Internet Governance goes online
Dr Ellen Strickland Chief Advisor - International •
One of the great ironies, and often critiqued realities, of how the Internet has been coordinated and governed is that many people have travelled great distances, sometimes many times every year, to come together to talk about the challenges and agree policies and ways forward. Online participation has been an option but much of the work has been done in person, not on the Internet.
With global restrictions on travel due to COVID-19 coming into effect in March this year, Internet Governance has had to quickly adjust and make the move to fully online, remote processes. This quick transition has been just one aspect of the shocking changes to people’s lives in this global pandemic, and the transition has been neither smooth sailing nor without some benefits.
Managing the change
Those who work in Internet Governance processes are now getting to ask themselves: Did you always need longhaul travel, intense jetlag and being inside a conference centre devoid of natural light for a week of 15-hour work days to do that work? Can you do that same work effectively in a week of non-stop video meetings running from 8pm to 9am, while you still have a life and family to look after who are operating on local daylight hours? Personally, the answer to both is a clear no.
But the disjointed existence of conference attendance by night is what we have now, and it’s a hard way of doing important work. To make that even harder, most of the world is doing that while in lockdown, of some kind, due to COVID-19 - with family all at home, worrying about the health of themselves and family, worrying about the economic and social fallout of the situation, and based on the video calls I’ve been in, mostly without a haircut for going on 6-months now.
However, there is no choice about going online - the circumstances are beyond our control - so we have to find a way to do the work, as there is one thing COVID-19 has made more important than ever in the lives of people around the world: the Internet. The clarity of purpose that this pandemic has brought those working on Internet Governance processes has been a strong motivation - we need to keep the Internet working and make sure it is safe, secure and an Internet for good.
Scoping a digital way of working
ICANN is one of the key Internet organisations in Internet Governance, and was one of the first to move to ‘online only’ this year - with the first of its three annual meetings scheduled for early March in Mexico being moved online a matter of weeks before the event, never having had an all online meeting before. ICANN has subsequently held a Policy Forum event in June online, and they have announced their October Annual General Meeting will be online as well.
Much of ICANN’s work is done in online working groups between physical meetings, so this work and online working methods have had little problem adjusting. There are clear problems to an all-online meeting: video call fatigue is real and attempts to hold the meetings in the ‘normal’ long day format have left participants visibly fried; Zoom bombing limited the interactive abilities of participants which impacted community dialogue and cohesion; and related to that, it appears tackling the tough issues, where different stakeholders have divergent interests and strongly held opinions is not something easily resolved online.
Hot topics come up, and looking back, it seems that those are where there has been the most use for the in-person meetings: delicate negotiations and diplomacy are hard online, especially when people are exhausted and working in the stress of the current global context.
This is an issue not just in ICANN; there are a range of United Nations processes, Working Group and Expert Panels, indeed whole bodies like the International Telecommunications Union, who work on Internet related topics and there is a real struggle to figure out how to proceed in an all online format. This spector sits over not just Internet Governance, of course, but over how to advance multilateral relationships and diplomacy work globally.
One response to sensitive processes or issues needing diplomacy has been in-person meeting postponement, at first by a few months and now often to 2021; but it is a risky approach as we can’t keep ‘kicking the can’ hoping that ‘the old normal’ will resume in 2021. There is no guarantee of that and, in fact, odds look slimmer by the day, but also because these issues need work now and no doubt other issues and work will fill 2021.
Searching for solutions
However the issues, including video meeting fatigue, when attempting online meetings using the existing formats designed for in-person, need to be addressed with some innovation and flexibility. The United Nations’ World Summit on the Information Society Forum, usually held in Europe as a week long event, took the approach of spreading its sessions out over almost three months.
There are even some positives out of the all online Internet Governance events: it creates an even playing field of participation. Well, it could! However time zones and inequitable Internet access mean that participation is still harder for some than others. But we are all online and the best events and processes seem to be working hard to work across time zones and to help people connect in order to participate.
A great example of this was RightsCon, a global meeting on human rights in the digital age, which was held last week. The organisers supported participants where required and possible with access issues and took a flexible and global approach to timing of sessions.
With so many events moving to online this year, it is an opportunity for New Zealanders interested in Internet issues to join in the discussions as part of the online event - most are free and without airfares and expenses to factor in, you can be a part of International Internet Governance for the price of some lost sleep and video meeting overload. I encourage kiwis with an interest in all things Internet to check out ICANN and the Asia-Pacific regional and global Internet Governance Forum, which take place over our Spring (September to November).
With online meetings looking likely into 2021, at least, hopefully we can adapt and improve doing Internet Governance online over the coming months; because one thing that is very clear is that while impacted by COVID-19, effective, multistakeholder Internet Governance is more important than ever due to the critical role the Internet is playing in the world during the pandemic.