WTPF: expected outcomes, revealing debate

The UN World Telecommunication Policy Forum (WTPF) concluded yesterday in Geneva, with the adoption of six opinions to guide international policy on broadband and internet exchange points (IXP) deployment, IPv6 transition and adoption, as well as internet governance. That was exactly the plan–but what happened over the course of the three day meeting is revealing for the future of internet governance reform.

The opinions

The six draft opinions were prepared by the informal experts group (IEG), a body made up of representatives from government, the private sector, and civil society, and by the time they made it to presentation at WTPF, they were rather uncontroversial. The opinions, especially those that would expand affordable access to the internet, were good and Access recommends that they should be implemented in an inclusive way.

However, what was controversial was the so-called “seventh opinion” on the ‘role of government in internet governance.’

The “seventh opinion” had been discussed in the IEG but failed to reach consensus: some members felt that it presented a view of internet governance that challenged the multistakeholder model of government, private sector, and civil society participation in shared decision-making, and that it elevated the role of the ITU in internet governance. As a result, the IEG decided not pass it on to the WTPF–but it was reintroduced by the Brazilians just ahead of the opening of the forum.

The opinion was perplexing coming from Brazil, a country that practices multistakeholder governance on a national level through the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee (CGI.br), made up of representatives from multiple government agencies, the private sector, civil society, and the scientific and technical community. However, when the delegation from Brazil explained their objective–to give governments a meaningful role in internet policy decisions, as well the support they needed to do so–it was clear that the controversy over the text did not reflect the Brazilian intention.

The Brazilian proposal enjoyed support, particularly among those governments in the developing world that share the concerns behind the intent of the opinion and strive to play a more substantial role in internet governance policy-making. However, it also enjoyed support among governments who agreed with the problematic language that would increase the role of governments and the ITU.

In the words of the representative, the opinion was meant to reflect that “the multistakeholder framework needs to fully engage governments as stakeholders in the decision process… and the ITU can and should play an active role in capacity building for developing countries particularly the least developed countries so that they can have an effective part in the existing instances of internet governance.” Despite this mismatch of intent and interpretation, the widespread interest in the opinion made it difficult for the Brazilians to take it off the table.

On the final day of the Forum, the Brazilians introduced a much improved draft of the opinion, renamed “Operationalizing the role of government in the multistakeholder framework for internet governance” with language that more closely reflected their intention. In explaining the revised opinion, the Brazilian delegate asserted that the proposal was not meant to increase the role of governments or the ITU in internet governance, but rather aimed to give both entities a concrete and meaningful role. This touched at what is perhaps one of the most central questions in internet governance reform–and as such, the Chair of the relevant working group ultimately decided not to take this issue on at such a late point in the WTPF.

The role of the government: shared decision-making or consultation?

Paragraph 34 of the Tunis Agenda, the outcome of the UN World Summit on Information Society, which concluded in 2005, defines internet governance as including shared “decision-making procedures,” however implementation of these procedures is still a challenge in practice. The discussion of the Brazilian proposal reignited a debate on the role of governments, revealing a range of views from participating delegations.

On one side of the spectrum, the UK fully embraced the shared decision-making model. The UK representative’s stated, “we stand behind the multistakeholder model and that is a model where governments are not the only decision makers. Possibly not even the main ones [emphasis ours].” In contrast, in the same discussion, Argentina stated “The State, after all, holds the leading role in that respect [emphasis ours] and it is the state government that should decide where its nation is going. Of course, in consultation were other parties and with society, but the leading role lies with the State, with the government. I don’t think that is something we should lose sight of.” Clearly there is still lack of consensus in what the role of government is in the multistakeholder model, but comments like those of Argentina indicate fundamental support for the multistakeholder model itself.

While undoubtedly there are still governments that don’t accept such a framework, none were bold enough to say so at the WTPF. Even Iran has changed its tune since the World Conference on Telecommunications (WCIT), the controversial treaty conference held last December in Dubai. The statement on the final day of WTPF by the Iranian delegate is worth quoting in length:

“Chairman, some of the input to this meeting from civil society, from the private sectors, provide further clarity to us…We need, chair, to continue the atmosphere, the understanding and collaborations and cooperation with each other…One thing that we need to emphasize and I have already mentioned that, with respect to the role of the government, no doubt government should not have any role in the day-to-day management of the Internet [emphasis ours], but government needs to be listened. Views of the government with respect to the public policies, I emphasize with respect to the public policies need to be taken into account and need to be weighted in the future.”

It’s a truism that meetings like the WTPF are another forum for political theater. But the fact that even the representative from Iran felt the need to emphasize in his closing remarks that there ‘is no doubt’ that governments should ‘not have any role in the day-to-day management of the internet’ is revealing. After WTPF, it’s clear that there is still need to further discuss the role of governments in internet governance, but this discussion must itself happen within a multistakeholder framework.

Ongoing discussions

Although the WTPF did not adopt the proposed Brazilian opinion, there were a number of suggestions on where to take the topic for further discussion, with suggestions that ranged from fully multistakeholder venues, like the UN Internet Governance Forum, to those that are not multistakeholder at all. ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure’s suggestion was a body that falls in the latter category–the entirely intergovernmental ITU Council Working Group.

Importantly, Secretary-General Toure added he will propose to the Council Working Group that the discussion be open to all stakeholders, in the same format as the relatively successful IEG. However, just because Toure suggested openness doesn’t mean that Member States will endorse it. Much work is to be done to hold Toure to his commitment and convince governments of the importance of openness, inclusivity, and transparency.

Flirting with multistakeholderism

It is likely that the ITU’s embrace of multistakeholderism through the IEG, timid as it may be, will help shape the way forward for future reform–including at the Council Working Group. Through the IEG, members of civil society and the private sector were able to shape the outcome documents of the WTPF. And although resource constraints and unclear modalities made it difficult for broad civil society participation, civil society had a more significant role than in other recent ITU meetings.

As a member of the IEG, Access was able to submit an information document with feedback on the Secretary-General’s report that formed the basis for discussion at the WTPF, as well as on the draft opinions. Access and other IEG members from civil society–invited to the WTPF as special guests of the Secretary-General–were also able to make interventions at the WTPF itself. In fact, the US-based Center for Democracy and Technology managed to deliver the final statement at the closing ceremony on behalf of a wider group of civil society (including Access). The joint statement highlighted the need for transparency, openness, and inclusivity in policy processes, and the important contribution of civil society in internet governance decision-making.

Despite these positive developments, the fact remains that only a very limited and select group of civil society members were able to participate in the IEG. All other members of civil society in attendance were there as observers, without the ability to speak or contribute to the work of the WTPF in their own right.

These challenges will have to be addressed as the discourse on internet governance moves forward–not just at the ITU or in the context of the role of governments, but in all internet governance decision-making processes, on all issues. Stakeholders in the future of the internet need to have this discussion on a regular basis, and we need to use all available fora to do so. Let’s hope that the ITU’s flirting with multistakholderism is a sign of process and change.