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Critics hit out at 'black box' UN internet body

Who exactly decides who sits on the Internet Governance Forum's main body?

Where and when

As just one example: a decision is expected any day on where the next IGF meeting will be held later this year, but even members of the MAG do not know where it will be (the rumor is Guadalajara in Mexico).

The first MAG meeting of this year will be held in Geneva (as it almost always is), but the date for that meeting was only announced four weeks in advance, meaning that a significant number (10 and counting) of MAG members won't be able to attend.

Adding to and compounding those concerns is ongoing funding problems. A few years ago, the IGF was left without either an executive coordinator or a secretariat because the UN said it did not have the budget.

In response, the IGF's constituent groups rallied and devised a way to directly fund the IGF's secretariat through a special IGF trust fund – a lengthy process that resulted in an agreement being signed with the United Nations' legal offices.

But just last week, that group was told not to add its most recent $86,000 contribution to the fund because a "third party" – widely rumored to be UN DESA itself – was questioning the legality of the arrangement.

Adding to those frustrations is the fact that many of the IGF's issues have been well known and documented for a number of years, yet progress on resolving them has been glacial.

A different UN group took two years to produce a report with recommendations on improving the IGF. It was finally published in 2012, yet many of the problems identified within it have still yet to be addressed.

Just this week, an internal MAG proposal to set up a working group to dig into the delays has already been bogged down with discussions over scope and membership. A similar effort six months ago was shot down because it was decided the MAG was too busy with its upcoming meeting.

That combination of an ineffective MAG and an opaque decision-making process for all the important decisions led one former MAG member to conclude that the only solution is for an entirely new oversight body to be developed within the UN, following the example of other modern issues such as renewable energy and sustainable water sources.

"There has to be some kind of oversight board, established with bylaws, before any of this is going to improve," they surmised.

Another member made a related observation on why progress continues to stall: "Whenever the MAG works hard to actually make an improvement, we get told that the group is really only a program committee and doesn't have the authority to make changes – and all that effort is wasted."

Even the MAG itself does a terrible job of documenting its procedures, decisions and membership. "We don't even know how long the different members have been on the MAG," notes another current member, "or in some cases who they are actually representing."

When the MAG argued internally and inconclusively about what its own roles and responsibilities were, the IGF secretariat created a document to summarize them, and it was also criticized as a top-down effort.

The flip side

There is, of course, a flip side to the complaints about decision-making and nameless, faceless bureaucrats making all the decisions.

Whether MAG members like it or not, the IGF was the result of a UN-run process called the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which took place from 2003-2005. As such, the IGF is run and continues to be run by the United Nations. The longer it has gone on, the more the normal UN rules and ways of doing things have started to apply.

It is perhaps testament to the two men who helped shepherd the WSIS process and set up the first IGF – two UN diplomats named Nitin Desai and Markus Kummer – that the clear deciding role of the UN was not so obvious to IGF attendees and MAG members.

Desai was on good terms with the then-Secretary General Kofi Annan and partly due to the then-novel nature of the IGF and the diplomatic skills of Desai and Kummer, they acted as de facto selectors of the members of the Multistakeholder Advisory Group, the MAG.

They carefully chose leaders from across the different stakeholder groups – most of whom they knew personally through the WSIS process – to make the IGF work, and encouraged self-selection within those groups to lend broader stability.

But as time progressed, the IGF became less novel and more a part of the machinery of the UN. Annan and Desai both retired and the first five-year mandate of the IGF starting coming to a close.

The result was that the IGF was moved under the UN DESA umbrella, where previously it had reported directly to the Deputy Secretary General's office. At UN DESA it is not a core mission, but simply one of many "projects." When the global economic crisis impacted budgets, it was one of many similar projects that faced cuts.

Markus Kummer eventually left the IGF to take on a new role in the private sector, leaving behind his deputy who had helped run many of the previous IGF conferences, Chengetai Masango. But Masango had been based in Geneva for most of his career and was not a veteran of the UN system, which is largely based in New York.

The end result of this decade's worth of change is that the UN DESA office in New York runs the IGF not as a special standalone organization representing a new form of global decision-making, but as an annual conference – one of many conferences that it handles across the world every year. And that extends to the selection process for the people who are put on its program committee.

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