The World Economic Forum and Internet Governance

By Gangesh Varma

The World Economic Forum (WEF) held its annual meeting at Davos from 20-23 January, 2016. The theme of the meeting was ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’ which referred to advent of new technologies that converge “the physical, digital and biological worlds” to create seamless ‘cyber-physical systems’. Some of the main sessions and discussions were on the digital economy, privacy, internet fragmentation etc. While these are concerns that affect internet users currently, they will determine the future of the Internet and its users.

The WEF’s interaction with the Internet and its governance is not restricted to these discussions at the annual meetings. It was instrumental in launching the NETMundial Initiative (NMI) in collaboration with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), and the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee (CGI.br). The WEF which was founded in 1971 has always promoted a ‘stakeholder’ management approach, which essentially based corporate success on managers taking account of all interests. This would mean not merely restricting it to immediate interests such as shareholders, clients and customers, but employees and the communities within which they operate, including government. The natural extension of this can be seen in the WEF’s strong support for a multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance. This can be seen from its various reports and initiatives like the NMI and the Future of the Internet.

As the internet permeates deeper into the socio-economic fabric of human society it impacts various sectors. As a consequence, global fora that did not traditionally discuss the internet are impacted by it. This results in a growing number of fora that eventually discuss internet governance or any of its components. Among these, the WEF as a platform for collaboration may be considered old, but it was formally recognized as an international organization only last year. In the larger matrix of internet governance institutions and processes the WEF is merely one more addition. However, the WEF comes with extensive criticism for being a platform that is limited to an elite few while its relevance has often been debated. It has been called out for its hypocrisy while talking climate change, gender parity and inequality.

These ironies undermine the legitimacy of the discussions and outputs from such fora. It also affects the multistakeholder initiatives they support. An interesting study hypothesizes the situation of a ‘cyber davos’ in 2025 where the world’s largest internet companies and leaders gather to celebrate the first anniversary of the internet Free Trade Agreement (iFTA) . The group that conducted this study identified some of the potential threats of such a scenario as:

  • Increased dominance of big business in global Internet governance
  • Less economic innovation and creation of monopolies,
  • Marginalization of civil society groups in Internet governance policy making,
  • Exclusion of developing countries from Internet governance policy making,
  • Increase of income inequality domestically, and between the Global North and South and
  • Democratic institutions weakened by excessive lobbying

Unsurprisingly, these potential risks do not seem too far into the future if the multi-stakeholder approach is not reformed. In fact they resonate with most critiques of multi-stakeholder models. The support for multi-stakeholder approaches has grown as evidenced by the agreed outcome document of the WSIS+10 Review Process. However, the negotiations and consultations have revealed many aspects that need reform. ICANN’s CEO, Fadi Chehadé’s pitch at Davos was on the enormous impact of the Internet on global economic growth, and the importance of the Internet as an engine of growth. Fadi is scheduled to leave ICANN in March, 2016 and enter his role as Senior Advisor to the Executive Chairman of the WEF. One can only hope that while the WEF addresses its critics, it will also invest in reforming the multi-stakeholder approach it promotes in the internet governance arena.

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