Internet governance v. Internet government

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Last September, the India-Brazil-South-Africa Forum Dialogue (IBSA) gained the attention of the international community by reason of its controversial proposal with regard to global Internet governance.

 According to its website, the IBSA Trilateral is « a coordinating mechanism amongst three emerging countries, three multiethnic and multicultural democracies, which are determined to contribute to the construction of a new international architecture, to bring their voice together on global issues and to deepen their ties in various areas ».

 During the IBSA meeting, held in Rio de Janeiro on September 1-2, the Trilateral focused on Internet governance, highlighting which policy and regulatory issues were to be considered as a priority. Moreover, acting in accordance with its framework agreement for Cooperation on the Information Society, IBSA tried to determine which institutional changes could be established on a global level and  recommended that “an appropriate body is urgently required in the UN system to coordinate and evolve coherent and integrated global public policies pertaining to the Internet”. 

 The IBSA proposal aimed to provide a concrete solution in order to realize the so-called “Enhanced Cooperation” that was foreseen by the Tunis Agenda (paragraphs 47, 69 and 71), one of the main outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society

 The proposal argued that the new UN body should be asked to develop and establish international public policies with a view to ensuring coordination and coherence in cross-cutting Internet-related global issues; integrate and oversee the bodies responsible for technical and operational functioning of the Internet, including global standards setting; address developmental issues related to the internet; and undertake arbitration and dispute resolution, where necessary. In short, the new body would fuse the prerogatives of IGF, ICANN, etc. enhancing them under an intergovernmental frame.

 However, it is right and proper to highlight that a conservative approach, based on a purely intergovernmental process, is not a suitable solution in order to frame the Net. Indeed, such an option would imply a drastic switch from the actual multilayer and multiplayer Internet governance towards what could be seen as a multilateral – and potentially authoritarian –  Internet government.

Additionally, IBSA developed its proposal completely bypassing the IGF, and this move is quite illustrative of IBSA’s concern for a multistakeholder dialogue.

As Nii Quaynor stated on behalf of the Internet Technical Community, “such  developments would be in default of the Tunis Agenda which calls for multistakeholder cooperation in the Internet policy development process. Should there be any move towards a new UN instrument pertaining to Internet policy, it must be done with the involvement of all stakeholders, in an open, inclusive and transparent fashion”.

 For these reasons, the proposal was questioned during the Critical Internet Resources main session of the IGF 2011, where several participants expressed their concern, considering that the implementation of the IBSA plan would represent a step back to a pre-WSIS phase. In response to these charges, the Indian and Brazilian representatives reassured the IGF participants, underscoring that their proposal was a simple “draft”, and reaffirming their will to improve the “draft” through a multistakeholder dialogue.

 However, less than a month after the closing ceremony of the IGF, the International Community has figured out that economic growth isn’t the only remarkably fast process that one has to expect from IBSA. Indeed, the “draft”, not yet ratified by the IBSA governments at the end of September, has rapidly left its embryonic phase and was publicly endorsed by the Indian Government on October 26th, during the 66th Session of the UN General Assembly.

  In fact, Mr. Dushyant Singh, a Member of the Indian Parliament, officially pleaded for the institution of a United Nations Committee for Internet-Related Policies (CIRP), arguing that it is “urgent and imperative that a multilateral, democratic  participative and transparent global policy-making mechanism be urgently instituted, as mandated by the Tunis Agenda under the process of ‘Enhanced Co-operation’, to enable coherent and integrated global policy-making on all aspects of global Internet governance”.

 The CIRP should be composed of 50 UN Member States, chosen on the basis of equitable geographical representation, and advised by 4 committees, representing the civil society, the private sector, inter-governmental and international organizations, and the technical and academic community.

 Even if it is extremely unlikely that the IBSA or the Indian proposals will be implemented, one has to take them into account because of the clear message that they are expressing: countries from the Southern Hemisphere do not consider the current IG multistakeholder model as sufficiently inclusive, and feel left out from the various Internet-related fora that exist at the international level. IBSA’s feeling of exclusion from the “e-aristocracy” that has access to international fora is perfectly comprehensible, as much as it is easy to grasp India’s yarn for an international mechanism that could guide the Internet-related policy making on a global basis.

 Nevertheless, the main point is that even if the IBSA governments are sincerely trying to propose an innovative and inclusive structure that could oversee Internet-related policy making, the result of their efforts could be easily misunderstood as a Machiavellian takeover of the Internet

  In fact, despite the Indian affirmation of commitment to “multistakeholderism in Internet governance”, this author believes that the proposed CIRP constitutes an extraordinarily weak multistakeholder model. Indeed, the CIRP would confine into a non-better-defined advisory role all the nongovernmental stakeholders, without seizing the opportunity to envisage an innovative solution that may empower all the actors of the IG arena.

 A UN body where policy is exclusively elaborated by government representatives doesn’t seem to be a forward-looking option. Furthermore, even if several multistakeholder models – such as the ICANN or the IGF – may be criticized because they don’t give justice to the policy-making role of sovereign states, it is fair to admit that the Indian proposal reflects a completely opposite perspective, endorsing a sort of mono-stakeholder approach, in which UN Member States enjoy a double representation: a first in the 50-government body and a second in the realm of governmental committees.

Finally, it is right and proper to admit that the perspective of a UN body overseeing Internet-related policy-making doesn’t seem to be such a negative idea per se. The issue is that this potential institution – and its decision-making procedures –  should be conceived in order to reflect the heterogeneity of all the IG actors. Indeed, as Markus Kummer reminds, “the Internet works not because of government mandate or intergovernmental agreement – rather it works because its governance is open, inclusive, collaborative, and transparent”.

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