The WSIS+10 High Level Event taking place in Geneva this week is assessing the progress that has been made since the 2005 Tunis Agenda. One of the key outcomes of the WSIS (World Summit on the Information Society) negotiations was the definition of stakeholder roles and responsibilities in the global governance of the Internet. Almost ten years later, the role of governments remains a controversial topic. Faced with complex governance structures specific to the Internet, and the fast expansion of new technologies and the risks and opportunities they bring about, various stakeholders are questioning the position of governments in deciding public policy issues. Governments themselves are probing their capacity to provide timely and effective responses in the digital era.

The panel discussion, organised by the Internet Society (ISOC) and the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP), on 12 June in Geneva, with representatives of civil society, governments, and the technical community, focused on the evolution of government involvement in Internet governance (IG), from the early days of ARPANET until today. The panel, moderated by Constance Bommelaer (ISOC), covered both discourses and practices of governments as part of multistakeholder and multilayered governance structures, pointing out both successes and failures of the past decade. With the expansion of the World Wide Web, IG processes have challenged the traditional decision-making model based on national sovereignty, as Markus Kummer (ISOC) showed in his historical analysis, and have now come to offer alternatives to the top-down modus operandus. One of the best examples of the latter was the direct engagement of various governments in open discussions regarding pervasive surveillance programmes at the last Internet Governance Forum (IGF) held in Bali in October 2013.

Similarly, the recent NETmundial meeting, convened by the Brazilian government in São Paulo in April 2014, introduced a set of innovative elements, giving hope for a new type of IG meeting in the near future. This is what Dr Jovan Kurbalija (GIP) referred to as an ‘inclusive and dynamic’ format, yet placed it between ‘blue sky and red lines’, starting with an open preparatory phase, going through a ‘purple’ drafting and deliberation process, and ending with ‘red lines’, with stronger participation of governments that moves discussions away from a multistakeholder forum into the geopolitical space. At the same time, there are positive lessons to learn from NETmundial in terms of remote participation, but there are also question marks regarding decision-shaping and final drafting, in particular the limits of collective drafting of outcome documents. Jon Postel, one of the fathers of the Internet, once said: ‘Group discussion is very valuable; group drafting is less productive’ and, according to Dr Kurbalija, this basically summarises what happened at NETmundial.

Dawit Bekele (ISOC) discussed multistakeholder participation in IG processes, too; this time from an African perspective. The WSIS process opened the door for African governments to get involved, and to work - in some cases for the first time - with other sectors. Mr Bekele distinguished between three types of governments in Africa: (i) those that started to get interested in IG and multistakeholderism early and currently lead certain IG processes, including setting an example in holding regular national IGFs; (ii) those that use multistakeholderism for very specific, limited purposes (ccTLDs, Internet Exchange Points, etc.), but are not willing to engage with new governance models beyond that; and (iii) governments that remain reluctant to work with other sectors and have difficulty in implementing multistakeholderism. Importantly, not only did the multistakeholder model contribute to developing IG policies, it also strengthened governance more generally, as it coincided with the democratisation of many African countries. ‘Overall, the voice of the developing world becomes increasingly stronger, and this is good for the debate worldwide’, concluded Mr Bekele.

Yet, enabling information and communication technologies (ICTs) does not depend entirely on governments. Technical standards have direct implications on IG-related policies, as two cases from the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) show. First, following the Snowden revelations, the IETF treated pervasive surveillance as a hacking activity, explained Eliot Lear (IETF). Secondly, the IETF saw an opportunity in defining protocols for a secondary use of spectrum. Although IETF standards are voluntary, it is important to ensure that they are stable and policy-neutral. With reference to multistakeholder governance, Mr Lear pointed out that the model needs more time to evolve and ‘it takes more time for governments to understand how they can become comfortable with it.’

So how do governments learn in multistakeholder set-ups? The round of reflections ended with Mr Petko Kantchev sharing Bulgaria’s experience in forming multistakeholder delegations for international meetings. As the classic UN approach is currently challenged, there is confusion among governments as to what their role should be. ‘The Bulgarian administration has delegations composed of people with appropriate competence, independent of the classic governmental approach’, highlighted Mr Kantchev, former Chair of the Informal Expert Group, World Telecommunication Policy Forum 2013.

The open discussion that followed pointed out the role of local multistakeholder initiatives, the complexity of the current Internet landscape, and the need for procedural inclusiveness in future IG processes. Michael Kende (ISOC) concluded that there is a role for governments in the governance of the Internet, and that this role is evolving, just as multistakeholderism is.

Photo gallery from the event is available here.


The Geneva Internet Platform is an initiative of the Swiss authorities


Members of the Steering Committee are FDFA, OFCOM and the Canton of Geneva

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