Internet Governance has become a much more active topic of discussion recently, as I described a bit in this previous post on NetMundial. As part of the Internet Governance activities of the last 8 or 9 months, I have participated as a member of the Panel on Global Internet Cooperation and Governance Mechanisms. This panel was convened in late 2013 by ICANN and the World Economic Forum (WEF), chaired by President Toomas Ilves of Estonia, vice-chaired by Vint Cerf, and infused by Fadi Chehadé, the president of ICANN, and supported by the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands. The Panel has just completed its work, releasing its final report on how to evolve the Internet Governance ecosystem. The press release is here. There are also comments by some of the Panelists, which came out of interviews done with the Panelists at the various panel meetings (the questions have been edited out of the final versions). In some cases, including mine, the comments cover a range of topics broader than the Panel.
In this post I’m going to set out a couple thoughts about the process. It was a first for me to participate in a panel like this chaired by a sitting Head of State. This reflects the very high degree of commitment to an open internet by President Ilves, which is exciting to see in action. The report adopts the principles set out in NetMundial whole-heartedly. This was interesting, it is an example of people evaluating a ton of our own work and effort and pride of ownership and happily setting it aside to participate in something bigger. The principles the Panel had put together were very similar to those of the NetMundial document. Not exactly the same, but Panel members clearly saw our core outlook and goals reflected in the NetMundial principles. And so we adopted them as our own, and view this as a huge success. I am proud of how we did this. It’s so easy to grow attached to one’s own work for its own sake. It’s easy to convince oneself that one’s own words or style or approach or work is subtly better, and should be maintained and promoted. It’s *so* easy to create fragmentation when unity is key.
I also am drawn to this paragraph in the preamble: “The Panel’s report is based on rough consensus. The views represented in this report do not necessarily reflect the views of the conveners or of all individual Panel members.” I know the latter sentence is not so uncommon. It’s not that rare to have people decide that the overall result is good and they are willing to attach their names to it, even if some part is imperfect or weak. So there’s not much new there. What struck me is the phrase “based on rough consensus.” A number of Panel members are very deeply involved in core Internet operations and protocols: the Panel included the head of ICANN, the head of the Internet Society (home of IETF), and of course Vint Cerf. A number of the rest of us have been almost that deep in Internet technology for a good while. So the idea of “rough consensus and running code” is deep into the mindset of many Panelists. I can’t speak for others of course but I saw a bunch of the traits that are important in a rough consensus in action here. We started with a bunch of diverse views on the panel, combined with a determination to move forward. We identified key areas of fundamental agreement.
– Distributed governance, not a single centralized authority.
– Solutions and organizations that develop organically by people working on the problem.
– Building knowledge and capacity so that more people can participate knowledgeably.
“Rough consensus and running code” isn’t a panacea of course. Like almost every approach, there are plenty of ways in which it can be corrupted and derailed. When it does work however, it’s extremely powerful. It gets people aligned, moving in the same direction with the same general principles to a shared goal, and empowers people to go make things happen.
The final report itself sets out suggestion for building on the work of NetMundial. Some people undoubtedly want the final report to go much further in proposing solutions, and processes to follow. Others were very focused on this document as a second stage building on NetMundial, and encourage more to come. I personally am of two minds. On the one hand I’d love to be able to point to concrete processes or distributed governance mechanisms and say “see what we’ve done and how much more we can do.” On the other hand, one big part of the goal is to describe the multistakeholder, distributed governance approach to citizens and governments and policy makers who are relatively new to Internet Governance. There is very explicit mention in the report’s Introduction. Given this, pointing to new solutions might not be the right approach. Pointing the direction and figuring out new solutions together might be a much more long-lasting approach.
In any case, I am eager to see multi-stakeholder Internet Governance strengthened. And deeply interested in building a governance system where citizens and civil society organizations are valued participants and leaders.