What’s going on with WSIS+10? Part 2: The upcoming HLE and yet another MPP

[Part 1 of this two-part post is here]

A sixth MPP is now happening

As far as I understood it, the May Multistakeholder Preparatory Platform (MPP) meeting ended with no agreement to have a future MPP meeting the day before the WSIS+10 High Level Event (HLE) itself. The Chair did remark that he would be available to discuss the remaining bracketed text on 9 June, but people in the room interpreted it as a joke and laughed. The Chair certainly didn’t try to correct people’s interpretation.

But on Tuesday 3 June, two days after the fifth MPP meeting ended in the small hours of Sunday 1 June, an invitation went out inviting people to attend a—surprise!—sixth MPP meeting. The letter, signed by ITU Secretary-General Dr Touré, invited people to an afternoon session to continue the work of the MPP.[1]

I suspect, however, that the sixth MPP meeting could be difficult for a number of reasons:

  • If a total of 15 days of negotiation across five separate MPP meetings couldn’t achieve consensus, the extra scheduled four hours of discussion on 9 June isn’t likely to make much difference either. The sixth MPP will probably go well into the night, and possibly into the early hours of 10 June too, in an attempt to reach agreement on fundamental ideological differences on issues that realistically can’t be solved in a meeting about ICTs.
  • For HLE participants who hadn’t planned on being in Geneva for the day of pre-events on 9 June, there has really been far too little notice to change travel plans to be able to attend the MPP (hotel availability in Geneva is a particularly difficult issue to overcome at short notice).
  • To make matters more difficult, 9 June is a national holiday in Switzerland (Whit Monday), meaning that most Geneva-based staff at missions and UN agencies will have to sacrifice yet another day of leave (the third in less than two weeks) to attend a WSIS+10 HLE MPP meeting.
  • Some participants have suggested that they are reluctant to engage, believing that:
    • The meeting itself should never have been called, given the fact that there had been no clear consensus in the fifth MPP to hold another meeting.
    • The 1 June version of the #WSIS+10 Vision draft document does not accurately reflect what many consider to be the status of discussions at the end of the fifth MPP about what should stay in the Vision draft and what should move to a Chair’s report.

So given these issues, why would the ITU (and possibly the other UN agencies, too) and Chair of the MPP process decide to hold this meeting? Here are some thoughts:

  • There is a desire to have that attractive “100% consensus” stamp on all aspects of the HLE outcome documents that will be presented for the government ministers at the HLE to endorse (everyone wants to look good in front of the boss, after all). To try and get the last 5% agreed to, it was worth having one last ditch effort just before the ministers arrive to endorse the outcome documents.
  • ITU, in particular, has invested a lot of time and effort in promoting this multistakeholder process as a sign that it really is embracing the new era of open, transparent and responsive governance.
  • The Chair has also invested a lot in the process. States put a lot of effort into promoting their delegates to be Chairs of various international processes. If the process isn’t seen as a success, the State whose representative chaired the process may feel that they have been humiliated in front of their fellow States.

However, as quite a few participants at the end of the fifth MPP had pointed out, although there were still some clear areas of disagreement, on the whole, there had been a great achievement in reaching consensus on the vast majority of issues in the WSIS+10 Vision draft. The remaining areas of disagreement weren’t the result of failure of process, but were the result of fundamental political differences that go well beyond the narrower scope of ICTs and the Information Society. In the end, if the sixth MPP fails in its efforts to breach the current impasse on the remaining Action Lines text, then perhaps the HLE will choose to spin the outcomes of the MPP in precisely this way: as a successful process for negotiating consensus on a large number of issues, with agreement to disagree on a small number of topics that really need to be discussed in more issue-specific venues.

I suspect some governments were hoping/are hoping to be able to leverage various parts of the WSIS+10 HLE outcome documents to help support their views on what the final UN-wide review of WSIS+10 planned for 2015 should look like and discuss.[2]

But to be honest, given the way discussions have taken place in the past five MPP meetings, with some attempts to roll back to earlier negotiated texts (such as the Geneva Plan of Action) when those documents had been superseded by more recent texts (such as the Tunis Agenda), I suspect that the any future WSIS related events—including the 2015 final review—will also contain a bunch of governments wanting to pick and choose from whichever document texts best suit their views.

Whether governments get what they want from the remaining non-consensus sections of the WSIS+10 Vision document or not, they will continue to pursue their larger political goals at future meetings. If anyone tries to suggest that it’s the multistakeholder model that caused “failure”, or “unreasonable” behaviour by other delegates, then it’s just ignoring the larger reality of the situation: with the best intentions in the world, it is never going to be possible for a bunch of medium to low level diplomats and non-government stakeholders, in a meeting that really is only a small event when considered in the context of wider world politics, to find solutions to decades-long ideological impasses.


[1] Unfortunately, there was a bit of a mix-up with time, so the Touré-signed PDF invitation said “14:00-16:00” while the HTML web page said “14:00-18:00”. (This is a reason why you should never convene a new meeting with  so little time it’s difficult to double check that all your communications are in sync with each other.) A corrected invitation has now been emailed out.

[2] The format of the final UN-wide review of WSIS+10 in 2015 was so contentious at the 2013 UN General Assembly Second Committee’s drafting of the ICTs for Development resolution that they simply couldn’t reach agreement on what form it should take. Instead, they agreed to hold a series of informal consultations that were supposed to finalize the event’s modalities by the end of March 2014. That date came and went. At the 17th CSTD Session in mid-May, it was reported that the consultations should lead to agreement amongst States by the end of May. There were consultations in New York on 23 May, but so far, there haven’t been any signs of white smoke indicating a final set of modalities has reached consensus.

What’s going on with WSIS+10? Part 1: Some context

WSIS+10 High Level Event

Next week, the WSIS+10 High Level Event (HLE), coordinated by the ITU, will be held in Geneva as an extended version of the annual WSIS Forum. The WSIS+10 HLE began its life as an ITU-specific initiative, but mirroring the creation of the initial WSIS process,[1] the WSIS+10 HLE had subsequently become part of the larger UN-wide process to conduct a 10-year review of WSIS.

Originally, the HLE was supposed to take place in Sharm el-Sheikh, 13-17 April 2014. But due to ongoing uncertainty about the political situation in Egypt, it was decided to move the HLE to Geneva, where WSIS Forums are usually held. Along with the change of venue, there would also need to be a change of dates. At first, it was thought that the meeting might be pushed to the end of 2014, but eventually, it was announced that the HLE would be held 10-13 June, with pre-events (a bit like the IGF “Day 0”) on 9 June.

Two outcome documents will be endorsed at the HLE:

  • WSIS+10 Statement on the Implementation of the WSIS Outcomes
  • WSIS+10 Vision for WSIS Beyond 2015

A bit of background on preparations for the High Level Event

The work to develop the two documents to be endorsed at the HLE began back in July 2013, when all stakeholders were invited to submit contributions to the draft versions of these documents. Originally, there were only three meetings planned for the Multistakeholder Preparatory Platform (MPP) that would develop consensus versions of the two outcome documents:

  • 7-8 October 2013
  • 16-18 December 2013
  • 17-18 February 2014

However, as these meetings progressed, it became clear that there was no way that the contents of the outcome documents would reach consensus within the combined total of seven days of the three meetings. Given the change of dates for the HLE itself, it became possible to add some more MPP meetings. So an additional two, longer, meetings were added:

  • 14-17 April 2014
  • 28-31 May 2014

The second additional MPP was supposed to be held in Sharm el-Sheikh. This was no doubt a kind of diplomatic consolation prize to Egypt: while it wasn’t possible to risk the security of a bunch of government ministers at a Sharm-based HLE, sending the lower level folks who attend MPP meetings was more a more acceptable risk.

The April MPP meeting was just before the high-profile NETmundial meeting so didn’t perhaps get the attention it really deserved from non-government stakeholders in the world of Internet governance. At the beginning of the April MPP, there was optimism that the May meeting wouldn’t be needed. However, it was clear as the meeting went on that the May meeting would most definitely be needed. But not in Sharm el-Sheikh as earlier announced. No. It would be held in—no surprises here—Geneva. (Because reasonably-priced hotel rooms in Geneva in May are so very easy to find… Not.)

Changing forms of interaction at the MPPs

The dynamic of the MPPs seemed to change over time to subtly favour the use of more intergovernmental negotiation tactics. The MPPs have certainly been very different in tone—increasingly so over time—from other multistakeholder processes such as the earlier ITU WTPF Informal Expert Group (IEG) meetings and the UNESCO-hosted WSIS+10 Review Event in 2013. I suspect this is may have happened for a couple of reasons:

  • Fewer non-government participants seem to have attended as the calendar of meetings continued. For governments with missions in Geneva, it’s been relatively easy to have mission-based staff pop down the road to attend additional MPPs as they have occurred. For non-government participants, however, it is difficult to find the funding to fly around the world to attend meetings that haven’t been budgeted for. It’s also hard to justify spending funds on attending meetings where progress has been very slow. Yes, remote participation has been an option, but it’s no substitute for onsite participation, where people making interventions from the floor can continue to engage in realtime discussions with the Chair and other participants. In contrast, remote participants generally have had their interventions read out, are thanked, then the onsite participants move on and the remote interventions are pretty much left behind. Remote participants are also unable to participate in the informal negotiations and discussions that happen outside formal plenary sessions. I should point out that these remote participation problems are not solely the problem of MPP meetings. They’re experienced in a multitude of other forums that also use remote participation mechanisms.
  • As it’s become clearer that the UN-wide final review of WSIS+10 in 2015 is extremely unlikely to result in a complete rewriting of the WSIS goals, the outcome documents of the HLE have taken on more significance. For those reasonably happy with the Tunis Agenda—with its endorsement of multistakeholder participation, even if it contains some ongoing minefields such as “enhanced cooperation”—the fact that 2015 won’t rewrite the way forward for ICTs isn’t a problem. But for those who are unhappy with the implementation of WSIS goals over the past decade, the HLE documents have now become the possibly only way to induce changes to the direction of WSIS over the next decade.

There had also been an attempt to remove some of the heat from the MPP negotiations by removing any discussion of Internet governance issues, including any reference to “enhanced cooperation”, even if it wasn’t in relation to Internet governance. But it didn’t substantially speed up the overall process of negotiation.

By the April MPP, the majority of interventions were from government representatives rather than non-government stakeholders. Partially this was a reflection of the fact that more government folks seemed to be at the meeting, as noted above, but it was also a reflection of the fact a few number of government representatives dominated the floor so very much that most of the non-government representatives largely disengaged from the process. A few non-government folk decided to fight fire with fire, and raise their flag as much as some of their more garrulous counterparts in government. A risk of doing that, however, was that it could reinforce the belief of governments suspicious of multistakeholder processes that it non-government obstructiveness was responsible for the failure to reach compromise.[2]

Some very well used intergovernmental negotiating techniques have been invoked in recent MPPs:

  • Putting square brackets around text that is proving difficult to reach consensus on. Using the “Australian method,” any text still left in square brackets at the end of the meeting will be deleted entirely. From my entirely subjective observations of the meetings, it seemed that some governments have insisted on square-bracketing text far more than others. In particular, it was the representatives of governments more likely to prefer multilateral negotiations who have invoked this method the most. The government representatives more used to working in multistakeholder environments have been more likely to want to keep working on the text until a compromise was reached.
  • Package deals: “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. Once again, this seemed to be a technique used by multilateral-leaning government representatives. Given some of the topics under discussion are fairly non-controversial, but others are highly controversial, this technique is a good way to ensure that you can hold the entire document hostage—if needed—on a topic you really, really don’t want the other side of the argument to “win”. If you tried this technique in a multistakeholder Internet governance process, you’d be considered to be a pretty ” bad faith” participant. But in intergovernmental processes, where people are often playing for high stakes, this is more grudgingly accepted, if not embraced by all.
  • Weasel words. More diplomatically called “qualifiers”, weasel words that keep being suggested include:
    • “As appropriate”
    • “In their respective roles and responsibilities”
    • “Inter alia”
    • Adding “and responsibilities” to references to “rights”
  • Reverting to “previously agreed language”. “Previously agreed language” from ITU and UN-related resolutions, that is. Which is why the Tunis Agenda and Geneva Plan of Action were so very much referred to in the meetings.[3]

Fifth WSIS+10 HLE MPP

The participants of the fifth MPP meeting worked through a public holiday in Geneva (Ascension Day on 29 May) as well as a full Saturday session that finally ended during the first hour of the morning of Sunday 1 June. And yet the participants still didn’t reach consensus on all elements of the draft WSIS+10 Vision document.

Major sticking points during the meeting weren’t about ICTs themselves, but about fundamental ideological differences on the following issues:

  • Freedom of expression
  • The role of States (“governance” versus traditional “government”)
  • Gender equality
  • ICTs and security issues

Freedom of expression disagreements, in particular, played out in discussions on WSIS Action Line C9, Media. Proposed text about protecting the safety of journalists—taking into account the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights—was met with a counter-proposal to add text stating that it must be ensured that journalists behaved responsibly as well. The counter-argument to this counter-argument was that while the ethical responsibilities of journalists was something that could be considered, it had absolutely no place in a paragraph about the safety of journalists as it suggested that it was okay for journalists deemed to be “irresponsible” to be killed. Also, not related to the freedom of expression issue, but “bloggers” and “social media producers” turned out to be a highly contentious terms in the C9 Action Line. An attempt at compromise (a large number of delegations had supported the compromises text) wasn’t even allowed to be read at the meeting, as some government representatives strongly objected to new text being suggested very late on a Saturday night, well after the meeting should have ended.

“Governance versus governments” played out in the title of Action Line C1. In the 2003 Geneva Plan of Action, C1 had the title of “The role of governments and all stakeholders in the promotion of ICTs for development”. Two years later, the 2005 Tunis Agenda, which was approved by heads of state, changed the title to “The role of public governance authorities and all stakeholders in the promotion of ICTs for development”. Queue major push by some governments at the May MPP to roll back to the earlier WSIS document, which referred to their preferred “government” reference. As pointed out by the MPP Chair, the standard method is to use language from the most recent document (resolution, etc.) and not roll back to previous documents. Other participants pointed out that the lower level folk at the MPP had no right to change the use of language agreed to by heads of state. There was agreement in the end to keep using the Tunis Agenda text, but the issue also played out in references to “stakeholders” (“in their respective roles in responsibilities”, etc.).

The gender equality issue I can’t actually talk about yet. I’m still too frustrated that, in the 21st century, some governments can continue to object to language that aims to overcome massive gender inequalities that still exist all over the world. I will blog about that on a separate occasion.

Action Line C5, Building confidence and security in the use of ICTs, was where different government perspectives on ICTs and security played out. As with Internet governance, some prefer to promote the opportunities the Internet provides while others are more concerned about the risks it poses (and the need for governments to take the lead in reducing these risks). Similarly, this May MPP meeting reflected differences between those wanting to concentrate on the role of governments and intergovernmental organizations in addressing the risks of ICTs (including cybercrime) and those wanting to include non-government stakeholders in the effort to address both confidence and security issues in ICT.

The other elephant in the room, of course, is Internet governance. While Internet governance has specifically been excluded from the WSIS+10 HLE outcome documents, I suspect a lot of people were thinking about how the docments’ concepts about the wider world of the Information Society and ICTs can advance their positions in the more specific world of Internet governance.

Deciding how to move forward when you can’t decide on compromise text

In summary, the following text in the WSIS+10 draft Vision document (1 June version here) had no consensus:

  • Action Line C5. Building confidence and security in the use of ICTs
  • Action Line C8. Cultural Diversity and identity, linguistic diversity and local content
  • Action Line C9. Media
  • Section III. Action Lines beyond 2015: Looking to the Future

Text in Action Lines C5 (confidence and security in ICTs) and C9 (media) were the most significant areas of disagreement, with seemingly no way to ever breach the fundamentally ideological areas of disagreement.

A number of suggestions were made about how to deal with the inability to find consensus on any form of compromise text. All of them involved sending some form of the WSIS+10 Vision document to the HLE. Options proposed were:

  • Include the non-consensus text still in square brackets, with Sections A and B to be endorsed, but just “take note” of Section C.
  • Include the non-consensus text in square brackets as well as the compromise Action Line C9 text supported by a bunch of delegates in tabular format. Sections A and B to be endorsed, but just “take note” of Section C.
  • Remove all of Action Line C9 text and all other remaining bracketed text from the Vision document.
  • Have absolutely no section on the Action Lines (on the basis that if there is no text for Action Line C9, it would be inappropriate and skewed to have text on other Action Lines).
    • A variation on this was to move all the Action Line text into a Chair’s report to be presented to the meeting. The Chair’s report could include a summary of the discussion that occurred and include all proposed texts in an Annex. Any delegation wishing to submit a formal statement about any of the issues could also do so, with the statements also appearing in the annex to the Chair’s report. Some governments, however, questioned whether the Chair had the mandate to write a Chair’s report, as it wasn’t specified in the scope of the MPP’s work.
    • Some participants were very reluctant to remove all Action Lines text as they considered that it was better to at least be able to move forward on the agreed Action Lines than ignore all of them equally.

Please note that I was watching the meeting remotely, and it was well after 5 am in the morning for me by the time this discussion was at its peak, so there may have been other options that I missed as I struggled to stay awake.

Participants were flipping back and forth on what to do. Sometimes a government representative would make an intervention supporting one option, then later support another one. It was very late on Saturday night and everyone was very confused, very cranky and many stated they while they were being “very flexible”, those supporting the opposite view on an issue were not being as flexible as they should be. Sweden, in particular, spent a lot of Saturday making interventions while looking like this:

facepalm

The MPP Chair at one point suggested that there needed to be yet another MPP just before the HLE itself. The room spontaneously erupted with cries of “No!” from the delegates. Towards the end of the meeting, with there being no agreement on what form the non-consensus items should appear in if included in the WSIS+10 Vision document sent to the HLE, a lot of the participants seemed to coalesce around the option of “No Action Line text at all to appear in the Vision document to go to the HLE. Put it in the Chair’s report instead”. Others still very much wished for there to at least be the consensus items in the document to go to the HLE. A few States reminded some of those “keep the consensus Action Lines text” supporters that they had earlier insisted on a “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” approach, and since not everything was agreed, then none of the Action Lines text was agreed. (Be careful when you invoke hardball negotiation tactics as they may later be used against you.)

It seemed that the Chair was supporting the Chair’s report option, as he invited participants to send any statements they felt needed to be made, that he could include in the annex to the Chair’s report. It seems that only one delegate took the Chair up on his offer: a delegate from civil society, representing APIG, is the only submission attached as an annex to the Chair’s report.

In the second part of this two-part post on WSIS+10, I’ll talk about the newly-added sixth MPP that will be held next Monday, 9 June.


[1] WSIS started life in ITU Plenipotentiary Resolution 73 (Minneapolis, 1998) later morphed into a UN-wide activity via the 2001 resolution of the UNGA, A/RES/56/183.

[2] The view of non-government participants as “disruptive” was not helped by the presence of one civil society delegate who has made a number of rather odd interventions at meetings. In early meetings, the Chair repeatedly referred to the participant as “Civil Society” rather than by the name of the organization the participant represented. This, plus the fact that the participant made repeated references to “civil society thinks/cannot accept” meant that it was very possible that some governments really did think that the participant represented civil society as a whole and that the participant was proof that non-government representatives most definitely are not qualified to participate in negotiations. Government delegations aren’t immune from similar odd personalities, by the way. However, some governments seem to be more willing to accept disruptive behaviour from other government delegates than they are from non-government delegates.

[3] The printed copy of WSIS Geneva and Tunis outcome documents has a mostly blue colour, so has been frequently referred to as the “blue book”. Australia, however, jokingly referred to it as her “blue bible” in the fifth MPP. After that, most delegates also began referring to it as “the blue bible”.

How do you solve a problem like IANA?

Tracking where the fallout will be in the wake of NTIA’s announcement

NTIA couldn’t have timed their big news announcement about IANA better if they’d tried.

People had just received their NETmundial confirmations (or not). Those who’d decided that NETmundial was probably going to be a waste of time were suddenly kicking themselves for not applying.

Those who decided not to include material about IANA in their NETmundial submissions were kicking themselves for not mentioning it.

Those who had included IANA-related material were kicking themselves that they hadn’t included more concrete details.

Every organization that considered itself an important part of the Internet governance ecosystem rushed to get out their own official statement reflecting on the news.

Nobody had a relaxing weekend.

But this is only the start. Despite the NTIA’s insistence that it won’t release IANA out into the world unless it’s sure it can be free of oversight by any single government or an intergovernmental mechanism, this isn’t going to stop some governments and likeminded stakeholders from arguing that an intergovernmental framework is what really needs to happen.

We already had a busy Internet governance year lined up. All those Internet-governance related events on the calendar are now likely to have some IANA-related content included or contain some IANA-related fallout of some description.

If you have long thought that the Internet governance world largely consists of the same people travelling around the world to discuss the same issues in what could really be the same set of gloomy conference rooms, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Below is my initial analysis of where I think we will probably see IANA-related discussions. I also suspect that the same debates will play out in many of the venues.

Where IANA-related effects may be seen in the 2014 Internet governance calendar

These aren’t in date order:

1. ICANN meetings, 23-28 March, 22-26 June, and 12-16 October

Obviously. Suddenly, the NCUC‘s apparent coup in nabbing Larry Strickling as a keynote speaker at Friday’s ICANN 49 pre-event makes perfect sense.

2. Informal consultations on the overall review of the WSIS, ending 30 March

Some States want there to be a repeat of the whole World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) process from 2003-2005, including preparatory meetings. The fact some governments now may perceive it to be a realistic option that IANA can finally have overview by all 193 States, equally, may give them added impetus to support a full review and rewrite of key WSIS outcomes, including the Tunis Agenda. Such a rewrite, they may hope, could include more concrete text on the way forward for IANA.

3. NETmundial, 23-24 April

There are 62 submissions containing proposals related to IANA and ICANN governance mechanisms. If the NTIA announcement had happened earlier, we would have had double that number. NETmundial submissions don’t come from many of the governments most critical of the current ICANN and IANA oversight mechanisms. It’s unlikely that such governments will want to submit submissions now, as they generally would have issues with the pro-multistakeholder focus of the meeting. Those who have already submitted contributions, however, may want to amend their documents to include more concrete material on IANA’s future. It’s not clear how NETmundial organizers plan to handle this. Whether or not updated proposals are accepted, however, in reality, when we’re all onsite in Sao Paolo, the late night drafting groups that are likely to be convened to develop the final outcome documents will probably be informal ways to inject new IANA-related material into the mix.

4. ITU World Telecommunications Development Conference (WTDC-14), 30 March – 10 April

This meeting is before NETmundial, so it will be interesting what the wider selection of developing countries that aren’t engaging in NETmundial will have to say. Here, we could see a “think of the developing countries” slant on the path forward for IANA. I doubt it would be a significant component of the meeting, but there could be some language inserted into a resolution or two. Possible existing resolutions that might be appropriate venues for this are:

5. WSIS+10 High Level Event, 10-13 June

Discussions on ICANN-related issues were deferred at the last preparatory meeting in February. They are meant to be discussed at the upcoming preparatory meeting in April. No doubt, this will include a very large portion of IANA-related debates. There is also a final preparatory meeting in May, where the discussions could continue. The texts that the High Level Event will produce are:

  • WSIS+10 Statement on the Implementation of WSIS Outcomes
  • WSIS+10 Vision for WSIS Beyond 2015

The most recent versions of these documents are available here. It is conceivable that there will be some parties wishing to add explicit mention of IANA in the WSIS+10 Vision document.

6. The additional CSTD Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation (WGEC) meeting, 30 April – 2 May

The IANA is one of the holy grails for governments wanting a greater and equal-between-governments role in the decision-making processes of Internet governance. WGEC’s final meeting was supposed to be in February, but it was unable to find consensus on the intractable issue of enhanced cooperation. The discussions at the extra April/May meeting added to try and finalize the WG’s work is likely to be further enlivened by some WG members’ desire to inject specific IANA-related recommendations. This could mean that the WG finds itself unable to reach consensus, again, and it needs to go back to CSTD and ask them to decide whether an extension of the WG’s mandate is needed.

7. 17th Session of the CSTD, 12-16 May and ECOSOC, 23 June – 18 July

The CSTD session could be in for a bumpy ride. This is because it is at the centre of a perfect storm:

  • CSTD is the focal point in the system-wide follow-up review and assessment of progress made in implementing the outcomes of WSIS.
  • The Tunis Agenda enhanced cooperation text about governments participating on an equal footing can be read as diplomatic speak for “all governments to oversee IANA – not just the USA”.
  • The 2014 CSTD session is a key point in the lead-up to the UN-wide overall review of the WSIS process in 2015, writing the draft ECOSOC resolution on WSIS.

The drafting group working on the draft WSIS resolution may, once again, end up finishing their work early on the Saturday morning, well after the CSTD Session has officially ended. ECOSOC is unlikely to care that much about IANA, but if the CSTD debate is inconclusive, it could spill into its space as well.

8. ITU Plenipotentiary Conference 2014 (PP-14), 20 October – 7 November

So many Internet-related proposals, so many opportunities to include text about IANA:

9. IGF, 2-5 September, and regional and national IGFs

Many, many opportunities to discuss IANA. More reasons for people to want IGFs to produce more concrete outcomes. Expect many IANA-related workshops to be submitted in response to the recent call for workshop proposals.

What does this all mean?

I suspect that the large number of venues discussing what to do with IANA and the even larger number of stakeholders who will want a say in how IANA goes forward will mean it’s nowhere near realistic to think that a solution can be reached in time for the September 2015 of the current IANA contract with the US government. I think it is probably more realistic to see the current IANA contract being renewed, with the timeline for IANA’s future taking at least two years or more.

If you think I’m being overly pessimistic, consider the new gLTD policy development process, which is another significant process in the ICANN space. The policy development process was begun in 2005, and it’s only this year that the resulting new gTLDs are actually being deployed.

A long timeline isn’t a bad thing, however. While it is plainly clear that the IANA needs to transition out of US government oversight, it is better to take the transition process slowly, and get it right in the long-term, than to rush into it and end up with a different but still problematic management of IANA.

The important thing is to make sure all stakeholders are involved in ernest and that we don’t end up developing a solution by merely letting the usual globe-trotting participants out-talk less resourced stakeholders with equally legimate views on the way forward.

Multistakeholder processes are messy

Thoughts from the WSIS+10 preparatory process

I remotely followed, on and off, the third WSIS+10 High-Level Event Multistakeholder Preparatory Platform (MPP) meeting that was held in Geneva this week. In contrast to the outcome documents of First and Second WSIS Phases in 2003 and 2005, which were devised in a purely intergovernmental environment,[1] the texts of the WSIS+10 High Level Event are being developed by all stakeholder groups. And it is extremely painful.

Many of those onsite have been very frustrated at the incredibly slow pace of progress being made. Progress has been so slow, it has seemed that entire species might evolve and die out before consensus can be reached on the texts.

Some might blame the political manoeuvring of government representatives at the meeting. And, indeed, there has been some truly twisty logic in some of the interventions by some of the more colourful government delegates in the last day or so. But other stakeholder groups have also been adding to the complexity and confusion too.[2]

The progress made on the text for the High Level Event has been so slow that yet another physical preparatory meeting has been added to the calendar.  With the WSIS+10 High Level Event now tentatively pencilled in for June 2014, there really isn’t any time left to squeeze in a sixth preparatory meeting if agreement continues to be hard to achieve. At the end of yesterday, entire action lines had been placed in square brackets (denoting the text hasn’t been agreed). The possible outcomes from the process are two texts that are, in the true spirit of intergovernmental consensus-based drafting traditions, bland, vague and pretty much not useful in the real world. Alternatively, given the trend during the third MPP to remove the word “multistakeholder” in the draft texts, the resulting texts could end up emphasizing government roles in the Information Society at the expense of the other stakeholder groups’ roles in the Information Society.

So has ITU’s commitment to a multistakeholder development of a WSIS+10 vision been misplaced? Are the MPPs proving that multistakeholderism is not effective? Should ITU go back to purely intergovernmental negotiations?

The answer to all three questions is “No”.

Messiness isn’t automatically a bad thing

Multistakeholderism is messy for the exact same reason that it’s effective. The messiness is a side effect of incorporating the cacophony of positions and knowledge that ultimately can lead to a robust, multifaceted understanding of an issue.

Wicked problems, including those in the Internet governance sphere, don’t have simple solutions. They aren’t ultimately solvable. All that can be done, in reality, is to find the best of the non-solutions out there. And the best way to do that is to look at the problem from all possible angles and to examine all possible ramifications of trying to do something, or not so something, about it.

Multistakeholderism is a great way of achieving this. Where intergovernmental deliberations can get stuck in ideological trenches dug deeper and deeper over long-term inter-state rivalries, multistakeholder deliberations bring a range of parties to the table who not only bring new knowledge and understandings to the discussion, but, as parties who aren’t always wedded to their own government’s positions on issues, can help find alternative, middle ways between rival government positions.

Multistakeholderism has always been messy. It was perhaps less messy in earlier Internet governance days when fewer people were participating. But over time, as more people are becoming involved, the range of positions and breadth of information brought to the discussions is expanding, making the messiness more apparent. Also contributing to this messiness is the fact that not all of the mechanisms we have used since the 1990s to manage multistakeholder Internet governance process are scaling that well. We are seeing efforts to address this through the Panel on Global Internet Cooperation and Governance Mechanisms as well as the NETmundial meeting in Brazil in a couple of months.

Messiness is here to stay

The reality is, though, that the messiness is likely to be a permanent feature of multistakeholderism. But we shouldn’t fear it. And the last thing we should do is walk away from existing multistakeholder processes in the naïve belief that creating new processes and forums will avoid the problems of the past. As we’ve seen from the mushrooming of Internet governance processes in the last couple of years, new processes can experience significant teething problems (for example, 1net) and can fall victim to the same problems as older forums as more people join in (for example, civil society’s Best Bits list has exhibited signs of the same problems the older Internet Governance Caucus list has experienced). In addition, new venues and processes add to an already crowded Internet governance calendar and can make it more difficult for less well-resourced stakeholders to participate in multiple venues.

Working more effectively in a messy multistakeholder world

We can learn to work with the messiness, though. To do that, we need to learn to be more flexible, more open to accept the views of others and, above all, to have a healthy sense of humour when the messiness threatens to overwhelm us. We also need to remember that people participate with the aim of making things better. What one person thinks is “better” may, to another person, be “worse”, but if we only view another person’s ideas as a threat that must be disarmed, we are personally contributing to the failure of the multistakeholder process.

Doing the above can be really hard to do at the end of a long few days of being stuck in a room together, but without at least beginning the meeting with these goals in mind, the end of the meeting is guaranteed to end on a sour note (WCIT, anyone?).

Also vital to keeping a messy multistakeholder process as pain-free as possible is ensuring that people do their homework before going to meetings where decisions are being made. The need for this has been demonstrated at the latest MPP meeting. Participants who hadn’t done their preparation lost the goodwill of other participants who had prepared and were ready to move to the next phase of text development.

It’s very easy to criticize others for making a multistakeholder process painful. It’s less easy to take ownership of our own contributions to the messiness of multistakeholderism. But I think we’re getting there.

In the wake of the bad feelings produced by the WCIT process, stakeholders have been more willing to find ways to work better with “the opposition”, and have been more willing to listen to the arguments of others. I don’t think the frustrations of wildly different opinions will ever be able to disappear completely, but we can at least learn to recognize that wildly varying opinions are just as legitimate as our own. For example, while it’s easy to be frustrated at the handful of governments worked to remove references to “multistakeholder”, and even “freedom of expression”, from the WSIS+10 High Level Event texts this week, we need to understand that these positions arise from specific political, social and economic contexts that differ from those of the participants who actively supported keeping “multistakeholder” and “freedom of expression” in the texts. We may not agree with their points of view, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss such views out of hand. Instead, we should recognize the context, and understand that some views on Internet governance issues will continue to differ as long as people’s political, social and economic situations also remain divergent.

We all have something we can learn from the processes of stakeholder groups other than our own. Business, civil society and the technical community have been very keen to help governments understand what’s good about multistakeholder Internet governance processes outside the purely intergovernmental system. But it’s also time that non-government stakeholders stopped viewing governmental processes as automatically “evil”.

One important lesson we can learn from the intergovernmental world is politeness. All that “I thank my esteemed colleague from X” preamble that happens before country Y demolishes X’s proposal has a point. It softens the pain of the objection. Contrast this to the worlds of the technical community and civil society where name-calling and insults have made semi-regular appearances.[3] While, particularly in the technical community, the upfront nature of such clashes are often seen to be signs of how dynamic, frank and “honest” the discussions are, they can leave a residual bad feeling that affects future interactions.

Multistakeholderism and the WSIS+10 High Level Event

The recent MPP is an example of a wider clash between participants who are coming to the multistakeholder discussions in a genuine and open manner and others who would prefer to have the WSIS+10 vision developed in more traditional intergovernmental ways. There is a danger that the latter will try and use the messiness of the previous MPP meetings to justify why multistakeholderism is a failure and that there needs to be a return to more orderly governments-only negotiations. It’s easy to be angry with those who may be attempting to achieve this goal. But being combative in response is not going to help. Instead, it’s important to embody the best of multistakeholder cooperation, and show how the messiness can and does lead to more robust and responsive outcomes that meet a wider range of stakeholders’ needs.

It’s important that non-government stakeholders continue to engage in the MPP meetings and show that there is support for multistakeholder processes, even when those processes are difficult to navigate.

The alternative to continuing to participate in the WSIS+10 MPP meetings is letting the WSIS+10 process revert to the traditional intergovernmental model. As we’ve seen with the Tunis Agenda, which was developed via that intergovernmental model, the text has become the canonical reference for discussions relating to the development of a global Information Society for almost a decade. The texts that emerge out of the WSIS+10 will probably have the same sort of presence for the coming decade. Non-government stakeholders have over the years, pointed out a number of times that the Tunis Agenda has limited legitimacy due to its governments-only composition. It’s now up to those same non-government stakeholders to stick with the messy MPP process to ensure that the WSIS+10 documents reflect a more comprehensive view of what Information Society should look like in the 2020s.


[1] There were non-government participants on some of the government delegations but the negotiation was fundamentally intergovernmental in nature.

[2] For example, a civil society participant declared that data privacy was not needed in the context of eHealth as any data being exchanged was for the benefit of people.

[3] Tomato throwing was seriously discussed by some members of the technical community a few years back when Verisign launched Site Finder.