[Governance] Fwd: Calling for ISOC to not associate with the nomination process for IGF Leadership Panel

Andrew Sullivan sullivan at isoc.org
Tue Nov 30 10:37:05 EST 2021

Dear colleagues,

In reply to Parminder's email, I have sent the following.  I forward it here because, since his note was effectively an open letter, I think it requires an open reply:

Dear Parminder,

Thanks for your note.  I had already seen the letter you and Milton sent to the UN Secretary General, but I appreciate you bringing it to my attention specifically.

You are quite correct that the Internet Society previously opposed a proposal to create a panel like the one that has been announced, and that we oppose this Leadership Panel.  The Internet Society will not, as the Internet Society, nominate anyone to the panel.  In addition, no staff members shall participate in the panel.  There is a semi-formal group called the Internet Technical Collaboration Group, which has George Sadowsky (in his personal capacity) as its chair, and for which we provide minimal secretariat services.  It is possible that group will nominate someone, but it will not be a nomination from the Internet Society as such.

Given the clear expressions made during the public comment and the UN decision to proceed anyway, I am sad to say I think it is a waste of time to appeal to the Secretary General again, so I will not be writing.  It seems to me we have to accommodate ourselves to this change in the nature of the Internet Governance Forum.  That does not mean supporting or nominating potential members.  We will of course monitor the group's activity, especially if it seems likely to threaten the Internet.

Some would argue that it would be better to try to join this panel and influence it from the inside.  My view is that such participation would convey a kind of legitimacy to the Leadership Panel that I do not believe it can have.  Let me explain.

When the Internet emerged as a large-scale social phenomenon in the 1990s, there was a great deal of contention about who would be in charge.  This is to be expected with a large, transformative technology.  Moreover, the early history of the Internet may have tended to encourage the idea of someone being "in charge", since of course the earliest Internet sites were all under the supervision of the US DoD.

Over time, however, everyone seemed to come to realize that, in a network of networks, it is not really possible to establish who is in charge: since there is no centre, there is no centre of control.  Instead, we had to work out always-contingent consensus approaches, using forums like the IGF to identify issues and figure out who might be able to address them.  This, of course, is a parallel to the fundamental operational realities of the Internet's design.  And it tended, I think, to be reinforced by the nature of the burgeoning Internet: there were just so many players that ruling by authority would be impractical.

Something has become gradually more apparent, however: with consolidation and concentration on the Internet, it becomes logistically realistic to get "the important players" into a room.  Realistically, when the number of firms with overwhelming traffic dominance on the Internet falls to perhaps 20 or fewer, it is tempting to squeeze those firms and just treat everything else as mostly unimportant noise.  And this is, of course, a pattern that is discernable in various acts both by governments, and by very large firms who are clamoring for regulation.  Industrial history teaches us that, when a large incumbent insists it needs regulation, it is unlikely to be an effort to ensure the market is open to new players.

So, those of us who believe in the open, globally-connected, secure, and trustworthy Internet are now engaged in the fight of our lives.  Our vision of the Internet is being supplanted, really, by a giant corporatist enclosure movement.  It aims to turn the Internet into a well-controlled, sanitized utility, operated overwhelmingly by a few large, trustworthy organizations at the behest of this or that government.  Probably such a utility would have different properties in different places and would interoperate in the more-awkward, more geopolitically-oriented manner of the old telephone system than like the Internet we are used to.  It would likely not be the infrastructure of empowered edges that we have known in the opening stages of the Internet.  It wouldn't, really, be an internet at all, even though people will probably still call it "internet".  I do not believe we are too late to stop this from coming true, but we are definitely at a late hour.

Under these circumstances, I think it would be dangerous to participate in—or support in any way—a Leadership Panel that is practically tailor-made for Internet-enclosure thinking.  As designed, it is a group of Important People, where the selection criteria are opaque and the remit is vague.  It will inevitably be under pressure to support Internet enclosure, and given the political sensitivity of many of the panelists' "day jobs" the panel as a whole will almost certainly have to bow to that pressure.  This will be true, in my opinion, no matter how worthy and independent-minded I think are many of the nominees I have heard suggested.  The institutional design is fundamentally wrong, and I cannot support it.

I have a number of thoughts about how the IGF could more effectively pursue the useful job it has.  I have shared those previously with people who I thought might be in a position to try to undertake some of it, and I won't reproduce it here, except to note ruefully that I was apparently not convincing enough.

Best regards,


On Mon, Nov 29, 2021 at 01:35:02PM +0530, parminder wrote:
>Dear Andrew,
>Please find enclosed a letter addressed to the UN Secretary General that
>Milton Mueller's and my organization wrote recently seeking the rollback
>of the decision to set up an IGF Leadership Panel (LP). The letter also
>appeals to civil society and technical community groups to not associate
>with nomination process for the LP. 
>As you know, in the public consultations on the issue, most civil
>society groups and technical community had opposed any such new high
>level groups being formed outside the MAG.
> ISOC was clear in asserting
>    "...as we have indicated in previous contributions to the UN HLPDC
>    process, ISOC is not convinced that a new higher-level body of
>    representatives needs to be established."
>The official summary of the responses
>to the public consultation on creation of a Multistakeholder High Level
>Body (MHLB) itself says:
>    "Broadly speaking, the option that seems to have received the most
>    support is to create the MHLB within the MAG."
>To put it in other words, creation of an MHLB outside the MAG did not
>have much or enough support.
>Soon after these public consultations, the UN Secretary General goes
>right ahead and creates a MHLB outside the MAG, in the form of a IGF
>Leadership Panel.
>I do not see the point in doing a public consultation when one is not
>going to go by its outcomes, and in any case impose one's will on the
>public -- in this case in the form of IGF LP.
>The announcement for establishing an LP has been received with great
>dismay among civil society and technical community groups.
>*A civil society nomination process, involving the main civil society
>groups and networks most engaged with global IG processes, which was set
>up with a clear declaration that it did not amount to an endorsement of
>the LP, still collapsed after a few days because there was not enough
>support from the community. *
>Anyway, that is for the UN Secretary General to consider.
>My appeal is to those who clearly opposed such a body during the
>consultation, like ISOC did, to write to the UN SG, opposing ( on a
>procedural count) his decision to ignore the outcomes of the public
>consultation, and (on a substantive count) his decision to form the IGF
>Leadership Panel.
>In fully ignoring the views of the 'stakeholder community', the UN SG
>has clearly gone against the basic tenets of multistakeholderism.
>Whether ISOC stands for multistakeholderism or not depends on whether it
>is ready to stand up and speak against such blatant violation of
>multistakeholder principles and practice. Such a strong and
>well-respected body cannot accept such things - with a fundamental
>impact on the future of global IG ecosystem - just because they have now
>been ordained by the powers-that-be. ISOC cannot allow itself to be
>cowed down in such matters. The world is watching. 
>The least that ISOC can do at this stage is to not enter into a process
>of providing nominations for constituting the IGF LP. At least not do it
>in the very first round of LP processes itself, just a few months after
>it opposed the formation of such a body. This would compromise ISOC's
>moral authority and practical strength with respect to global IG.
>There is after all no point in making a clamor for multistakholderism if
>the involved groups and people cannot speak up when the voice of
>multi-stakeholder community is ignored,  and new structures of Internet
>governance contrary to its majority view are imposed on it. It would be
>an even bigger travesty if the community then meekly begins to almost
>immediately participate in providing nominations for the very structures
>(LP) they spoke against.
>I do not know whether ISOC is sending nominations for the LP, but if it
>is, we would like to appeal to you to not do so. Even if nominations
>have already been sent, we appeal to you to withdraw them.
>*This is a good time to be reminded of the stellar role ISOC played in a
>somewhat similar situation when an attempt was made to put up a new IG
>body at the World Economic Forum, as an extremely ill-advised follow-up
>to the Net Mundial conference. ISOC had at that time stoutly opposed the
>formation of any such new body, and it was considerably owing to ISOC's
>opposition that the WEF based IG body eventually did not come to pass.
>*I shudder to think where we would have been now with the anchor of
>global IG being at the WEF. *
>I will like ISOC to once again employ its moral leadership in the area
>of global IG ecosystem, and refuse to accept the new IG body being
>foisted upon us in the face of clearly expressed public opinion against it.
>Happy to engage further on this issue.
>Best regards,
>IT for Change, and Just Net Coalition

Andrew Sullivan
President & CEO, Internet Society
sullivan at isoc.org
+1 416 731 1261

Andrew Sullivan
President & CEO, Internet Society
sullivan at isoc.org
+1 416 731 1261

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