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:

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