David SouterDavid Souter, Visiting Senior Fellow in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE, looks at the Internet governance arrangement known as “enhanced cooperation”. This post builds on an earlier piece that he wrote for the Media Policy Project based on his experience as an independent expert in ICT and Internet policy.

Last December the UN General Assembly agreed to set up the latest in a series of working groups to discuss ‘enhanced cooperation… to enable governments, on an equal footing, to carry out their roles and responsibilities in international public policy issues pertaining to the Internet.’

‘Enhanced cooperation’, for some, is a fixation; for others a distraction. What does it mean? And what should this new working group now do? We need to start by understanding origins.

So what does it mean, ‘enhanced cooperation’?

‘Enhanced cooperation’, like the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), was part of the compromise on the future of the Internet at WSIS in 2005. Agreement could not be reached on the governance of critical Internet resources, including the domain name system. ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), for some governments, was little more than an adjunct of the United States. Some wanted the Internet brought within the ambit of an intergovernmental (or multilateral) agency such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Others were, as they remain, determined to keep the Internet free from intergovernmental oversight. As well as dividing governments, this was (and is) therefore a tussle between multilateral and multistakeholder approaches to the Internet.

The term worked at the time because of its creative ambiguity: like many UN outcomes it meant different things to different folks. But the contests that it overlay were, and still are, unresolved. Several UN initiatives and working groups have failed to reach consensus on it since the Summit. Some governments (and civil society activists) claim that nothing’s changed since WSIS: that governments, particularly developing country governments, can’t play a substantive role in Internet decisions because there is no proper intergovernmental forum. Others suggest that diverse multistakeholder initiatives represent a lot of ‘enhanced cooperation’ that’s already taking place.

Another working group takes on the task

The working group commissioned by the General Assembly last December – now being established by the UN’s Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) – is the latest attempt to break this logjam. More than forty participants, the majority from governments, a minority from other stakeholders, will spend a year picking the question over. But are their prospects better than their predecessors?

The problem is that this debate just isn’t moving on. Many participants are dug into entrenched positions. Those who do seek compromise or fresh ideas find it hard to gain them traction. The risk is that this latest working group will continue arguments (about ICANN and other issues) that have proved intractable for a decade rather than tackling the problems of the Internet today. This is, I would suggest, in no-one’s interest.

What are the risks?

First, the Internet today is very different from 2005, and so’s its governance. Key issues today include datafication and the Internet of Things, the concentration of data management and economic power in global corporations, the rise of algorithmic decision-making, and the impact of these on peoples’, governments’ and businesses’ opportunities, rights and interactions. If enhanced cooperation’s to be worthwhile, it needs to deal with these rather than preoccupations from the time of WSIS.

In any case, the central issue that led to the adoption of ‘enhanced cooperation’ at WSIS has changed. ICANN has gone through one structural transformation; increased the role for governments; and is about to undergo another, more drastic change, through the recently-agreed IANA transition.

What might make cooperation more enhanced?

I’ve argued elsewhere that ‘enhanced cooperation’ has become a cul-de-sac; and that the best way to make progress from a cul-de-sac is to back out of it and seek alternative ways forward. So what might help the latest working group make progress and identify alternatives?

One way would be to redefine the problem. ‘Enhanced cooperation’, as a term, carries the baggage of a decade of intractability. What ‘cooperation’, anyway, should be ‘enhanced’?: what there was (or wasn’t) in 2005?; or what there is today? Better to redefine the issue as, merely, ‘cooperation’ – more forward-looking, with less baggage.

Another would be for stakeholders of all kinds to explore fresh ways of looking at the underlying issues – the role of governments in the governance of a changing Internet; and the relationship between multilateral and multistakeholder approaches, which is more assured in rhetoric than in reality. Some worthwhile suggestions on this were made at the CSTD’s annual meeting in Geneva, early May. Here are two that might prove positive, if enough of those involved in the working group are prepared to take them up.

One came from the British delegation. It’s suggested that the working group be organised in two phases. Initially, it should step back from arguments around entrenched positions, and look instead for basic principles on which all can agree. If it can reach consensus on a few basic ideas, these could gradually be elaborated, examples of good practice be identified, and progress made in finding a framework for forward-looking ‘enhanced cooperation’, oriented at tomorrow’s problems not at yesterday’s.

Comparison might be made here with the Working Group on Internet Governance which forged consensus between the two phases of WSIS. Or, as an attempt to establish basic principles, with the NetMundial event in Brazil, 2014.

The second suggestion, which came from leading civil society advocates including APC, would address the tension between the multilateral and multistakeholder. Governments’ roles in ICANN have broadened, through its Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) over the last decade. Governments necessarily play a more extensive role as the Internet becomes more central to most areas of public policy. Why not, it was suggested, establish a multilateral track within the IGF as well, as a way of taking enhanced cooperation forward? Why not, it was suggested, explore enhanced cooperation’s meaning in less contested areas, like the Sustainable Development Goals?

Of course, for some within the process, suggestions like these will be inadequate. But what they just might also be are ways in which enhanced cooperation‘s stakeholders can back out of intractability and find those other ways to move forward that are needed. Arguments over membership of the working group at this month’s CSTD were unpromisingly acrimonious. But might some governments, businesses and civil society organisations reach beyond that acrimony and rekindle the spirit of the WGIG?

This blog gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

This post first appeared on the website of the Association for Progressive Communications, and is reproduced here with permission and thanks.