues; policy issues in turn require decisions about values and interests.

This evolution from technical issues to policy issues is happening in other policy fields as well. As the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit approaches, national delegations are more likely to be populated with diplomats and policy makers and less with scientists specialising in climate change. As diplomatic processes increasingly overlap with scientific and technical fields, the question of the delimitation between these two fields will be increasingly important.

10. Recognize that Text Remains Central for Diplomacy

Despite all the promises of virtual conferencing and other technologies, today's even more than in the past – text remains the central tool of diplomacy. Text is central to the IGF process, even though the IGF does not produce any official final document (e.g., convention, treaty or declaration). Most exchanges between preparatory sessions are done via mailing lists and email. The IGF website is text-intensive, with little use of photos or images. Text also emerges as the key to two other developments which are discussed separately below: verbatim reporting and remote participation. The IGF experience is that the multistakeholder nature of its processes did not reduce the importance of text. In fact, it has become clear that the main processes must be built around text. This fact should be reflected in the training and preparation of stakeholders for participation in global policy processes.

11. Appreciate the Influence of Verbatim Reporting on Diplomacy

Verbatim reporting - the simultaneous transcription and display of each oral intervention in a meeting as it is presented - is a technical and procedural innovation that could have substantive influence on the way multilateral diplomacy is performed. Learning from ICANN practice, the Secretariat of the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) introduced verbatim reporting in April 2005. The practice has been continued by the IGF and recently introduced by the ITU. All oral interventions are transcribed simultaneously by special stenographers and immediately displayed on a large screen in the conference room, as well as broadcast via the Internet. While delegates are speaking, transcriptions of their speeches appear on the screen.

Verbatim Reporting Screen at the IGF-Rio - Photo by Charles Mok

Verbatim reporting has had an important effect on the diplomatic modus operandi. The awareness that what is said will remain in writing makes many delegates careful in choosing the level and length of their verbal interventions. Verbatim reporting has also increased the transparency of diplomatic meetings.

12. Increase Inclusiveness and Openness through Hubs for Remote Participation

One of the main objectives of the IGF has been inclusive participation involving various countries and stakeholder groups. It was natural for a forum that discusses governance of the Internet, to use the Internet to extend participation in IGF meetings beyond those who could physically attend. During the first IGF meeting in Athens, the IGF Secretariat introduced video, audio and text broadcasting for both preparatory and main events. This footage was viewed mainly by individuals who already had a strong interest in the IGF. It led to a relatively modest level of remote participation and did not reach all stakeholders concerned with the topics discussed at the IGF.

Remote Participation at IGF-2008

A solution was introduced in the form of "remote hubs". Hubs are defined as local meetings that take place during and parallel to the IGF meetings, hosted by universities, ICT centres, NGOs and other players which deal with Internet governance and policy issues. They project a simultaneous webcast of the meeting so that remote participants can stay informed about what is being debated at the IGF. As part of a remote hub, remote participants can send text and video questions to be answered by the IGF panellists in real time interventions. In addition, hubs host panels and roundtable discussions correlating to the themes of the IGF from a local perspective. Through these activities, the local hubs enable enriching coordination between global and local policy processes. For example, during the IGF 2008, the remote hub in Madrid followed the session on cybersecurity during the IGF and continued their discussion on cybersecurity in the specific Spanish context. A total of eight remote hubs operated in parallel with the IGF 2008 (Madrid, Lahore, Barcelona, Belgrade, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Bogota and Pune). More than 450 event hours were broadcast for remote participation and a total of 522 attendees joined the meeting remotely during the four-day event.

After the successful test implementation in 2008, the concept of remote hubs was adopted by the IGF Secretariat. It is expected that remote participation will increase significantly during the next IGF in Sharm El Sheikh (November 2009).

The experience from the IGF shows that remote participation significantly increases the inclusiveness and openness of international meetings. It creates a link between the global and local scenes, which is often missing in international diplomacy.

13. Recognize the Interplay between Formal Protocol (or Lack of) and Equal Participation

One challenge facing the IGF is the juxtaposition of the formal culture of UN diplomacy and the informal culture of the Internet community. After three annual IGF meetings, it seems that the informal culture has prevailed. While this culture creates an inclusive atmosphere and facilitates the participation of youth and wider communities worldwide, it may also pose a few challenges. The informal atmosphere may make participants from national cultures with strong respect for social hierarchy feel uncomfortable and hesitant to contribute. Furthermore, in diplomatic, legal and some other professional cultures, participation in debates is structured by professional protocols. Therefore, the informality of proceedings and discussion may inhibit the participation of some delegates and create potential inequality. The IGF addressed this risk by seeking ways to accommodate various levels of formality, offering various settings where different stakeholders can participate at ease. For example, the IGF increased the level of protocol of some, mainly plenary, sessions, adding more of the typically diplomatic rules of procedure (e.g., speaking slots, asking questions) and organised special sessions for parliamentarians.

14. Ensure Meaningful Participation from Developing States: Moving from Formal to Functional Equality

In the UN world, small and developing states usually ensure their equal status by insisting on formal representation and procedures. Unlike developed and large states, they lack an organised network of parallel representation of the interests of the wider society through business, civil society and academic communities. Therefore, it is not surprising that small and developing states may have reservations about multistakeholder participation. In large scale meetings which gather thousands of participants on an equal basis, a small and developing state loses the safeguard of the UN procedures where it is one of 194 state representatives with formally equal status, regardless of size or power.

Formal vs. Functional Equality in Negotiations

At the beginning of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) process back in 2002, many small and developing states strongly opposed the initiative to introduce equal participation of business and civil society representatives. Some of these states argued for a "one-stop shopping approach" to Internet governance which would provide them with one, preferably inter-governmental address, where they could discuss all issues related to Internet governance.

Since 2002, WSIS, WGIG, and in particular the IGF have made considerable progress in strengthening pro-development aspects of the multistakeholder process, including addressing the risk of under-representation of small and developing states.

a) On the formal level, the IGF ensures that all sessions and panels have adequate participation from the various stakeholders from developing states. The increasing level of participation from developing countries was visible at IGF-Rio and IGF-Hyderabad.

b) The IGF process has helped many small and developing states to make better use of available human resources. These may not be diplomats, but other nationals with IG expertise, working at Internet organisations or universities around the world. Especially for small states taking advantage of experts working abroad is essential.

c) Physical participation - i.e., attending the meetings - does not necessarily equate to equal participation. Equal participation requires adequate knowledge, skills and confidence on the part of each delegate to engage in the policy process. The IGF has tried to ensure equal participation through capacity building activities. Since 2002, more than 1000 officials and professionals from small and developing states have been involved in training and other capacity building activities. This capacity building went beyond traditional academic courses by providing a unique blend of teaching, policy research and policy immersion aiming to help participants understand IGF fully and gain confidence for full and meaningful participation in policy processes. The involvement of various stakeholders (diplomats, officials, engineers) in the training process provided participants with an understanding of the advantages of a multistakeholder approach and the confidence to participate in meetings with other professional communities.

d) The IGF process has also fostered the development of Internet governance communities of practice in the global south on both regional (e.g., West Africa, East Africa, Latin America) and national levels (e.g., Kenya, Brazil, Senegal). These communities have helped many small and developing states to develop their own multistakeholder representation by identifying non-governmental experts already involved in academic research and the IG policy process.

By increasing participation levels, encouraging capacity building, and fostering the development of networks and communities, the IGF has helped developing countries move from formal/passive to functional/active participation in Internet governance.

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