Why it’s good China is part of the IGF MAG

igf-2013-logoLast week, as part of a series of posts about preparations for the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Bali later this year, I blogged about the MAG’s consensus-minus-one decision to remove Critical Internet Resources (CIR) as one of the themes of the main sessions (it’s still a workshop track theme) and include human rights and freedom of expression as main session themes.

One thing I didn’t manage to fit into the flow of that post was why, even though China was alone amongst MAG members in its objections to these theme changes, it is important to recognize how significant it is that China chooses to remain a MAG member.

China’s positions on Internet governance issues in MAG discussions

Critical Internet Resource management aka “ICANN is a tool of the US government”

The Chinese government has had a representative on the MAG since the preparations for the first IGF in 2006. China, like a number of States, was-and still is-very unhappy with the US government’s unique role in the global CIR management system. No doubt, therefore, China saw a place on the MAG as another venue for keeping discussion on the USA government’s pre-eminent role in CIR management alive. Of course, we’re all already well aware of the need for ICANN to truly internationalize. It’s just that China, and a number of other States, would prefer it internationalize by moving its CIR functions into an intergovernmental body such as the ITU, or perhaps a completely new body under the UN system.

China should not be criticized for continuing to push for a spotlight on the US government’s role in the IANA and ICANN. It is a legitimate view. And just as legitimate as the view of many members of the Internet technical community who have spent their time on the MAG doing the exact opposite: trying to shift IGF’s discussions away from a sole focus on the CIR management model to a wider range of Internet governance issues.

Human rights and freedom of expression

It’s clear that China is not going to be the poster child for human rights at any point in the foreseeable future. It’s no surprise, therefore, that China’s representatives on the MAG would not support human rights related themes for the IGF. In past years, there have been IGF workshops with a human rights angle, but they’ve been placed under other headings (development, access, etc.), so less of a threat than a clearly stated main theme. This year, however, the preparatory meetings clearly showing community and wide MAG member interest in having human rights and freedom of expression as main IGF themes.

If you’re a State with a less than stellar history of meeting UN obligations in a certain area—whether it be freedom of expression, women’s rights, environmental protection, or more—and there’s a UN conference that will include that topic as a main theme, you’re going to do everything you can to get that theme removed. So it’s no surprise that China was vocal in opposing human rights and freedom of expression on the Internet in the main themes of IGF 2013. It is surprising, though that other States on the MAG weren’t supporting China. Azerbaijan, for example. Let’s also not forget that only a few months earlier, many States were madly opposing the inclusion of human rights in the preamble to the ITRs at the WCIT in Dubai. (Human rights were eventually included, but probably only because the ITU Secretary General, Dr Hamadoun Touré, actively lobbied dissenting States to agree to the reference.)

Reframing China’s participation in the MAG: multistakeholderism in action

Listening to China repeatedly take the floor during the May open consultations and MAG meetings to express its views on CIRs and human rights may have seemed frustrating at the time, but with hindsight, it was a good example of multistakeholder consensus decision making in action.

The value of the multistakeholder nature of the IGF’s advisory group is its deliberate incorporation of stakeholders with vastly different viewpoints on Internet governance issues. China stated its objections to the theme changes; other MAG members engaged with China to explain their reasons for supporting change and to assure China that CIRs remained a key theme of IGF 2013, but in a different way—via the workshop track.

As we know, by the end of the May meeting, China still hadn’t been swayed by the discussion and remained the dissenting view in the MAG on the main themes for IGF 2013. China did, however, accept the interim Chair’s proposal that the final report to the UN in New York would both include the MAG’s consensus themes as the recommended themes for IGF 2013, while also noting China’s dissenting opinion.

China didn’t get its way at the first IGF in Athens. CIR management wasn’t a main theme at that IGF. But China stuck with the IGF and has remained on the MAG ever since. China may not agree with many of the principles and values of the multistakeholder bottom-up Internet governance model, but it has engaged in the system.

It’s been noted by various IGF supporters over the years that States opposing the current Internet governance ecosystem tend not to engage in the IGF. China opposes the current CIR management model, but is engaging with the IGF. And even more importantly, it is recognizing when its view isn’t the consensus view and accepting, with a degree of grace, the decision by the overwhelming majority of MAG members. In response, its relationship with other MAG members becomes stronger, and helps lay a better foundation for future deliberations.

Towards the future

The open and frank discussions at WTPF last month on Brazil’s draft “Opinion 7” have helped pave the way for constructive and collaborative work to enhance the participation of governments in Internet governance in future. Similarly, China’s willingness to participate in the MAG, even when the MAG reaches general consensus on issues it doesn’t agree with, bodes well for an IGF that can encourage stakeholders with divergent views to engage with each other and make progress on Internet governance issues.

China shouldn’t feel that it lost an argument at the IGF MAG meetings this year. Rather, it succeeded in having its view clearly expressed and understood by others. Equally, the other MAG members shouldn’t feel they won the debate over the main themes for IGF 2013. Instead, for the first time, they had to accommodate a dissenting view in the report to the UN in New York.

Multistakeholderism isn’t easy. And it’s increasingly difficult to navigate our way to mutually acceptable solutions as more stakeholders, with a wider range of views, enter the discussions.

We will all lose if holders of dissenting views leave the system, or never enter it in the first place. That’s why China’s continued participation in the MAG is encouraging for the long-term health of the Internet governance ecosystem. China may still prefer Internet governance to be a largely intergovernmental affair, but it’s engaging with the multistakeholder model, even when the model heads in directions it may not agree with, as with the MAG’s CIR and human rights theme decisions.

So let’s view China’s interventions at the May MAG meeting less in the vein of “Here they go again” and more in the spirit of “They are participating and that is good for us all”.