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Civil Society and CCWG-Accountability: a report from IGF 2016

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The 11th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was held earlier this month in Guadalajara, Mexico. Established as a result of the Tunis Agenda, the IGF provides a space for discussing issues relating to the internet, where stakeholders can engage on an equal footing. Though it is not a decision-making forum, the IGF provides stakeholders the opportunity to share their work with others working in the same field.

CCG and the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group (NCSG) organised a workshop that brought together active civil society participants from the IANA Transition to reflect on the process. The discussion was mainly centered around the Cross-Community Working Group on Enhancing ICANN Accountability (CCWG-Accountability), which has been summarised in this post. With a long line-up of panelists, this workshop touched upon issues that were important to civil society, as well as successes and failures that could help develop strategies for future engagement. While the transcript for this workshop is not available yet, the video recording can be viewed here.

It has been a little over two months since the IANA Transition was successfully completed. The CCWG-Accountability, formed to make recommendations on enhancing ICANN’s accountability, completed the first phase of its work before this. Known as Work Stream 1 (WS1), this phase dealt with all the topics that needed to be completed before transition could occur. Now, CCWG-Accountability has shifted its focus to Work Stream 2 (WS2) and is busy with 9 subgroups working on different issues that were left to be discussed after the transition. However, the IANA Transition was a historic event that brought with it a treasure trove of experiences, invaluable as a guide for future work. Drawing lessons from this experience would require taking a step back and looking at the process as a whole. Luckily, the IGF provides just such a space.

Key issues for civil society

When the IANA Transition was announced in March 2014, civil society was among the voices that demanded increased accountability and transparency of ICANN. As Robin Gross summarised, routine violations with bylaws, top-down policies, mission creep, staff interference and opacity were just some of the reasons for this push. The call for enhancing ICANN’s accountability received support across the board, and was something with which the US government also agreed. The concerns raised had more to do more with the accountability of policy-making processes than of the IANA Functions, Milton Mueller explained. Accordingly, the CCWG-Accountability was created where civil society actors from NCSG and (At-Large Advisory Committee (ALAC) were very active. As Gross stated, it was critical to get strong community powers in order to hold the Board of Directors accountable (such as right to recall board members, oversight over the budget, approval for bylaw changes, etc.). Accordingly, there was a constant push from civil society for stronger accountability measures, be it for the structure of the Empowered Community, the Independent Review Process (IRP), role of governments, human rights, staff and community accountability, or transparency. Many of these issues are still being discussed in WS2. However, as pointed out by Alan Greenberg, it must be remembered that civil society being a large collective of stakeholders with diverse interests, does not have a single agreed position on these issues.

Failures and successes

The various accountability issues are nuanced and complex, and require external experts to join the process. For example, transparency and human rights. However, joining these discussions pose their own set of challenges. As Matthew Shears summarised, many barriers to participation often seen at ICANN were also reflected in the CCWG-Accountability process as well, such as the high time commitment, language of acronyms, and the quick learning curve. Since this process required an understanding of how ICANN functions as a whole, these challenges became all the more significant. As a panelist, I noted that discussions often tended to be centralised around the same few people, which made it difficult for people to join the conversation. Additionally, Jan-Aart Scholte observed that the civil society participation was mainly from North America and Europe. He continued to discuss another significant challenge- the lack of complete openness. While the IANA transition and the CCWG-Accountability are lauded for proving that multistakeholderism can work, we must not ignore the politics involved. He highlighted that crucial discussions and deals took place behind closed doors, and were later presented at the publicly recorded calls, meetings and mailing lists. He also pointed out that civil society was on the sidelines when it came to these private discussions, which reduced its ability to influence the outcome, unlike the other stakeholders involved.

One of the biggest takeaways from this process was observing the bridging effect of a common goal. As Shears noted, this process saw diverse stakeholders talk through options when there were conflicting opinions, perspectives and interests. However, with the completion of the transition, the common goal has gone away and he observed that participants are now falling back into their stakeholder group “silos”.

Strategies for the future

While it may be a bit early to take a call on successes and failures, WS2 is still ongoing. It may be useful to try to replicate what went well, and learn from the challenges seen in WS1. Greenberg pointed out the utility of having regular informal discussions with members from other stakeholder groups in order to reach a compromise, something he recommended should be continued in WS2. The nature of the work being done by CCWG-Accountability requires finding a way to continue to work together, beyond just “looking for the lowest common denominator”, as Klaus Stoll suggested. Further, the range of issues being discussed in WS2 is diverse, and continues to require experts from outside the ICANN community to get involved. The strategy of clearly dividing the topics into separate issues was appreciated by Marilia Maciel, as it allows for easy identification of the different areas. She also pointed out that even though most of the discussion has been documented, it would be impossible to go through the tens of thousands of emails exchanged and hundreds of hours of calls. Drawing parallels with the effort required to understand the NetMundial Initiative retrospectively, she emphasised the need for documenting this process while it is still recent. CCG has attempted to do that over the past year, but the sheer volume of the discussions require more active participants to pen down their experiences and analysis to allow for a closer study later.

Author: Aarti Bhavana


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