Last Friday the 9th Forum on Internet Governance ended in Istanbul. 9 years of discussions. What are the results? And what is to be done now?
On the banks of the Bosphorus, 3000 participants from civil society, the technical community, the private sector and governments met (or rather crossed each other in the hallways) for 5 days to discuss and attempt to reach a common consensual vision of Internet governance and intercontinental dialogue on this vast subject.
The Turkish red flag flew omnipresent over the event, and reminded me (in color at least) of the pamphlet that Lenin wrote a few years before the revolution in 1917: What is to be done? http://www.classiques.chez-alice.fr/lenine/que.pdf
It was a turning point between two revolts, or two revolutions. In his pamphlet, Lenin dismissed both the professional agitators, who risked changing everything too quickly, too soon, without the support of the people, and the economists, the reformers who wanted to proceed step by step, but he thought it was one step forward, two steps back. Action had to be taken quickly by an enlightened vanguard to lead the people, with time resulting in the Permanent Revolution and ownership of the means of production.
Without wishing to write a paper on political history, I believe this brief summary shows some striking similarities between the situation then and now.
What is to be done? What action should be taken? For what purpose, for whom, and with whom?
There are those who think that talk is in itself a good thing: it takes the debate to the next level, and this limits the possibility of conflict (as long as people are talking, they are not waging war). That’s true, but that does not mean it makes progress in solving the problem, at most it helps better define it.
There are those who see themselves as the enlightened vanguard, guiding Internet users to a brighter future, free of government (reminiscent of what they see as a lost pre-digital age) in which consensus replaces the vote, and individual action based on volunteerism represents greater legitimacy than that of elected representatives. For them, the important thing is either to subscribe to broad consensus (we are all against child pornography) or pure technocracy (there is no question of challenging the technical vision of the founding fathers of the Internet, and RFCs are commandments)
All or virtually all praise (in an almost religious sense of the term) the “multi-stakeholder” model, and in the same movement, denounce a number of flaws that I will try to describe here, by identifying this model with the IGF itself:
The IGF calls for openness, inclusion. But in fact it is a closed club in which the entry barriers are extremely high.
Because the IGF does not work by election, and defining the themes that must be addressed is by consensus (which in this case means opaque decision-taking by a multi-stakeholder board http://www.intgovforum.org/cms/magabout), and because it meets once a year without actually physically being able to implement a method of online discussion between two events, the IGF is frozen stiff.
The same people have been saying the same thing for the past 9 years. It is not that what they are saying is false, but if new themes are to emerge, if the search for solutions is to take precedence over panel discussions, if new points of view are to be expressed, how can we force them to give a little room to innovation? We have no way at all.
How can we speak of inclusion and openness when we have created a jargon as an abstruse for today’s laymen as the Latin used by priests for peasants in the Middle Ages? I tested this by sending the IGF program to ten acquaintances, all relatively educated, some of whom even work in the field of ICT. http://igf2014.sched.org/ The result is astounding. Not one of them understood the titles of more than 10 workshops, out of more than fifty workshops at the forum!
IGF participants, we are experts in ourselves and our forum.
The IGF is not a forum, it’s a choir singing in unison, with a few false notes.
The repetitions, the watchwords, the patterns are so numerous and so present in the very construction of the IGF, that is has become as heady as the incense at mass.
“Open and distributed”, “multi-stakeholder”, “transparent”, “inclusive”, “public interest” are the magic words that punctuate our prayers. We do not know why the words are spoken, they are part and parcel of the Internet principle, but other than using them negatively to designate what we think threatens them, we cannot really give them flesh and bone.
So whatever the workshops, plenary sessions, bilateral discussions, we repeat the same themes, without giving them substance. We are the victims of an epidemic of Tourette’s syndrome, in which the exclamation of obscenities has been replaced by the multi-stakeholder breviary.
The IGF is running round in circles and intends to continue that way.
One phrase is a good illustration of the condition, which was repeated throughout the five days, “from Brazil to Brazil,” because the next IGF will take place in Brazil, http://www.intgovforum.org/ as has already been the case, and the Netmundial meeting this year was held in the same country.
But no-one says “from a merchant internet to a cohesive internet” or “from an internet for the rich to an internet for all, including in the poorest countries” and “from a free internet to a censored internet, or vice versa,” they all say: “From Brazil to Brazil”. And of course, it does not mean anything other than “we are going round in circles, in every sense of the word, and that’s our program.”
A few objections can be heard here and there, saying it might be time to take action, to implement the principles that are promoted and chanted throughout the IGF. But we quickly arrive at the conclusion that the huge, elephantine, international IGF is incapable of making decisions. It is incapable of taking action because it is impossible for it to create a true consensus (via a rough consensus) resulting in clear recommendations to the international community and all of the stakeholders.
I also challenge the readers of this blog to find any trace of a decision for action from the five days of discussions, other than to continue funding these discussions, a decision taken by the ISOC, and to meet again in Brazil, taken by the UN.
So what is to be done?
Despite the above, first of all we need to recognize that, despite the many flaws of the consultation exercise decided almost ten years ago in order to extend the discussions blocked at the UN on the balance of power and mechanisms for “governing the Internet”, the IGF combines plenty of energy and goodwill, on a long-term basis. We must not lose that basis. Many of its initiatives and workshops are interesting.
We need to accept debate and even conflict in order to find out solutions to the problems of infrastructure financing, to identify positive contributions by the digital economy to the economy in general, to enhance the stability and resilience of the Internet, and above all to create trust. And it is not by keeping under the carpet, under a barrage of odes to the “multi-stakeholder” governance model, the debate on the role of governments in protecting their people and the development of the Internet that we shall achieve any of those aims.
We need to organize the new elites of Internet governance, put them in the cross-fire of young users (we should have students from every country in every room at the IGF: they would be so bored they’d turn over the tables in two days!) and Internet have-nots (pay for non-users to come and tell us why they don’t use Internet today, and remind us what our priorities should be).
We need to accept to have IGF outcome, and when there is no consensus, to have multiple outcome, multiple statements, multiple recommendations, even contradictory, on the same theme.
The strength of the IGF is that it is the symbol of a coalition of the willing, theoretically open to all, and it seeks practical solutions to the recurring and emerging issues facing the Internet. Far from wanting to kill off the IGF, we must challenge it head on, shake it, endanger it.
Otherwise, the IGF will live on, but the idea it claims to defend will die out.