Comments on participating in internet governance discussions

The following was  written by myself and Professor Sonia Livingstone.  It is addressed to the various luminaries who are holding a Retreat to reflect on the future of the MAG and the IGF itself.

Submission from John Carr and Professor Sonia Livingstone

1 in 3 of all internet users in the world are below the age of 18. In parts of the developing world this rises to almost 1 in 2.

The age of 18 is important because under international law and in national domestic law in practically every jurisdiction in the world 18 marks the point when a person ceases to be a child and becomes an adult with full legal capacity.

However, in relation to the internet, 18 is by no means the only benchmark of legal or operational relevance. It is acknowledged this complicates some issues.  Thus, in this context when referring to “children” we mean persons below the age of 13 and “young people” are between 13 and 17.

Every State has a set of obligations towards its citizens who are below 18. These obligations are extensive and become more so at the younger end of the spectrum. Some of these obligations are protective or defensive in nature, others are about providing positive opportunities for children and young people to learn, develop, express themselves and participate in processes that affect them.

The internet is of huge significance in the lives of children and young people yet you would be hard-pressed to see this reflected either in the composition of the MAG or in the proceedings of the IGF. Given the salience in so many countries of issues connected with children’s and young people’s use of the internet this is surprising.

The reasons for selecting some child-oriented workshops at IGFs are not always obvious to those closely engaged in the field. There has only been one plenary session devoted to children’s and young people’s interests. That was in 2008. This happened solely because the host country chose to make it a priority. In the NetMundial statement there is not a single reference to children and young people, and this against a background where a number of other interest groups managed to register their presence in the text. Markus Kummer said the reason was simple: children and young people “were not mentioned”. Even if that is not literally true it obviously is the case that if there were any “mentions” they were not loud enough to be heard in the room where the drafting took place.

Given the practical difficulties of engaging directly with children and young people, the role of organizations that are recognized as working with them and on their behalf is key. Right now there is nobody on the MAG from such a background. This has been true for most of the MAG’s existence, though not all of it. Of course there have always been people on the MAG who have spoken up for children’s and young people’s concerns but that is not entirely the point. People on the MAG are likely to feel a primary responsibility to advance or represent the institutional or other interests from which they are drawn. Their ability to take up or negotiate other agendas may be limited.

There is a perception that selection for membership of the MAG and Workshops at IGFs is highly political. Lobbyists are at work and insider networks operate which reflect different historic stakeholder groups. Children’s and young people’s organizations are not within the “magic circle” and even if they were it cannot be stated strongly enough that resource constraints would severely limit their ability to take part.

Fundraising to help child refugees and abuse victims is difficult enough. Fundraising to send people to Geneva, New York, Paris, Guadalajara et al to take part in talks about internet governance is a long way from being a realistic possibility. So it really comes down to a simple question: does the IGF want closer involvement with this substantial stakeholder group and if it does will it find a way to make it happen? We appreciate why special funds exist to help people from the developing world to attend IGF meetings and events. An analogous case can be made for ensuring representation for children’s organizations from all parts of the world.