A summary of a very quiet 4th CWG-Internet meeting

Note: I attended the fourth CWG-Internet meeting as a member of the Australian delegation; however, any of the views I express in this blog post are entirely my own. This post does not reflect the official Australian position, nor is its content endorsed in any way by the Australian government.

This is the second part of a two-part report of the fourth CWG-Internet meeting, held 3-4 March 2014. The first part can be found here.

Touré’s opening speech

Photo credit: ITU pictures via Flickr

Photo credit: ITU pictures via Flickr

ITU Secretary General Touré was present at the start of the meeting. His presence sent a signal that this was going to be an important meeting, which of course, we found out to not be the case, but it nevertheless sent a message that this CWG was important to the ITU.

Touré stated that the CWG-Internet was a very important component of the multistakeholder dialogue on Internet issues. He also noted that although Brazil’s draft opinion at WTPF-13 hadn’t reached consensus, it had begun a very important dialogue on the role of governments in Internet governance. He also referred to the responses by 37 Member States to the CWG-Internet’s questionnaire on the role of governments, saying not only would they inform discussions at the CWG-Internet, but would form an important repository of information for future dialogue on the issues they contained. He also noted the series of “Open Talks” he had conducted on Internet-related public policy issues.

Importantly, Touré stated that ITU is part of an ecosystem of organizations dealing with Internet-related matters, and that the ITU works to add value where it can.

37 really interesting submissions to the questionnaire on what governments are doing in terms of Internet-related public policy issues

There were 37 responses to the following question:

  • What actions have been undertaken or to be undertaken by governments in relations to each of the international Internet-related public policy issues identified in Annex 1 to Resolution 1305 (adopted by Council 2009 at the seventh Plenary Meeting)?

I don’t think there have ever been as many as 37 Member States present at a CWG-Internet meeting, so to have 37 of the 193 ITU Member States submit a response is a major achievement. There were submissions from both developed as well as developing countries, with good geographical diversity, too. A brief overview of the contents of the responses and the discussion in the room during the CWG-Internet meeting:

  • It was encouraging to see some of the Member States compiled their responses by first conducting consultations with various Internet-related stakeholders within their national borders.
  • A number of Member States reported having various forms of stakeholder consultation processes or advisory groups in place where government departments could solicit opinions and feedback on Internet-related public policy issues under consideration. This helped governments create more effective national policy related to the Internet.
  • A number of governments with such consultation processes noted that although the government ultimately made the decisions about national Internet-related public policy, being able to discuss issues with interested stakeholders gave all parties a better understanding of everyone’s positions and the reasons behind decisions, even if non-government stakeholders held views contrary to those that informed the final decisions.
  • More than one Member State referred to the need for governments to develop public policy in coordination with other stakeholders to ensure that innovation on the Net remained unhindered.
  • Member States agreed that the responses should be placed in a permanent online repository where each Member State could update its submission as circumstances changed.

The CWG-Internet decided that the responses to that questionnaire were, like all CWG-Internet documents, limited to Member States only.[1] A large number of States did very much want the responses to be public, saying that the contents would be very useful for everyone. For a little while, there seemed to be agreement to a proposal that all respondents would be contacted and told that their submissions would be made public on a certain date unless they specifically requested their submission be kept password-protected. This agreement fell apart, however, when one Member State suggested that States who might want to keep their submissions password-protected may feel pressured by other States to make them public. States who did not respond to pressure to publish might then be viewed by the wider public as having something to hide.

The good news, though, is that this CWG-Internet meeting decided that the 37 respondents are free to resubmit their contributions as part of the public consultation process that began on 10 March 2014. All contributions to that public consultation are made public.

Oh, and of course, there’s always WCITLeaks, which has already made all of the responses publically available. I was looking at WCITleaks’ links to the responses while the debate was happening in the room and wondered if I should point out to the pro-password crowd that their battle had been lost before the meeting had even begun. But the debate in the room wasn’t about the reality of whether the documents were available or not. It was about a clash of principles: open versus closed intergovernmental proceedings.

Photo credit: ITU pictures via Flickr

Photo credit: ITU pictures via Flickr

The decision to hold a public consultation

A few Member States had submitted contributions supporting the decision at the third CWG-Internet meeting to hold a public consultation on the role of governments in Internet-related public policy. There had been reluctance back in the third meeting to agree to a public consultation, and States not so keen on a public consultation had successfully introduced an escape clause in the Chair’s report of the third meeting:

  • “The CWG will hold an open multistakeholder consultation on the role of governments immediately after its next meeting in March 2014, based on contributions by Member States.

While it may not at first be obvious to the casual reader, the “based on the contributions by Member States” text was inserted as a way of allowing the consultation to be quashed if Member States didn’t bother to contribute first (if governments don’t respond on the role of governments, then there would then be no need to hear what non-governments think about the role of governments).

As it happened, with 37 responses by governments, the above argument clearly couldn’t be used to suppress the idea of a public consultation. Instead, creativity was needed. And the arguments of States not wanting to have a public consultation were indeed very creative. One State argued that because many Member States have already stated that they consulted with non-government stakeholders in composing their responses to the questionnaire, the CWG-Internet would learn nothing new by asking non-government stakeholders to submit their responses separately.

A number of Member States were looking forward to holding a public consultation on the same question as that put to governments. But this was another area of contention. Some States argued that it was impossible to use exactly the same question posed to governments as that question was carefully crafted for only governments and nobody else. The strength of this argument was somewhat diminished by the fact that many governments had consulted their non-government stakeholders, and no non-government stakeholders had been harmed as a result of trying to answer this “governments only” question, but anyhow…

Another State argued that there was no way that the same question could be used for non-government stakeholders as there was a risk that non-government stakeholders may contradict the answers governments had submitted as part of the closed governments-only questionnaire. And we can’t have differences in the views expressed by governments and their citizens, can we?

The Member States wanting to ask non-government stakeholders exactly the same question as governments held out for a bit, but eventually capitulated. In the end, to prevent there being discrepancies between what governments have said they’re currently doing in the area of Internet-related public policy and what their citizens say they’re doing, the part of the question about current government activities in the Internet public policy sphere was removed. The final question agreed to was:

  • “What actions are to be undertaken by governments in relations to each of the international Internet-related public policy issues identified in Annex 1 to Resolution 1305 (adopted by Council 2009 at the seventh Plenary Meeting)?

So, what are the implications of the change of question?

  • It has become a leading question. It suggests that there are things that governments should be doing that they aren’t. It doesn’t give non-government stakeholders a chance to document what governments are already doing. In essence, the question has been successfully reframed by those who believe that governments should have a greater role in Internet governance to produce exactly the sort of result that they want: a set of responses by non-government stakeholders listing areas where governments should be more active. Counterbalancing information, about what governments are already doing, and which may suggest that governments are already doing what’s needed, is excluded.
  • By not including a question about current government activities, there is no way to gather information on government involvement in Internet-related public policy outside the 37 Member States who submitted their responses to the earlier governments-only questionnaire. There are 193 ITU Member States. The CWG-Internet in practice has chosen to actively limit its knowledge about current government practices in Internet public policy to less than 20% of its membership.
  • Given the 37 Member States who responded to the governments-only questionnaire are able to resubmit their responses to this public consultation, we will end up with a collection of divergent responses:
  • One set (from governments) will talk about what they’re doing now as well as what they think should be done in future.
  • A second set (from non-government stakeholders) will only respond to the question about what governments should be doing in future.

How to craft your response to the second CWG-Internet public consultation

The public consultation is open until 26 April 2014.

I suggest that non-government stakeholders making submissions to the public consultation do the following:

  • Note that to contextualize your response to the question about what actions governments should be undertaking in Internet-related issues, it is first important to establish what governments are already doing.
  • Include as many examples as you can about what your national government (or a range of governments, given the public consultation doesn’t limit the question to your own national government) is already doing in relation to Internet-related public policy issues.
  • Include examples of Internet public policy issues where governments are working with other stakeholders. The wider the variety of forms of stakeholder interaction with government are documented, the easier it will be for all stakeholders to learn from the experiences of alternative forms of inter-stakeholder interaction that have not yet been widely documented or publicized. The fact that Member States in the fourth CWG-Internet meeting were asking each other for more details on the forms of multistakeholder interaction they were using is proof that there is genuine interest-even amongst Member States not normally associated with embracing non-government stakeholder interaction-in learning how others develop their Internet-related policy.
  • Encourage stakeholders in the 156 countries who didn’t submit responses to the governments-only questionnaire to submit responses that document current government activities in the Internet governance sphere.
  • Ask your Member State to support your submission at the next CWG-Internet meeting so it doesn’t disappear beneath the waves like the first set of public consultation contributions did at the third CWG-Internet meeting. Your Member State delegate could achieve this by directly referring to your submission in their contribution to the CWG. Alternatively, your Member State could read out the most interesting parts of your submission to the CWG members and provide additional information on the issues discussed in your submission in response to questions by other Member States.

[1] Anyone who followed the 2013 ITU Council debate on the possibility of opening CWG-Internet documents to non-Member States will remember that it was decided that as the creation of the CWG-Internet was a result of a Plenipotentiary resolution, only another Plenipotentiary resolution could make a decision on how open—or otherwise—the CWG should be.

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