Pawns in a governments’ game? Civil society and evolving discussions on multistakeholder’ Internet governance

by Anja Kovacs

Ever since the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) brought out rather starkly disagreements among governments about governments' role in Internet governance, this issue has received considerable attention. What is discussed far less, however, is that, in this ongoing tug of war, civil society is paying a high price: notwithstanding the extensive lip service both governments and international organisations increasingly pay to the multistakeholder model, civil society's ability to contribute to and shape the crucial debate and decisions on the role of governments in Internet governance and decisions in practice is consistently undermined in the core arenas in which this debate is being furthered. This negatively affects civil society's ability to participate in Internet governance as a whole.

Two recent meetings in Geneva in which I had the pleasure to participate, and events in their aftermath, brought this to the fore rather sharply.

The first is the World Telecom Policy Forum (WTPF), which took place in Geneva from 14 until 16 May 2013. At the WTPF, six opinions were adopted unanimously, including one on supporting multistakeholderism in Internet governance” and one on supporting operationalising the enhanced cooperation process”. The outcome of the meeting was portrayed by many as a triumph for the multistakeholder model, as the opinions were prepared by an Independent Expert Group (IEG) which included individuals of all stakeholder groups, including civil society. Moreover, minor amendments to the draft opinions prepared by the IEG mostly were made to recognise explicitly the special concerns of developing countries. Indeed, discussion on what came to be referred to as a seventh draft opinion, on the role of governments in Internet governance, also centred in large part around these concerns. The conversation around this draft seventh opinion, which was not approved, was not always easy; yet as the meeting progressed, for the first time it seemed as if the US and its European allies finally were willing to accept some of the very legitimate concerns raised by the developing world.

Some of those concerns closely match those of civil society. Among the questions raised by developing country governments during the WTPF was whether their only role was to rubber stamp agreements made elsewhere – in this case in the IEG. Many developing country governments highlighted their inability to follow closely the large number of Internet governance meetings that exist. They argued that they had not made participation in the IEG a priority as they thought they would still have a chance to review the opinions during the meeting. Seeing their limited resources, they had therefore decided that the WTPF was where they should rather focus their efforts. They also expressed their surprise that they were now encouraged not to insist on seeing their concerns included in the WTPF opinions during the Forum itself. That the IEG would emerge as such a crucial negotiating body is not something that had been clear to them from the outset.

This hadn’t been clear to much of civil society either. Civil society was invited into the process only at the very last moment, just before the IEG’s final meeting. Even at that late time, information on many details of the process, such as whether or not remote participation would be available, remained lacking. The fact that members of civil society who had been part of the IEG would have speaking rights at the WTPF as well, too, was not yet known.

At the time civil society was included in the IEG, neither the status of the IEG nor the modalities for participation were thus clear. Like many developing country governments, many civil society members, too, therefore decided not to apply to the IEG but instead to focus their participation on the WTPF. The lack of clarity affected in particular those from developing countries: of the four members of civil society who did participate in the IEG, only one was from the Global South. Only after reaching the WTPF did others realise that by prioritising the final meeting, they may have made a mistake.

Both during and after the WTPF, the focus while discussing these matters was on the important steps the ITU has started to take to open up the institution to wider participation – and these efforts are indeed appreciated. But what all too often gets hidden from view by this enthusiastic emphasis on incremental and often haphazard improvements is a serious shortcoming in the current functioning of the multistakeholder model that is not new.

Multistakeholder’ participation in policy processes is now widely used by governments both domestically and at the international level to justify the legitimacy of such processes, and many noises are being made about the need to reach out to even wider circles, to make the process even more inclusive’. What is hidden from view in the process, however, is that meaningful and sustained participation by civil society remains tremendously precarious even for those, especially from the Global South, who already have a foot in the Internet governance door. Accessing funding that makes such participation possible is always a challenge for these individuals and groups. Where information about the exact goal and status of different processes and the modalities of participation remain unclear until the last moment, these challenges become almost impossible to overcome. Until more measures to enable meaningful participation by existing players have been put into place, focusing efforts on including larger numbers will mostly be an empty gesture that will not do anything to improving the quality of that participation, or of contributions made.

Despite these concerns, I left the WTPF feeling optimistic. That civil society had been able to participate both in the IEG and in the WTPF itself was an important improvement. Also, Brazil’s proposed seventh draft resolution on the role of governments in Internet governance – which drew on language and support from several other governments, some of it already put forward in the IEG – was not approved. But the fact that a constructive conversation about the challenges that developing countries in particular face finally seemed to have been initiated during the discussions around that draft seemed like an important step forward. Moreover, there also seemed to be some agreement among governments that this would be a conversation that would need to be had in a wide range of fora – in the ITU, yes; but also elsewhere, including in the IGF. For civil society, there was thus reason to leave the meeting with a sense of hope.

Within a month’s time, however, it became clear that my optimism had been premature. At the sixteenth session of the Commission for Science, Technology and Development (CSTD), which took place in Geneva from 3 to 7 June 2013, positions polarised once again in the discussions around the draft ECOSOC Resolution on the assessment of the progress made in the implementation of and follow-up to the outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society’. Representatives from countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia opposed any text that foresaw a clear role for the CSTD in the WSIS+10 review progress, including by making recommendations regarding the modalities for this process. In turn, countries such as Sweden and the US vehemently opposed a specific reference to Russia’s offer to host a new Summit in 2015, as they feared this could be read as a tacit endorsement of that proposal.

Though this has received surprisingly little attention so far, what thus became event during June’s CSTD meeting is that WSIS+10 Review Process has likely emerged as the next battleground on which the disagreements between different governments over the future of Internet governance will play out. If they weren’t visible as strongly during the WTPF, this may have been because the opinions of the WTPF do not carry the same weight as an ECOSOC Resolution or, indeed, as the WSIS+10 review. But negotiations during the sixteenth session of the CSTD made clear that these disagreements had by no means been shelved and would continue to influence a range of government negotiations and decisions.

The events at the CSTD were important for an additional reason, however. The reluctance of government representatives in the CSTD meeting to make any recommendations on the WSIS+10 review process means that civil society still does not have even the slightest indication of what its participation in a process that could decide priorities in Internet governance for the next ten years might look like, or when it could possibly provide any inputs. In fact, it is very likely that civil society will only come to know the modalities of its participation, or even the nature of the process itself, in December, when the UN General Assembly is scheduled to take a decision on this issue (it was supposed to do so already last year, but couldn’t reach agreement at the time). This is only four months before the ITU High Level meeting that has already been planned as part of the WSIS +10 review, due to take place in April 2014 in Sharm el-Sheikh. Though proposals have been put forward, the modalities of civil society’s participation in that meeting, too, are not yet publicly known.

Witnessing the negotiations at the CSTD thus put two things in stark relief for me. Though more and more governments and international organisations are paying lip service to the multistakeholder model, the important ways in which this model has evolved since the first two World Summits is not sufficiently acknowledged in the way institutions that pre-exist the Internet function. This is becoming of particular significance as it precisely those institutions in which governments seek to further the debate on their own role in Internet governance. Both due to its almost non-existent ability to participate in the process of those debates when they take place in pre-Internet institutions, and as a consequence of decisions made during those debates, civil society’s ability to substantively participate in Internet governance in general is not only not fostered, but in fact undermined, as the interests of civil society are sacrificed all too easily in these ongoing debates. This makes a mockery of the multistakeholder model.

The alarming sense that governments are increasingly closing important processes of Internet governance for substantial participation of civil society at all stages was further strengthened by the decision, in late June, of the ITU Council not to open up the Council Working Group on International Internet-related Public Policies (CWG) for civil society participation. The CWG is one of the main spaces where discussions on Brazil’s draft resolution 7 from the WTPF will be furthered within the ITU. Though various countries have proposed, during this Council session and in the past, to open up the CWG to all interested stakeholder, such proposals have not been approved so far. In addition, in a striking display of unaccountability, all ITU Council Meeting documents, including reports from the Council Working Groups on International Internet-related public policy issues and on WSIS, remain closed to the public. In this instance, too, a range of decisions taken by governments, thus, undermine civil society’s ability to meaningfully participate in Internet governance as a whole.

Within this context, it is therefore imperative that civil society starts thinking far more strategically about how it can effectively engage with the governmental spaces that are taking decisions that can have potentially far-reaching consequences for Internet governance. To this end, civil society also needs to urgently define in greater detail its own role in Internet governance, within or beyond the framework provided for by the Tunis agenda, and the exact requirements to fulfil this role effectively.

Failure to do so might well mean that we will end up with an Internet governance model in which civil society is represented only in name.

Anja Kovacs attended both the WTPF and the sixteenth session of the CSTD as a civil society observer.