Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Adventures in Multistakeholderism

Having recently attended the Internet Governance Forum in Bali thanks to a fellowship from InternetNZ I have a few personal observations. According to the website the purpose of the IGF is to:
"support the United Nations Secretary-General in carrying out the mandate from the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) with regard to convening a new forum for multi-stakeholder policy dialogue".

The IGF was worth attending in terms of getting a much better understanding of the international processes which we're working within. I do think events like this should be getting a lot more attention from the general internet-based business community given how likely it is that the seeds of various policies that will define the future of the infrastructure we rely on are likely to occur there.

Learning Curve

There was a reasonably steep learning curve to productively participating in the IGF for a number of reasons:
  • A distinct flavour of UN language such as questions being “interventions”. Diplo helpfully put together a glossary part way through the event.
  • A heavily politicised environment that limits the public commentary on more controversial issues.
  • Difficulties with limited time and approach in question taking occasionally leads to hijacking by parties with very specific interests.
  • Streams of related workshops have been identified but there isn’t a great deal of coordination between them although there is a suggestion that attending the workshops in a stream may help seed the focus sessions.

The event was significantly more enjoyable once I got better at identifying sessions that would be in the right balance between new information and areas that I knew enough about to contribute to.

Multistakeholderism and Breadth of Engagement

Multistakeholderism is a word that, when googled for, mostly links back to the the IGF. That is lovely since it means they can more or less try and make up what it means; unfortunately it means there ends up being multiple workshops at the IGF dedicated to trying to work out what multistakeholderism means.

Essentially the term has been broken down into private sector, civil society (which may as well be titled miscellaneous), technical community, government, and academia. I went into the event expecting there to be significant issues in the civil society space in terms of representation and a lack of diversity. While this is an issue there are a number of organisations (particularly APC) waving the diversity flag actively at the IGF, so it’s less missed than underrepresented.

The perspective I did find to be mostly absent was the private sector outside of a few multinationals. This worries me significantly as a number of the workshops on topics like developing economies and international payments are of huge relevance to the SME sector and a number of the discussion topics had huge direct implications to it, particularly for web based businesses.

For instance, the Brazilian response to data sovereignty issues in terms of moving data regarding its citizens inside the resident country is expensive for multi-nationals to implement. However, for smaller companies, particularly those not based in already large markets, a requirement like this would make it impossible to reach a suitable level of income to support the kind of infrastructure that multi-market localised deployment would need.

Having said that, the breadth of who is already attending the IGF is one of the great things about it and really something it should be commended for.


Panels are the major kind of session run at the IGF. While the organisers do reiterate that the focus of the workshop sessions should really be on discussion and gaining the value of bringing everyone together in a multistakeholder environment, they often use up the majority of the time getting through initial presentations by the panellists.

Some of this is due to the political nature of the event leading to excessively large organising groups and hence excessive panels. Most of the sessions seemed to have outsized organising committees due to organisers suggesting merging similar proposals together. Anecdotally it seemed as though this led to a mixture of organisers compromising by putting both their preferred panellists on on a panel or some of the organisers dropping out or not showing up to their panels.

In general it seems likely that taking a more direct approach to selecting workshops might lead to more targeted talks. A more focussed session is generally more likely to get through an introductory talk and into a discussion than a broader one that needs to outline a significant body of background material. There was also some commentary about the time between session submission and the event leading to issues having moved past the brief that had been submitted. Giving submitters more of an opportunity to update their topics closer to the time would hopefully avoid some of this and should need only moderate oversight for abuse.

While the overall event itself may not need to have outputs in the way of recommendations or conclusions, the structure of discussions will be significantly improved if the workshops have a clearer idea of which particular issues or controversies they think a discussion should revolve around.

The Whitespace

A good portion of the event is happening in the whitespace. There was a very steady stream of people wandering off in small groups to discuss policy and positions out of the way of cameras and streams. Some of this is a matter of it taking time for a new attendee to become recognised by the regulars and engaged with. On the other hand, it’s an interesting commentary on the surveillance issues that so many people were keeping their opinions out of the rooms that were recording.

I found I was only just starting to be well enough recognised by attendees to get into good conversations towards the end of the event. Which is probably another effect of the learning curve that’s present.

Ongoing Value

Bringing the right people together and the discussion that does happen at the IGF is valuable, but there is room for improvement. Relationships are generally considered to be better if partners communicate actively with each other and confront issues directly. Of course, relationships are also generally considered healthier when they don’t include a jealous partner tapping your phone.