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”.

Outcomes of IGF 2013 second preparatory meeting

igf-2013-logoYesterday, I blogged about how public input was disappearing from the IGF open consultations day. Today, I’ve put together overview of what IGF 2013 may look like, given the consensus decisions reached in the MAG meeting of 23-24 May 2013. I’ve also included some discussion of how the MAG reached those decisions. It was too long to publish in a single post, so I’ve split it into three parts:

More information on IGF 2013

The local host website is now available and contains information about the venue, accommodation and visas:

The IGF website has published the transcripts from the May preparatory meeting:

The IGF website hasn’t yet published a summary report of the May preparatory meeting. I’ll post that link when it becomes available.

IGF 2013: Why so many theme and format changes?

igf-2013-logoFor the first time in years, the IGF Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) as a whole seemed ready to embrace change. This is probably a response to a number of developments:

  1. The CSTD WG on IGF improvements issued a report recommending, in essence, that IGF be responsive to stakeholders’ needs as the Internet environment continues to change.
  2. WCIT showed that many Member States still have serious reservations about the current Internet governance ecosystem. It’s becoming increasingly clear to even the least perceptive of Internet governance folk, that unless the community finds ways to address such issues in friendly forums like IGF, unhappy Member States will increasingly press for intergovernmental venues, like the ITU and UNGA, to address their concerns.
  3. UNESCO’s WSIS+10 review in February and ITU’s WTPF in May both showed that it is in fact possible to have open and frank discussions about differences of opinion without any side feeling like they’ve lost the battle.
  4. With WSIS+10 only a couple of years away, everyone with any connection to the original WSIS action lines is aware that failure to achieve the original WSIS goals could result in the United Nations deciding on a new plan of action with unwelcome side effects on the current Internet governance ecosystem.
  5. Pending the outcome of the WSIS+10 process, IGF’s second mandate of renewal is due in 2015. IGF must be seen to be relevant and responsive if it is to be renewed.
  6. After seven IGFs, the forum has matured enough that people feel able to experiment without fearing that failed experiments could lead to IGF’s demise.
  7. Given, over the last few years, IGF has been slightly short of funds needed to execute everything everyone wants it to do, MAG members are aware that developing a more attractive sets of themes and more flexible set of forum sessions may once again attract donors.
  8. Workshop proposals for IGF 2013 have also been creative in their formats for discussion.

Even China, which was rather passionately arguing to keep the critical Internet resources theme and dump the human rights/freedom of expression theme, was on board with the larger set of changes.

Will the changes work?

In all probability, newcomers to IGF will find wider array of session types just as confusing as the old IGF format (with up to 11 parallel tracks!) And there is a large possibility that more technically or operationally minded participants will find the new focus on high level issues related to multistakeholder enhanced cooperation and Internet governance principles a bit esoteric. But if the IGF website documents the program well, and if the daily onsite orientation sessions are effective, the various stakeholders, with their wide range of interests, will find their way to sessions that meet their needs.

Of course, not all the new ideas that the IGF 2013 MAG has decided to include in the Bali meeting will work. But the fact that a major UN-hosted event is willing to try so many experimental approaches is something we should all support.

The changes are particularly commendable when you consider that IGF 2013 is trying to attract governments who have never attended an IGF before. The previous IGF formats were already a bit of a stretch for governments used to more formal intergovernmental meetings. The addition of more non-traditional meeting formats in upcoming IGF will no doubt ratchet up the discomfort factor for some governments. But, with any luck, the inclusion of topics directly responding to governments’ calls for greater involvement in Internet governance##enhanced cooperation, Internet governance principles, combatting cyber threats-will more than help governments overcome their fear of non-hierarchical and informal session formats.

IGF 2013 is about building bridges. If the skeleton program that came out of the May preparatory meeting is any hint, IGF 2013 will help members of the Internet governance ecosystem to build some very innovative bridges, indeed!

IGF 2013 program

igf-2013-logoI’ve put this together from the MAG meeting discussions in Geneva last week, so please take the outline below as a rough outline rather than a canonical agenda:

Day 0 Pre-events
Known pre-events High-level government roundtable organized by the Indonesian local host,
GigaNet conference,
Regional IGF roundtable.
Possible pre-events A roundtable on the theme of the Day 2 Main Session topic, “The Internet as an engine for growth and sustainable development”. This is due to the fact it’s not possible to have workshops before the first main session. The roundtable would instead form input to the first main session.
Capacity building event. It may pick up some of the workshops proposals related to capacity building that have not been approved for the main program.
Day 1
Opening ceremony Formal opening with dignitaries
Opening session A focus on building bridges and the role of governments in the multistakeholder Internet governance model. Brazil’s draft “Opinion 7” from WTPF is to be a starting point for further work on developing discussions for this.
Day 2
Main session (morning) The Internet as an engine for growth and sustainable development (picking up from the older IGF themes of access and diversity)
Main session (afternoon) Human rights, freedom of expression (picking up from the older IGF theme of openness)
Short afternoon or evening taking stock session 30 minutes for participants to digest the day’s events. This is one of the new formats the MAG is choosing to experiment with in Bali.
Day 3
Main session (morning) Legal and other frameworks related to spam and cybersecurity (picking up from the older Security theme). The session will attempt to address issues that were raised as issues of concern by some ITU Member States during last year’s WCIT.
Main session (afternoon) Open forum. Anyone can raise any issue related to Internet governance. The list of potential topics for people to think about will include all previous IGF topics, including CIR. This is one of the new formats the MAG is choosing to experiment with in Bali.
Short afternoon or evening taking stock session 30 minutes for participants to digest the day’s events. This is one of the new formats the MAG is choosing to experiment with in Bali.
Day 4
Main session (morning) Internet governance principles, multistakeholder enhanced corporation
Closing session Emerging issues. This harks back to the closing session format of the first IGF held in Athens.

Other sessions happening throughout the four days of IGF

Open forums
Requests have already been received from ITU, UNESCO, ICANN, NRO, and the IETF.
For the first time, smaller organizations will also be able to request open forum slots. Slots for smaller organizations, however, may be reduced to 30 minutes.
Dynamic coalitions
To be guaranteed a slot, though, dynamic coalitions must produce a report of their activities over the past year.
Capacity building/orientation sessions
These morning sessions on each day of the program will help newcomers understand how IGF works and give insight into the topics on the agenda for each day.
Workshops can “feed” into main IGF 2013 themes, or be standalone discussions on other Internet governance issues. There was discussion of encouraging “flash sessions” for workshop proposals that the MAG didn’t believe could sustain 90 minutes of discussion. However, I’m not sure from the discussions in Geneva whether flash sessions will go ahead.
Roundtables will be organized as a way to help better channel “feeder workshop” discussions and outcomes into main session topics. This is one of the new formats the MAG is choosing to experiment with in Bali.