In Geneva, Reading the Sub-Text of Internet Diplomacy

Walking through the foyer that leads to the Popov Room at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) headquarters in Geneva, you can see the Brazilians – both diplomats and civil society representatives — congregating for their customary chat between sessions. In another corner, Russian diplomats in attendance are poring over the week’s schedule. ITU staff are busy chatting up delegates, keen to ensure momentum from the successful Plenipot in Busan last year is carried over to the WSIS Forum as well.

The WSIS Forum 2015, which began here today, is a platform for dialogue and does not articulate policies or positions. However, an outcome document could emerge from this summit, and a number of high-level statements – including at the ministerial level — will be made over the next few days. Here are the outcome documents from previous WSIS Forums.

The Forum comes at a sensitive time during key internet governance negotiations. The IANA transition draft proposals – both from the Names and Accountability working groups – are on the table. They repudiate the idea of an external oversight mechanism, and suggest ICANN could be the permanent custodian of the right to contract IANA functions, while continuing as the IANA operator for now. Changes to the root zone, according to the proposal, would no longer require authorisation from the United States government.  Given that they are somewhat at odds with the NTIA’s stated aim of transitioning IANA oversight to “global stakeholders”, how these proposals are received outside of the United States will be crucial to the legitimacy of the process.

The WSIS Forum is one such opportunity to, as they say in diplomatese, “measure the temperature” of the situation. Unlike several UN or ITU events, the Forum is not a purely inter-governmental platform. (Like the Plenipot, however, several high-level discussions and workshops are closed to the public or by invitation only). The WSIS universe is also populated differently from ICANN meetings, especially in terms of a more diverse, international civil society in attendance. Panel sessions and the informal discussions that follow will serve as a useful opportunity to evaluate the IANA transition proposals – diplomats here will relay information to their counterparts in the ICANN GAC, as will telecom industry representatives and bureaucrats to their respective constituencies at home.

Internet governance is among the key subjects of the WSIS+10 review, and the week-long Forum may influence the tone and tenor of WSIS Action Lines. The Geneva Plan, which serves as the fountainhead of the Action Lines, is confined to the first phase of WSIS. The WSIS+10 assessment marks the end of its second (Tunis) phase, opening the doors for stakeholders to negotiate the future course of action lines.

Second and more importantly, the Forum is an important pit stop in the run-up to the high-level summit at the UN General Assembly in December. The summit is a political forum attended by heads of state, and as is wont in diplomacy, UN events before December will be used by diplomats and political aides for leg work, coordination among allies, etc. In other words: follow not just the WSIS panels, but watch out for information wafting from the corridors here at UNHQ in Geneva. Watch this space for more.

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