Resolution bloat at ITU Plenipotentiary Conferences

Delegates who were in Dubai for the recent ITU Plenipotentiary Conference 2018 may remember the Chair of the Ad Hoc Group on Resolution 130 (about cybersecurity) regularly reporting on how many pages his group had succeeded in deleting from the original 56-page consolidated draft containing all proposed changes to the resolution. Member States engaged in long hours, including nights, weekends, and almost through to the dawn of the final day of the conference, to slowly work their way through the 18,063 words in the initial consolidated draft of proposals. 13 versions of the Ad Hoc Group’s draft resolution were to follow the first version. And I’m not even counting the versions of the draft that subsequently went to Working Group of Plenary, and then to Plenary, to work on.

Last minute work on Resolution 130 (cybersecurity)

The final text of the 2018 (English) version of Resolution 130 was 14 pages, with a total of 5,288 words. Even the title of the resolution contains a lot of words: “Strengthening the role of ITU in building confidence and security in the use of information and communication technologies”. It’s so darn long that most people just refer to it as “the cybersecurity resolution”. If you’re an ITU lifer, talking to other ITU lifers, then you just call it “Res 130”.

The sheer number of words in the proposed amendments to Resolution 130 were virtually unmanageable. If ITU plenipotentiaries didn’t operate on the basis of trying to work from regional, rather than individual country-based proposals, the situation would have been even worse. As it was, each of the five regional groups had submitted proposals to update the resolution, with one country-based proposal from Brazil on top of that.

With only six proposals, though, how did the conference end up with 56 pages of consolidate proposal texts? Partially, it’s because cybersecurity is a very hot topic, and there are very different views within ITU’s Member States about how ITU, and the world generally, should be going about strengthening cybersecurity. Partially it’s because the previous version of the resolution, from 2014, already had a lot of words (3,765 to be exact), and so there were lots of existing sentences that different regions could find issue with, and feel the need to propose amendments to.

It seems that the only way to resolve differing viewpoints on a hot topic like cybersecurity is to add a lot more text that sort of reflects each of the different viewpoints, but not in way that satisfies any of the view holders, resulting in the next plenipotentiary conference receiving yet more proposals to amend the seemingly inadequate text that grudgingly received consensus at the previous plenipotentiary.

ITU, and other intergovernmental agencies, often view the result of a negotiation where “everyone is equally unhappy” as a successful outcome. But I suspect the reality is that what it often does is simply generate more proposals, more debate, and larger versions of the target resolution at the subsequent meeting.

To test my suspicion, I have analyzed the growth of ITU Plenipotentiary resolutions related to the Internet and the information/knowledge society – highly divisive topics these days – and compared them to a handful of other Plenipotentiary resolutions. I’ve included a table including the word counts for all resolutions referred to in this article at the end of the article.

The quartet of Internet-related resolutions

The four key Internet-related resolutions of Plenipotentiary are:

  • Resolution 101: Internet Protocol-based networks
  • Resolution 102: ITU’s role with regard to international public policy issues pertaining to the Internet and the management of Internet resources, including domain names and addresses
  • Resolution 133: Role of administrations of Member States in the management of internationalized (multilingual) domain names
  • Resolution 180: Promoting deployment and adoption of IPv6 to facilitate the transition from IPv4 to IPv6

These four are generally seen as a “package” and are discussed within the same Ad Hoc Group at ITU Plenipotentiaries. Each of the four resolutions contains the famous footnote from the 2010 Plenipotentiary that define “relevant organizations involved in the development of IP-based networks and the future Internet in the context of emerging telecommunications/ICTs” as:

“Including, but not limited to, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the regional Internet registries (RIRs), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet Society (ISOC) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), on the basis of reciprocity”.

Negotiations on these Internet-related resolutions are always fraught and reflect wider geo-political differences on what the ideal international and national governance systems should be. The reality is, though, that only a dozen or so Member States are truly active throughout the negotiations. Others jump in from time to time, either to support the interventions of the representative(s) of their regional group or to comment on an issue they as a Member State have a strong position on. Most Member States remain silent in the room, either because they don’t have a strong (or any) position on the proposals or they have a position that conflicts somewhat with their regional group’s official position, so remain silent for the greater good of their regional group.

Below is a graph of how the word counts of these four Internet-related resolutions have grown since their creation (101 and 102 in 1998; 133 in 2002; 180 in 2010).

Word count growth of ITU Plenipotentiary resolutions on Internet-related issues

On average, the four resolutions have grown by 360 words each time they’ve been updated at a Plenipotentiary. (Resolution 101 wasn’t updated in 2002.)

Taken together, Plenipotentiary resolutions on Internet-related issues have grown from a total of 1,225 words, in two resolutions in 1998, to 8,315 words, in four resolutions in 2018. Plenipotentiary delegates are having to wade through almost seven times as many words written in Internet resolutions now as they had to back in 1998.

Resolutions on the information/knowledge society

The four resolutions below aren’t grouped as a single “information/knowledge society” package of resolutions at Plenipotentiaries. But I’ve grouped them as such because, with the exception of the cybersecurity resolution, they were all created in the wake of the two-phase World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The cybersecurity resolution gained speed after WSIS, so I’ve included it here. The four resolutions in this section are:

  • Resolution 130: Strengthening the role of ITU in building confidence and security in the use of information and communication technologies
  • Resolution 140: ITU’s role in implementing the outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as well as in their follow-up and review processes
  • Resolution 179: ITU’s role in child online protection
  • Resolution 197: Facilitating the Internet of Things and smart sustainable cities and communities

Below is a graph of how the word counts of these four resolutions have grown since their creation (130 in 2002; 140 in 2006; 179 in 2010; and 197 in 2010).

Word growth of ITU Plenipotentiary resolutions related to the Information Society

Given the relatively short time the above resolutions have been around, it’s hard to draw strong conclusions about the long-term growth of these resolutions, but the same trend to accumulate text as shown by the Internet resolutions appears to be happening here, too. The average rate of word growth for each plenipotentiary that these four resolutions has been updated at is 819 words. The cybersecurity resolution, 16 years after it was first created, is now 16 times as large as it originally was. It only took four plenipotentiaries after its original creation to expand to 16 times its initial word length.

Note that the WSIS resolution word count actually went down this year. That’s in line with the reduction of word counts in the WSIS/ICT for Development (ICT4D) resolutions approved by Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the UN General Assembly (UNGA). In all three cases, the first WSIS/ICT4D resolution adopted after the UNGA WSIS+10 review held in 2015 was significantly shorter than the version of the resolution adopted before that review. (More on the ECOSOC and UNGA resolutions later in this article.)

Other ITU Plenipotentiary 2018 resolutions for comparison

My choice of the five resolutions below wasn’t particularly scientific. I was looking for resolutions that had been updated in 2018 and had been around for a long time, so were likely to be on non-Internet/Information Society-related issues, and therefore influenced by the same geo-political divisions that plague the Internet and WSIS issues. Instead, I was hoping to see if other geopolitical factors might influence the growth, or otherwise, of these resolutions. The five resolutions I selected were:

  • Resolution 2: World telecommunication/information and communication technology policy forum
  • Resolution 30: Special measures for the least developed countries, small island developing states, landlocked developing countries and countries with economies in transition
  • Resolution 64: Non-discriminatory access to modern telecommunication/information and communication technology facilities, services and applications, including applied research and transfer of technology, and e-meetings, on mutually agreed terms
  • Resolution 66: Documents and publications of the Union
  • Resolution 70: Mainstreaming a gender perspective in ITU and promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women through telecommunications/information and communication technologies

As you’ve probably noticed by now, ITU Member States certainly have a knack for developing really snappy titles for resolutions. In a lot of cases, titles started off short and clear, but as more and more ideas have been inserted into specific resolutions, the titles have been expanded to reflect this. In short, general resolution bloat is reflected in title bloat.

Below is a graph of how the word counts of these five long-standing resolutions have grown since their creation (all but Resolution 70 were around in 1994).

Word growth of a selection of ITU Plenipotentiary resolutions not specifically about the Internet or Information Society

Resolution 64 is basically about the impact of sanctions on ICT development and use by sanctioned countries, so it’s a pretty sensitive topic, but even that hasn’t led to the resolution expanding at anywhere near the rate of the Internet or Information Society related resolutions.

In contrast, the gender resolution (70) has expanded significantly in the last two plenipotentiaries. It went from 1,787 words in 2010, to 3,079 words in 2014, to 3,681 words this year. For reasons that I fully don’t understand, gender equality has become a highly contentious topic, with some Member States objecting to ITU spending time on this issue, arguing it’s more important for ITU to prioritise equal regional participation. To me, it feels very odd for Member States to be arguing about this, given ITU’s involvement in EQUALS, amongst other gender initiatives, and the wider UN Sustainable Development Goal 5, on gender equality, that all UN Member States have signed on to, but as always, what a Member State may promote in one UN process may be very different to their stance on the same issue in a different UN process. Go figure.

Removing the outlying Resolution 70 from this bundle of older resolutions, the average word increase for the remaining four resolutions at each plenipotentiary that they’ve been updated is 106 words. The resolutions are still growing, but very, very slowly.

The general trend for Internet and Information Society resolutions to bloat

As the graph below shows, there’s an increasing number of resolutions on Internet and Information Society-related issues being created, those resolutions are generally being updated at each subsequent plenipotentiary (many of the early ITU resolutions haven’t been updated in years), and the trend is for them to get bigger each time they’re updated.

Word growth of Internet and Information Society-related ITU Plenipotentiary resolutions

For quick reference, here are size comparisons for the above resolutions, showing word count at the time of their original creation, and their size after being updated at Plenipotentiary 2018:

Comparison of word growth in ITU Plenipotentiary resolutions related to the Internet and Information Society

Notice that the closer to the left side of the bar chart that a resolution is, the larger the relative increase in words. This is because the older the resolution, the more plenipotentiaries it’s been through, and the more chances there have been for Member States to add more content to the resolutions.

Also, as shown in the bar chart below, there’s a general trend for Internet, Information Society, and the newer digital applications and services resolutions that arose during the 2018 Plenipotentiary to start life with a larger number of words.

General trend in growth of initial word count for ITU Plenipotentiary resolutions related to the Internet, Information Society and digital applications and services

In the above bar chart, please note that what I’m calling the digital applications and services resolutions (Over-The-Top services (OTTs), Digital Economy and Society, and Bridging the Digital Financial Gap) don’t have resolution numbers yet. Because they are so new, they currently are only identified by their Working Group of Plenary resolution numbers, not by the larger schedule of Plenipotentiary resolution numbers. Rather than use the temporary Working Group of Plenary numbers, I’ve chosen just to refer to their subjects.

The above chart only refers to 11 resolutions, so is not a particularly large pool of data with which I can conclude that there are strong trends, but there is an overall emerging trend for resolutions in the Internet/Information Society/digital applications and services space to start life in more words as the years have passed, particularly if you remove the two extremely high starting-word-count resolutions, 140 (from 2006) and 179 (from 2010).

How do Plenipotentiary resolutions on Internet and Information Society issues compare to similar resolutions in other UN forums?

Below are the two best-known resolutions related to the Internet and the Information Society:

  • Information and communications technologies for sustainable development (UNGA resolution)
  • Assessment of the progress made in the implementation of and follow-up to the outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society (ECOSOC resolution drafted by the Commission on Science and Technology for Development)

These two resolutions are developed annually, so are an interesting contrast to the quadrennial drafting of ITU’s plenipotentiary resolutions. The changing word count of these two resolutions are shown in the graph below:

Word growth of UNGA and ECOSOC resolutions on WSIS and ICT4D

There are two dips visible for both resolutions in the graph above. One is associated with resolutions in the wake of the final phase of WSIS in 2005:

 

  • The first resolution at ECOSOC after WSIS was ECOSOC’s first ever resolution on WSIS (2006), so was rather long on explanation. The following year (2007), it was tightened up considerably, resulting in the big drop in its word count. As various governments started to realize that the outcomes from the 2005 WSIS weren’t going to solve all the ICT issues they’d hoped WSIS would solve, negotiations ramped up again, and the word count of the 2008 version of the ECOSOC resolution on WSIS increased.
  • It seems that UNGA had hoped that WSIS would solve all their ICT issues, too, as there was no ICT4D resolution from UNGA in 2005 or in 2006. Instead, UNGA issues resolutions related to the holding of WSIS. By the time they resumed the ICT4D resolution in 2007, their effort was entirely about pushing off ICTs to ECOSOC in a very short, 260-word resolution. When that didn’t seem to work, negotiations started back up, and word count started going up again (1283 in 2008).

The other dip is related to UNGA WSIS+10 High Level Meeting held in 2015:

  • The ECOSOC WSIS resolution preceded the UNGA event, so the word count increased in 2015, but then dipped in 2016, as CSTD Member States (who draft the resolution) debated how best to update the ECOSOC resolution. Very little was agreed on, so very little new material went in, but common sense meant that Member States could agree to take out the existing text talking about preparations for the WSIS+10 event, which was clearly out of date in 2016.
  • The UNGA ICT4D resolution in 2015 was basically a placeholder resolution, as Member States had been focused on producing the WSIS+10 resolution from the UNGA High Level Meeting that preceded the ICT4D resolution by only a matter of days. In 2016, though, Member States went back to arguing about what the WSIS+10 resolution meant, and the word count of the ICT4D resolution went back up again.

Below is a comparison of the total word counts of the original versus latest versions of the ECOSOC and UNGA resolutions:

Total growth in word count for the UNGA and ECOSOC resolutions, based on first and most recent versions of the resolutions

The UNGA resolution has been updated 14 times – it skipped 2005 and 2006, and negotiations on the 2018 version are not likely to conclude until just before the end of December. The ECOSOC resolution, which is actually four years younger than its UNGA counterpart, has been updated 13 times.

The average rate of word growth for each UNGA section that the ICT4D resolution has been updated at is 303 words. For the ECOSOC WSIS resolution, it’s 288 words.

This means that both the UNGA and ECOSOC resolutions are growing at a slower average pace per update than the Internet-related resolutions (at an average of 360 words per plenipotentiary) and Information Society resolutions (at an average of 819 words per plenipotentiary).

Plenipotentiary resolutions on Internet and Information Society issues still have a word count lower than their UNGA and ECOSOC counterparts, but are growing at a fast rate each time they’re updated

With the exception of ITU Plenipotentiary Resolution 130, cybersecurity, the other older Internet and Information Society resolutions (that is, ones that were created in 2006 or earlier) are still smaller than their UNGA and ECOSOC counterparts:

Total growth in word count for Internet and Information Society-related resolutions from ITU, UNGA and ECOSOC

But given there are fewer opportunities to update plenipotentiary resolutions (only once every four years, the general rate of growth for the ITU resolutions on Internet and Information Society issues is a little alarming. Below is a graph showing how much larger, compared to their original size, resolutions have been getting, per update, for the Internet and Information Society related resolutions at ITU, UNGA and ECOSOC:

Average word count growth per update of Internet and Information Society-related resolutions at ITU, UNGA and ECOSOC

The Plenipotentiary’s cybersecurity is the clear “winner” here, but it’s apparent that all five of the oldest Internet/Information Society resolutions are growing at a faster rate per update than either the UNGA or ECOSOC resolutions.

What causes resolution bloat?

There are a number of factors:

  • General conservativism in the negotiation process means that when old text is proposed to be deleted, it often isn’t. For example, in Dubai a proposed deletion of a reference to telex in Resolution 133 (IDNs) was opposed as, despite the fact that telex is basically unused technology these days, it is important to continue to recognize ITU’s role in standardizing the use of non-Latin characters in telex. Similarly, Resolution 140 (WSIS) still contains a thank you to the hosts of the two phases of WSIS, which were held back in 2003 and 2005, despite a proposal to delete the thank you message. When you don’t delete the outdated text, but keep adding more up-to-date text, the resolution bloats.
  • Highly contentious issues lead to needing to include references to highly divergent perspectives, but in much watered-down form. The watering down enables holders of opposing viewpoints to accept the inclusion of views they would otherwise not be able to accept, but it also ensures that it doesn’t meet the goals of the original proponents. The result is a lot of text which doesn’t really meet anyone’s goals, leading to many of the Member States re-proposing what they originally wanted at the subsequent plenipotentiary. And because of the contentiousness of the topic, the cycle repeats, and repeats, and repeats.
  • To justify adding more actions in the operative part of a resolution (the “resolves”, “instructs”, “encourages” and “urges” parts) there’s a trend to add more explanatory text to the preamble (the “notes”, “recognizing”, “aware”, “recalling”, etc., parts). For contentious topics, this means that the preamble can bloat significantly, as Member States argue for inclusion of references to other resolutions and activities. For example, the 2018 version of Resolution 130 (cybersecurity) refers to a whopping 17 other resolutions and outcome documents under “recalling”, 18 contributory factors under “considering”, and countless other activities and references to resolutions in the rest of the preamble, all to justify the presence of 12 “resolves”, 37 “instructs” (directed at the Secretary-General and various Directors of the Bureaux), and 13 “invites” (directed at Member States, Sector Members and Associates) and one “requests” (to the Council).
  • There’s a trend to add more and more sub-issues to the topic of a resolution over time. This leads to more text for each of those new dimensions. For example, Resolution 102 was only about the management of the DNS and IP addresses until 2006. In 2006, to take into account the outcomes of the WSIS process, the concept of “international public policy issues pertaining to the Internet” and “enhanced cooperation” were added to the resolution. In turn, this led to the Council Working Group on International Internet-related Public Policy Issues cropping up in the 2010 version of the resolution (between the 2006 and 2010 plenipotentiaries, the ITU Council had created a Dedicated Group on International Internet-related Public Policy Issues). At some point, a resolution may get so weighed down with expanding sub-issues that it may give birth to a brand-new baby resolution. But that hasn’t happened yet with either Resolution 102, or Resolution 130 (cybersecurity).
  • Member States will often try and insert text into a resolution that they hope will be able to help them in another forum. For example, there’s quite a lot of interplay between ITU resolutions on WSIS and the Internet and the ECOSOC resolution on WSIS follow-up. If a Member State can add some advantageous text into a resolution of a forum that is more favourable to their views, they can then use that to justify a proposal of theirs in a forum where their views may come up against more opposition; at that point, the Member State can point to the other forum’s resolution and say “but forum X considers this a vital issue, so this forum must too”.

When all these factors converge, you end up with extreme bloating cases like Resolution 70 (gender) and Resolution 130. But sometimes, the contentiousness of the issue can be so overwhelming, it results in absolutely no changes to a resolution at all (for example, Resolution 45, on cybersecurity, at the World Telecommunication Development Conference in Buenos Aires last year); this may mean no bloat, but it also means more lingering bad feeling between Member States.

Does it matter if ITU Plenipotentiary resolutions on Internet and Information Society resolutions are bloating over time?

It does matter if the trend continues, because larger resolutions provide more opportunities for Member States to find issue with the various parts of the text and therefore propose more amendments, which not only leads to the need for more negotiations, but also to yet more text being added to the resolution.

Also, a larger a resolution tends to have more moving parts – that is, they include more references to other resolutions and activities in their preambles (“noting”, “recalling”, emphasizing”, etc.), and more actions in their operative parts (“resolves”, “instructs”, invites”). As the referenced existing resolutions and activities are updated—and often expanded—elsewhere, it encourages Member States to also change/expand the scope of the resolution that refers to them, both in terms of elaborating on those updates in the preamble, as well as proposing additional actions in the operational section that align with those related resolutions and activities.

Another problem that results from the increasing number of interlinked resolutions happens when the interlinked resolutions are all being updated at the same Plenipotentiary, leading to multiple parallel resolution drafting sessions waiting on each other’s outcomes to make updates to their own resolutions. Or more alarming, multiple parallel resolution drafting sessions taking related pieces of text in different directions.

Member State only have a finite three weeks to resolve all their differences at ITU Plenipotentiary Conferences. The length of the plenipotentiary is unlikely to be extended any time soon (in fact, their current length has shrunk from four weeks and longer in the past), meaning that the only way to fit in the need for more time for each of the bloated resolutions to be discussed is to schedule more parallel sessions as well as more, and longer, night-time and weekend sessions.

The problem with doing this, however, is that most Member State delegations are fairly small and don’t have enough delegates with the appropriate expertise to spread themselves across multiple parallel sessions discussing resolutions on related issues.

In addition, scheduling sessions well into the night (and next morning) as well as throughout the weekends results in highly fatigued delegates who are vulnerable to irritability that can reduce progress in negotiations as well as lead to general brain fog that can lead to less-than-optimal decision-making.

ITU isn’t the only intergovernmental agency, or even the only policy-making process, to encounter many of the factors that lead to resolution bloat, or to have to then deal with the increasing levels of stress that its delegates are put under to try and resolve significant differences of opinion on increasingly bloated documents. What’s unique for ITU is the fact that digital issues are becoming increasingly important to all of the world’s activities—be they economic, social, cultural, political, environmental or developmental—meaning that the probability of ITU continuing to have a perfect storm of factors leading to bloating resolutions will remain high, and contribute to increasingly difficult negotiations that result in resolutions that are increasingly too labyrinthine and opaque to understand.

My IGF 2017 lesson learned: remote participation wasn’t a viable alternative way to participate

Ongoing problems with remote participation at IGF 2017 have made me realize that the only way to properly participate (or even observe) in IGF is to be there in person. This was only my second meeting to follow remotely. The first was back in 2011, and I don’t remember having any problems. Remote participation wasn’t as advanced back then, and I think remote participation consisted entirely of watching a webcast. No Cisco WebEx or Adobe Connect-type functionality available.

Fast forward to 2017, and the IGF community wants it all:

  • Chat online with others (Via WebEx)
  • Speak directly to the people in the physical room (Via WebEx)
  • Listen and watch what’s happening in the rooms (Via WebEx and via separate streaming webcast)
  • Listen to discussions in any of the 6 UN languages (via streaming webcast, but not for all sessions)
  • Read transcripts in real time (via streaming text in a web browser, or below streaming webcast)

An impressive set of remote participation options!

ICANN actually does remote participation very well (and goes above and beyond in the language department, adding Portuguese to their interpretation sessions).

But IGF? In 2017? Not so well. (I’ve left the description of the actual problems I experienced to an annex the end of this blog post, since the description is detailed, and unless you’re a remote participation nerd, it would probably send you to sleep.)

So why did remote participation at IGF 2017 not quite make the grade?

The IGF community wants pimped up Porsches, but are only funding a fleet of second-hand Edsels

The IGF Secretariat is stuck in a difficult place. The community is highly aspirational in its goals (a good thing) but collectively is unwilling to pay for it (not so good).

In attempting to deliver what the community wants, the Secretariat is over-reaching itself. Instead of doing one or two things really well, it’s doing a not-so-great job on lots of things.

Let me make it very clear here: I don’t blame the Secretariat for this. They are doing their best. They are hesitant to say “no” to the community they serve. The MAG is also reluctant to say “no”. Saying “no”, I suspect, is seen as antithetical to the bottom-up multistakeholder model of Internet governance. If the multistakeholder community wants something, then the feeling is it should be provided.

Quality of provision, though, suffers. Instead of being able to deliver all those pimped up Porsches, all IGF can do is deliver the requested number of vehicles, but of a far inferior make and quality.

Right now, remote participation is not a viable solution to those who can’t attend IGF in person

Based on my experiences at this IGF, I would not recommend anyone consider participating remotely in future IGFs. Not unless things are significantly overhauled.

I would, instead, tell people that they have to be there in person to have any chance of being able to follow any of the sessions.

Such a recommendation, of course, rules out the participation of vast swathes of potential participants who come from developing countries or represent entities that don’t have the resources to send their representative to a far-flung location for a week’s meeting.

The only real solution is to fix the remote participation. One way forward is to direct more funds to support more robust remote participation mechanisms. But given the IGF’s ongoing financial woes, I can’t see this happening in time for next year.

But there is another option: rationalize the confusing array of remote participation options available.

The IGF community needs to ask itself if it really needs 4 different ways of accessing the meeting remotely:

  1. Cisco WebEx
  2. Streaming Webcast via IGF YouTube account
  3. Streaming Webcast via IGF website, which pulls in the YouTube videos, and adds the appropriate live caption underneath it.
  4. Stand alone live caption pages.

At various points in the meeting, there have been 11 publicly recorded/streamed sessions running in parallel. This means that at any one point in the day there were up to 4 x 11 remote participation facilities that were supposed to be active. More, if you take into account the plenary room had audio in 6 UN languages, plus the floor audio. So in total, that’s up to 50 (fifty!) remote participation streams available in parallel. It’s no wonder there were glitches. In fact, it’s a miracle it worked at all.

It’s vital for IGF to have its remote participation mechanisms working well, as for many potential stakeholders, it’s a low cost entry into IGF – a way to evaluate if it’s something they want to participate in more substantially in future years, either by participating actively in the annual forum (remotely or onsite) or via IGF’s intersessional work programmes. It’s also a useful tool for onsite participants, who can use the WebEx tool in particular, to interact with other participants online.

Remote participation can work really well, as ICANN’s remote participation mechanisms demonstrate. Please, let’s fix this for IGF. If it means temporarily having to reduce the number of remote participation options, so remaining ones work well, and encourage people to use it as a viable alternative to traveling to IGF in person, then surely it’s worth it. IGF can always add more mechanisms back into the mix when it has the resources to fully support them.

Annex: Documenting my frustrations with IGF 2017 remote participation

I plan to submit a version of this list below to the 2018 MAG’s call for submissions to review and evaluate IGF 2017 since my aim isn’t just to have a whinge on my blog, but to actually help fix IGF’s remote participation for future users.

Please note that the issues below are my personal experiences, so this is not a canonical list:

WebEx (the only true two-way participation)

  • WebEx audio was often not turned on at the start of the day, meaning that the stenographers, who appear to take their audio feed from the WebEx, rather than webcast stream, aren’t able to transcript significant chunks of those sessions. I doubt that IGF has the funds to pay the stenographers to do additional work to go back over the webcast archives and fill in the blanks. So a lot of the archived transcripts will be missing chunks.
  • The audio in the WebEx audio seems to be connected via a phone line, and the quality isn’t great. Because many participants at an IGF meeting aren’t used to regularly speaking into microphones, their voices are already quiet when listening through the direct audio feed from the microphones that accompanies the streaming webcast. This is made worse when the audio feed from rooms is then channeled into a phone line (or maybe even just a room microphone attached to the computer hosting the WebEx room?). The lower quality audio in the WebEx rooms makes it very difficult to what many speakers are saying. Since the stenographers are listening to the same muffled WebEx feed, you can’t rely on their transcripts to make sense of what is happening, either.
  • The video in WebEx rooms comes from small, slightly moveable webcams. In some rooms, this webcam has been pointed at the audience the whole time. Given the setup of the desks in many of the Palais des Nations rooms, this means I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the backs of chairs and the backs of people’s heads. When I asked if I could see the speakers and presentations, I was told I would need to go look at the separate streaming webcast. Even when the webcam has been pointed at speakers, it’s generally been at desk level, and provided odd up-nose shots of speakers (and their water bottles). Why not just import the streaming webcast instead of having the inferior webcam video? Or is it technically not possible?
  • With stenographers struggling with the muffled WebEx audio and the range of unfamiliar accents, being able to see any presentation slides from the session would be a great help in being able to understand exactly what is happening in a session. This could be achieved by uploading presentations to the computer hosting the onsite WebEx for that room, and loading it into the WebEx app, but this doesn’t seem to have been done – at least not in any of the sessions I tried watching.

Streaming webcasts

  • High quality audio and video. Great! But… it seems the timing for each webcast session link was programmed in advance and many errors were made, making it impossible to watch the session I wanted because the room link would tell me it wasn’t going to start for another [x] hours.
  • Other times, choosing the streaming webcast link (not the direct YouTube version) would embed the end of the last programmed session in that room, which would show the beginning of the session I wanted, then 10 or so minutes into that session, the end of that programme for the previous session webcast would end, and the webcast would stop entirely, resulting in needing to refresh the page to get the next programmed webcast link…. And in the process, losing the entire set of transcript material under that. Given the transcript and WebEx links didn’t change for each session, but stayed constant for each room, it would be easy to solve all these programmed start/end time glitches by just having a single daily live feed for each room in use, then chop up the video into session length pieces later. Yes, that would be annoying for someone to have to sit through and find the start and end times of sessions that never start or end on time, but better to annoy one staff member than to alienate a bunch of remote participants that IGF insists it wants to be inclusive of.

Live captions

  • At various points in the meeting, there have been 11 sets of transcripts running in parallel. Not all 11 stenographers are equally proficient, and if you were in a session with one of the less proficient stenographers, the transcript could be… not particularly helpful.
  • Some of the stenographers didn’t seem to even attempt any words that seem technical or specific, leaving bland transcripts that a) don’t convey the substantive discussion, and b) lack so many words – including verbs – they fail to make sense. This could be addressed to a large extent by providing the stenographers with a list of terminology and names likely to be used at the meeting and in particular sessions. But that would require work by the Secretariat (who don’t have the time) and by session organizers (the vast majority of whom have probably never worked with stenographers before, and don’t understand what their needs are). It could also be helped by having session moderators who insist that a) each speaker give their name and organization before speaking, b) tell speakers to speak closer into their microphones and c) tell fast speakers to slow down, especially when referring to technical or other specific terms that may not only be new terms for stenographers, but also other IGF participants in the session.
  • I assume that the stenographers from the USA and have limited exposure to the huge range of accents available in the world. This makes it a challenge for the stenographers to easily understand speakers from pretty much anywhere outside North America, the UK, and Australia and New Zealand, resulting in lots of “(?”) and “(inaudible)” comments being injected into the transcripts. I recognize this isn’t an easy problem to fix, but it might be worth adding “has experience of transcribing speech in accents other than North American, British and Australia/NZ.” ICANN and ITU also have this issue with their stenographers, so it’s not a problem limited to IGF. But if IGF is to truly support and encourage diversity of input, it’s really not acceptable to have speakers from Asia, Africa and swathes of Europe constantly having their interventions at IGF (and ICANN and ITU) almost made invisible by huge holes in the transcription of their speech.
  • This isn’t a particular fault of this particular meeting, but a general bugbear of mine. The live caption module allows for a “transcript” button that, if clicked on, pops up a new window containing the entire transcript for the current session (not just from when you entered the transcript page). I assume that IGF doesn’t have this enabled because it’s an extra cost to allow this facility. But given how long it takes to navigate to the next session you’re after (remember physical room number, then go find the transcript URL, which is numbered differently), having the ability to see what you missed would be useful.

Navigating to remote participation options

  • Remote participants shouldn’t have to navigate multiple pages to find the remote participation links for the session they are after. There must be a simpler way to link remote participation options from the session pages in the IGF schedule (which currently uses Sched). ICANN has managed it with Sched, so maybe they can help IGF with this.

How to do remote participation at IGF 2017

Ideally, there should be links to all the remote participation modes on each IGF 2017 session page, as ICANN meetings have, but there aren’t. You’d think that 12 years into IGF’s existence, we’d have remote participation well and truly sorted by now. But it’s not.

Don’t blame the Secretariat for this. They’re doing the best they can with limited resources and an overly large “to-do” list. The remote participation difficulties are a good example of how IGF suffers because it doesn’t have enough resources to do everything that’s asked of it as well as we would all like.

For those of you who are still trying to figure out how to participate remotely, or for those onsite who want some sense of how complicated it is to participate remotely, here’s a guide on how to conquer the IGF 2017 remote participation challenge!

Step 1. Go to the IGF schedule.

Ideally, be logged in to IGF 2017 Sched so you can select what you want to see. But in reality, you’ll often find that when you enter a session you thought looked of relevance to you, it actually isn’t, so you have to go back to the full Sched outline anyway to find another session.

Look at the particular session that you want to participate in remotely. Scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page, past the list of speakers… (keep scrolling…) the outline of the session… (keep scrolling…)…

Just before the circles containing all the pics of the people who are attending the session, you’ll find the details of the room that the session is being held in, sandwiched between a line of time details and line of content tags associated with the session. That’s the most important piece of information for remote participation. Remember the room number!

Step 2. Choose how you want to follow the meeting:

You have three options. And you can do all three at once if you have the bandwidth and ability to follow multiple windows simultaneously!

  1. Online participation (aka Cisco’s WebEx system)
  2. Live captions (aka live transcripts)
  3. Webcast (which is split into a further two options: webcast streaming with transcript beneath, or link directly to the IGF’s Youtube live video homepage, without transcripts)

IGF 2017 Sched also has a page that links to all of these options, too.

Step 2.1. If you choose “online participation”, do the following:

Open another tab in your browser and go to the online participation page.

If you aren’t already signed into the IGF website, you will first be presented with a sign in page. Complete that hurdle.

Find the room number that matches the room number of your session and click on that.

Enter your name and email and submit that.

The WebEx app will open separately and you will be offered a choice of how you want to connect to audio:

  1. Phone
  2. Computer speakers & mic

Choose one.

Make sure your mic isn’t on unless you really want others in the WebEx room to hear what you’re saying/laughing hysterically at.

Make sure your webcam isn’t on the whole time unless you really want other people in the webex room to see that you’re watching in your pajamas/have yet to shave or brush your hair/are breastfeeding your baby.

There is a video displayed under the “participants” tab on the right side of the window, which is not of the same quality as that available from the streaming webcast. For the workshop rooms, it is not a shot of the front of the room with speakers and presentation screen. From the sessions I’ve watched so far, it’s generally a view of the audience, or a low angle, “up-nose” shot of panellists. Or sometimes the ceiling.

If you have low bandwidth, close the “participants” tab so the video goes away.

Don’t forget to turn you mic back on if you want to ask a question or give a statement to the room.

Alternatively, you can use the chat facility, and the remote participation moderator in the room will read it out.

Step 2.2. If you choose “live captions”, do the following:

Open another tab in your browser and go to the live captions page.

Find the room number that matches the room number of your session and click on that.

You can only see the transcript from the point you have accessed the live transcript page. (The transcript module has the ability to have a button that allows you to see from the start of the session, but it’s not enabled at IGF).

Step 2.3. If you choose “webcast”, do the following:

Choose between:

  1. Webcast streaming
    Webcast Streaming will take you to the “Assembly Hall (floor)” webcast, with live transcript underneath.
    If you want to view the webcast of a workshop or open forum, click on the “workshop rooms” link at the top of the page.
    When on the workshop rooms page, look to the “Workshop rooms” navigation list on the right hand side of the page, find the room number that matches the room number of your session and click on that.
  2. IGF’s live video homepage on YouTube.
    I’m just going to assume here that everyone is well versed in how YouTube works.

Step 3. Switch between the various windows for an hour or so, then repeat the whole process when you need to swap to the next session.

The ever-expanding universe of Internet events and initiatives

The number of forums hosting Internet policy discussions have grown like Topsy since governments at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005 decided to mandate the creation of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). One simply cannot attend them all.

This is both good and bad. Clearly, Internet-related policy issues weren’t being discussed enough prior to 2005, or there wouldn’t have been the big hullabaloo that happened over the Internet during the WSIS process. The IGF was the compromise solution at WSIS between those wanting the UN (and more specifically, the ITU) to house all Internet policy discussions and decision-making (and management… let’s not forget there were concerted efforts for the ITU to take over the management and distribution of IP addresses and domain names) and those that felt that the Internet shouldn’t be handed over to UN agencies.

Since 2005, however, as a consequence of…

  • that “bottom-up” model that Internet folks laud so much;
  • the fact that the Internet has become more and more a part of everything we do, resulting in a greater need to address a wider and more complex array of Internet issues; and
  • the IGF not being a decision-making body and its endless discussions not leading to concrete outcomes and solutions

…we have seen an ever-increasing number of initiatives and events cropping up independently, taking away the original focus and resources from the IGF. Here is a non-exhaustive list of such events and initiatives:

NETmundial A one-off. There are regularly whispers of a 5 or 10 year anniversary event (possibly as part of the IGF) to review the progress of issues outlined in the NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement.
NETmundial Initiative Inspired by NETmundial, the NETmundial Initiative’s funding dried up not too long after its initiator and main champion, ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadi, left ICANN. This is possibly the only initiative in the Internet governance space ever to have been allowed to die, with pretty much nobody mourning its loss.
Global Conference on Cyber Space Originally organized as a one-off conference in 2011, it is now hosted every two years staged by a government with participation of non-government stakeholders.
Global Forum on Cyber Expertise A capacity-building spin-off from the 2015 Global Conference on Cyber Space in The Hague, the GFCE was initiated by the Dutch government, and now has 60 members consisting of governments, IGOs and companies. NGOs can be invited to be “partners” of the GFCE if they have specific cyber expertise relevant to a GFCE initiative. The aim of the GFCE is to have “knowledge and best-practices together in one platform“.
World Internet Conference The Chinese government’s answer to the IGF, and this year, described by someone at the conference as the Davos for the digital economy. Now in its fourth year, the WIC is continuing to adopt and adapt IGF-like activities (such as calling for best practices and launching publications during the event).
WSIS Forum Paragraph 109 of the 2005 Tunis Agenda for the Information Society recommended that ITU, UNESCO and UNDP organize meetings of WSIS Action Line facilitators to discuss WSIS implementation. Probably impressed by the IGF’s early dynamism and participation from all stakeholder groups, in 2009, ITU (the most active of the UN agencies regarding WSIS) copied the IGF format and turned what had been a cluster of individual meetings related to specific Action Lines into the “WSIS Forum”. The WSIS Forum has increasingly included a lot of Internet-related sessions in its program. Given the WSIS Forum has a permanent home in Geneva, is hosted by a UN agency that has high visibility and strong support amongst developing country governments, and is increasingly covering some of the same Internet policy territory that is also part of the IGF agenda, the creation of the WSIS Forum has had the effect of diverting a significant portion of the IGF’s potential sources of government funding and support away from the IGF.
WEF The World Economic Forum has been adding Internet governance topics to its lineup over the last few years.
OECD The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has had a significant program on the Internet/Digital Economy since 2008, where it introduced civil society and Internet technical community advisory councils, on top of the existing business and industry and trade union advisory councils.
UNESCO The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has increasingly engaged in activities such as Internet freedom, Internet universality, and Internet governance.
UN CSTD In 2006, CSTD was tasked with responsibility for WSIS follow-up, and a large part of its annual session discussions on WSIS since then have been Internet-related. The CSTD has also hosted 2 Working Groups:

The WGs have consisted of representatives from different stakeholder groups, and over time, the WGs became increasingly open in their proceedings.

Global Commission on Internet Governance Created in 2014 as a time-limited commission, the same year as NETmundial was held, by two think tanks, the Commission developed recommendations for maintaining One Internet.
Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace A 3-year project launched in February this year, the GCSC will “formulate policy recommendations for action-applicable to both government and the private sector led initiatives” related to “the security and stability in and of cyberspace”. The GCSC is committed to working with the “full range of stakeholders to develop shared understandings”.
GIPO A project of the European Commission, the Global Internet Policy Observatory was launched in 2015 to be a repository of information to help support Internet policy-making. Its funding runs out very shortly, and the European Commission has long been looking for someone to take on the running of the Observatory Tool – so far, without success.
Microsoft’s Geneva Digital Convention idea In the words of the February 2017 Microsoft blog post that announced the idea online, “the time has arrived to call on the world’s governments to implement international rules to protect the civilian use of the internet.”
ITU Council Working Group on International Internet-related Public Policy Issues (CWG-Internet) Originally the Dedicated Group on International Internet-related Public Policy Issues, this first met in 2009 (same year as the first WSIS Forum) and was open to Member States only. Since 2015, however, there has been an additional “open consultation” process, where all stakeholders are invited to submit contributions on topics that ITU’s Member States have decided on. There is also a physical open consultation meeting prior to the CWG-Internet meeting that ITU sector members and other stakeholders can participate in.
Internet and Jurisdiction Project The Internet and Jurisdiction Project began holding conferences in 2016 and will now hold an intersessional program of multistakeholder working groups that will culminate in the presentation of “policy standards and operational solutions” at the 2019 conference in Germany.

It’s overwhelming.

I completely understand the desire of some governments and stakeholders to have a “one-stop Internet shop” housed in an existing UN body (ITU?) or a new one (basically, to cover all issues, it would need to be a “UN General Assembly for the Internet”), but the reality is that, as my favourite standards cartoon notes, wanting to come up with a new, universal standard to replace all previous competing standards just results in adding another competing standard to the mix. A one-stop Internet shop just isn’t going to be able to cover all Internet issues and people would just have to add yet another forum to their already overloaded annual schedule of Internet-related activities.

When there are so many Internet governance-related activities on the calendar these days, it’s becoming more important to triage events. For me, and for many others I have talked with, IGF, with its lack of concrete outcomes and its increasing imbalance of stakeholders, is gradually losing out to events and processes that can produce Internet-altering outcomes for the world. IGF may be a fun place to catch up with industry friends and colleagues, but, sadly, for those of us with limited resources, events that can produce (usually multilateral) agreements, recommendations or resolutions have to take priority.


This is part of a 4-part series on the IGF. The other 3 parts are: