Is the Internet Governance Forum to be reborn?

At the moment there is a “High Level” review going on within the United Nations.  It was commissioned by the Secretary General of the UN  who appointed Melinda Gates and Jack Ma as co-chairs. With this type of backing it ought to have great potential. The dynamic duo have produced: “the age of digital interdependence“, otherwise known as the “Report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Co-operation” (the Report).

Inevitably the Report covers a lot of territory but in one key section it looks at the future of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF).

The origins of the IGF lie with the earlier Word Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) process, the UN’s initial major foray into internet policy. The first meeting of the IGF was in Athens in 2006. It has met annually since. I wasn’t in Athens but have not missed an IGF meeting since. Some of the thinking behind the IGF initiative contained noble ideas that were very much of their time. Yesterday.

Comments are being sought on the Report (see link above). Below is an edited version of the ones I submitted on behalf of the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online.  These comments focus principally on the internet governance aspects.

Introduction

From the perspective of children’s usage, the internet we have today is barely recognisable when compared with the internet as it existed at the time of WSIS and the beginnings of the IGF. The upside of the growth and the changes in the internet which have taken place since then are readily apparent, but so too is the downside which mutes, dilutes and deflects from what should otherwise have  been a glittering success story.

The problems and difficulties faced by children  in the context of the modern internet can be set out under three broad headings:

  1. Those which pose a direct threat to their well-being or unfairly exploit them.
  2. Those which deny them their legal rights to privacy, to  be heard and to participate in processes which result in decisions on matters which affect them.
  3. Too many children still do not enjoy good quality access to the internet linked to its vital companion, media literacy.

The Report

While the Report is very definitely welcome we are afraid its overall tone and much of its content are rooted in a historic approach which has demonstrably failed children in a number of fundamental respects.

The responsibility of companies

In 2019 the overall impression most people are left with is that while a comparatively small number of companies and their shareholders have profited enormously by building large and successful businesses off the back of the internet explosion, these actors have not devoted anything like the same amount of attention or ingenuity to the problems which are now manifest, including those that are a by-product, an unintended consequence, of their success.

Does the present state of affairs exist because of inherent, even insurmountable technical difficulties? What part do the values and hence the priorities of the owners of the businesses play in determining such matters? Is it all about money?  Put simply are the economic incentives not properly aligned to draw businesses away from their current ways of working without external prompting e.g. via binding rules and Regulation?

The responsibility of Governments

A similar comment might be made in respect of the Governments and public institutions in jurisdictions which have the largest concentrations of the successful  tech companies within their borders. They have benefitted from the tax take on profits and the wider boost to their economies in terms of the jobs created, but otherwise they have been bystanders as online perils to children developed and multiplied. Have they just yielded to an obvious conflict of interests?

The responsibility of both

In the end it has to be said that while companies, and the internet eco-system of decision making bodies which they dominate, must bear a substantial responsibility for where we are today, Governments, inter-governmental agencies and other public institutions do not escape criticism either, because they failed to find an alternative course of action which would have obliged or led to different and better outcomes.

Multistakeholderism

Multistakeholderism is referred to many times in the Report, but not sufficiently critically. There was a time when multistakeholderism, linked to a belief in and support for the superiority of self-regulation as a way of tackling any emerging difficulties with the new technology, was the only option available. Few politicians, civil servants and police officers and only a small number of civil society organizations and policy makers had any kind of deep understanding of how these new exciting cyber businesses operated. And they, by which I really mean “we” were dazzled by its apparent promise. Or should that be “blinded by the light”? (with apologies to Manfred Mann and Bruce Springsteen).

The cool disrupters who didn’t wear suits

At the beginning of the mass consumer internet, layered on top of the challenges public bodies and others faced in understanding it, the companies at the forefront of the internet revolution somehow managed to identify with a counter cultural, insurgent liberal spirit. They promoted themselves as wholly different types of ventures, principally driven by social goals rather than more traditional commercial ones. They wanted to make life better, overturning old-fashioned clunky, time-consuming and expensive ways of doing things. Since many tremendous products some of the leading firms were providing at that time appeared to be “free” to the end user at the point of use, this helped cement a benign, almost philantropic view of the internet in the public’s and the media’s consciousness.

The new orthodoxy

The new orthodoxy consequently centred on a belief that the only important thing was to keep Governments out of the way. Multistakeholderism meant everyone, all the “stakeholders”, would talk to each other, a consenus would emerge but that was it. Regulation became a dirty word. Innovation  and market forces would take care of everything. This would be a wholly virtuous circle. Industry was not only  given pretty much a free hand, states even went as far as to give them special exemptions from certain types of liability e.g. the EU’s e-Commerce Directive and the USA’s s.230, CDA, 1998.

Multistakeholderism looks good but isn’t working 

The Report remains strongly wedded to the idea of multistakeholderism. Its theoretical attractions are clear but the actual experience of it is a long way from being satisfactory. Multistakeholderism without concrete and deeply embedded measures to ensure a greater equality of arms  between the participants is simply another way of creating a platform which allows those with the deepest pockets to shout loudest and block or delay change while the cash keeps rolling in.

Particularly for children

Turning more specifically to the position of children, there are several excellent references in the Report,  but save in respect of a passing comment  about “children’s agency” (page 17) the document as a whole makes no explicit mention of the importance of children’s rights to participate and their right to be heard in respect of matters affecting them. This subject deserves a much larger exposition, not least because children now constitute one in three of all human internet users.

NetMundial did not even mention children

It is unfortunate that the Report notes with approval the NetMundial statement, a statement in which children are not referred to even once. How did that happen? The same way it normally happens in an unequal multistakeholder environment. When the Netmundial statement was being drafted and adopted nobody was in the  virtual or physical room with a specific brief to watch out for and advance children’s interests. Obviously this does not mean everyone else engaged in the process was hostile towards children or children’s interests. They just weren’t in the process with children’s interests uppermost in their minds or they lacked the expertise, knowledge or confidence to make the case for children in the context of digital technologies in general or internet governance institutions in particular. This must change.

Not just about children’s groups in lower income countries

The Report makes no explicit mention of the practical difficulties of engaging with multistakeholder institutions and environments and how this affects not just groups in the lower and middle income countries but also groups in higher income countries.

Children’s groups usually are faced with a choice. Do they spend scarce time or money helping a child or a family in need of immediate help,  or do they buy an airline ticket to a distant location with expensive hotels so they can visit a conference  centre where they will sit cheek by jowl with representatives of some of the world’s richest companies, against the possibility that somewhere down the line, maybe never or ten years from now,  a digital behemoth might tweak an algorithm? There is only one possible decision a typical children’s group can take. They stay at home.

Similar comments might be made in respect of the deluge of correspondence, conference calls at strange times of the day or night to engage with people you have never met and will never know. All these are part of multistakeholderism in the online space.  Many of the commercial companies that take part hire lobbyists and lawyers or employ staff dedicated solely to such matters.  For the reasons given earlier children’s groups cannot do that.

Money talks

Even Governments and inter-governmental institutions can be at a severe disadvantage as compared to the commercial entities which have a major stake in the business opportunities presented by the internet.

It is unlikely there will ever be a completely level playing field as between governmental and inter-governmental bodies, civil society and business, but at present the field is tilted so far in favour of business interests it makes a mockery of the very idea of multistakeholderism.

The Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG)

The MAG is the body charged with organizing the annual IGF meeting. There are two major flaws in the arrangements currently pertaining to its selection and operation.

  1. The selectors favour individuals  or organizations already “dug in” to the IGF environment. The complexity and arcane nature of the language used does not help attract new people or groups. Neither does the financial and time costs of participation.
  2. The process of selecting members of the MAG is obscure and the credentials of those seemingly there to represent particular constituencies appear often not to be scrutinized with any great care. Neither is the efficacy of MAG members’ reporting back to or working with their constituency.

COGOV

The document devotes a section to the “Distributed Co-governance Architecture” (“COGOV).  While its recommendations in respect of  how future arrangements  might be better reconfigured are welcome they are nevertheless imbued with a profound sense of unreality. Elements of COGOV are absolutely central to many of the issues the report discusses elsewhere. They are not in any sense marginal or minor.

While the Report notes how difficult it is to trace any concrete connection between the IGF and any real world consequences for the way the contemporary internet is run, that is absolutely not the case with, for example, the IETF, ICANN and IEEE.

IETF

Decisions they take can have very direct and immediate real world consequences yet there is little doubt their decision making processes are very heavily influenced by the commercial interests that engage with them. Look, for example, at the way DNS over https evolved within the IETF.

ICANN

The way ICANN has intentionally downgraded the importance of maintaining the accuracy of WHOIS data suggests they never had any real intention of honouring the promise they made when they signed the Affirmation of Commitments in 2009.

While there are many ways in which the DNS can be exploited by bad actors undoubtedly one of them relies upon the ease with which they can acquire a sub-domain without having to render any robust proof of their real world identity and contact details. Whatever the rules might be about how and by whom WHOIS data are accessed, it is hard to imagine a single sub-domain would be used to distribute or promote child sex abuse material if the owner or person linked to it knew their true real world details had been captured and stored by anyone, anywhere on the planet.

In 2012 ICANN decided to allow the creation of new gTLDs .Bank, . Pharmacy, and . Insurance eventually emerged as Verified Top Level Domains. They are called “verified” because the entity responsible for them enquires about the credentials, qualifications and suitability of persons or companies seeking to acquire a sub-domain under one of those headings. This severely restricts the possibility of bad actors being able to pass themselves off as legitimate but when it came to the creation of .kids, zero meaningful stipulations  or restrictions were made to try to protect children from being drawn towards  sub-domains within .kids that might be owned or operated by persons who wish to harm children.

IGF and IGF Plus

While also acknowledging its then zeitgeisty utopian underpinnings, a key reason why the IGF was created in the first place was to avoid a diplomatic rupture between States involved in the WSIS process in respect of how parts of the internet were to be managed at a global level.

There was never any intention of allowing the IGF to be anything more than a talking shop. Talking shops have their value, no doubt, but  to say they are linked in any meaningful way to questions of “governance” is dubious.

The IGF today is a bit like a cross between a trade fair for people who work in and around internet policy questions and going back to University for a week where a vast array of interesting seminars are laid on by lots of equally interesting people who are there to deliver papers or participate in the discussions. Marvellous but not “governance” by any commonly understood meaning of the word, or rather if it has any impact on “governance” it is incredibly diffuse and tenuous and perhaps of much less importance than discussions which take place elsewhere in other forums.

Whether it is necessary to have such elaborate or expensive mechanisms to organize a week of seminars linked to a trade fair must be moot but it would be a pity if the annual gathering disappeared because there is nothing else like it.

Thus the proposals to create an “IGF Plus” are welcome, but they fall a long way short of what is needed if the public interest across the whole internet governance eco system is to be adequately safeguarded.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International, Technical Adviser to the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, which is administered by Save the Children Italy and an Advisory Council Member of Beyond Borders (Canada). Amongst other things John is or has been an Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, the Council of Europe and European Union Agency for Network and Information Security and is a former Board Member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. He is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. More: http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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