“Internet Governance:” The Contribution of the IGF
Written by Jim Dempsey
Over the past several years, there has been a debate internationally about who “governs” the Internet. The debate has at various times displayed a deep confusion about what Internet governance is. Too much of the debate has focused on the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which has responsibility for only a very small portion of Internet governance. Too little has focused on the policies of national governments, which hold many of the keys to Internet success or failure in their national policies on innovation, competition and the trust environment. A UN-sponsored gathering called the Internet Governance Forum has helped channel the debate in a positive direction. In the broadest sense, the IGF is a yearly meeting, which has taken place 3 times since 2006. The most recent, in Hyderabad, India in December 2008, attracted 1280 participants from 94 countries.
The IGF is due to meet again this November in Egypt. Yesterday, CDT filed comments as the IGF considers its future. We said that, overall, the IGF has been remarkably successful. In particular, the IGF has raised awareness of Internet governance among a broad range of stakeholders – awareness as to what Internet governance is, how the Internet has been “governed” from its inception by a wide range of bodies and institutions (governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental), and how participation in those governance bodies can be expanded to reflect the interests and needs of non-governmental stakeholders and stakeholders from developing countries. CDT has repeatedly stressed, including in a paper released at the 2007 IGF, that Internet “governance” is not the sole or even primary province of governments. As we explained, and as the IGF has helped make clear, there are existing non-governmental bodies that successfully “govern” elements of the Internet without government dominance. These include not only ICANN but also voluntary standards bodies such as the Internet Engineering Task Force. Moreover, in demonstrating through its own processes the potential of open, multi-stakeholder processes, the IGF has widened the possibility that even governmental and intergovernmental governance organizations can be opened to wider stakeholder participation.
By and large, the IGF has kept human rights at the center of its focus. Some governments have tried to use the forum to promote regulatory and restrictive agendas. The IGF has successfully deflected these efforts, stressing that the growth of the Internet will be most effectively and equitably fostered by a policy framework that is based on human rights principles. In our comments on the IGF review, CDT recommended that the IGF should continue beyond its initial five-year mandate, in the form in which it exists today. The large number, and global reach, of participants in the three sessions to date testify to the forum’s value. The persistence of a digital divide and the long list of challenges posed by the information society prove the ongoing need for the forum. In addition, CDT warned against changes to IGF’s organizational charter. In particular, we strongly advise against any efforts to change IGF into a decision-making or treaty body. To do so would stifle the open collaboration and free flow of ideas that has made IGF so uniquely valuable. The IGF is not a governance body and should not be turned into one. The IGF is a governance forum, where representatives of all the existing governance institutions can come together with stakeholders who until recently had insufficient voice in governance, in order for those existing institutions to gain insight into how to improve engagement and for those stakeholders to learn where and how to make their voices heard in governance processes. The IGF does not supplant existing governance structures – rather, participants come to the IGF to gain cross-institutional perspective and to enhance their understanding of the forums and venues where solutions can be found to the problems impeding equitable development of the information society. The Internet does not need another governance body; it does need the respectful, global dialogue and information sharing that the IGF provides.