Beyond Multistakeholder Tokenism: A Provisional examination of participation in the IGF

By Anri van der Spuy & Pablo Agüera Reneses

The COVID-19 pandemic is the first pandemic the world has experienced in a datafied age. It has emphasised the importance of addressing digital inequalities and ensuring that the Internet can proffer equal opportunities to everyone. Internet governance processes that are inclusive and responsive to the needs of the digitally marginalised are critical to achieving this. Yet as the Internet becomes increasingly central to societies and economies around the world, the complexity and nature of related governance challenges we are faced with have also expanded. At the same time, expectations of participation in the Internet’s governance have shifted.

Since the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was founded in 2006, it has emphasized multistakeholder participation in the forum. Yet has the IGF evolved alongside the rapid changes in how the internet works since then? Has it kept up with the expectations of participation from stakeholders and even those excluded from the forum? Is it sufficiently diverse, equitable, meaningful, and inclusive today to effectively deal with the array of issues Internet governance is
confronted with?

In an attempt to address some of these questions, this analysis set out to examine the evolution of participation in the IGF – the nature and extent of participation, and barriers to participation. However, the limited data made available to RIA meant that we had to scale down this aim to an analysis of basic questions on participation. These nevertheless show some useful trends.

The data indicate that participation in annual IGFs has increased and become partially more diverse over time. It suggests that the location of an annual IGF does not have a significant impact on overall participation rates, although it does impact the geographic diversity of participation; that civil society participation is greater than the participation of other stakeholder groups; that while government participation has remained stable, there has been some increase in the participation of the private sector and the technical community since 2017; that participation from LDCs remains consistently low; and that there has been a steady increase in the number of women participating in the IGF. It further suggests that mailing lists are not always an effective tool to encourage participation from diverse stakeholders, with the majority of participants being IGF staff.

Given inconsistencies in the data sets Research ICT Africa (RIA) had access to, the analysis is only provisional and more work needs to be done to understand the true extent of diversity and participation. For example, the data available fail to tell us much about participation from underrepresented groups and the barriers they might face, about people with disabilities, about constraints to online participation, about diversity in perspectives within stakeholder groups, about linguistic diversity, or about which government departments are attending annual meetings, and how actively they are participating.

As more nuanced investigations into these and other questions on the basis of better information are necessary before any conclusive findings and proposals can be made, the report concludes with the recommendation that the IGF Secretariat or multistakeholder advisory group (MAG) consider creating a dedicated task force or working group to ensure the IGF consistently and meaningfully gathers data on all IGF activities. The purpose of this would be to better inform efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in the IGF and to improve the IGF’s work and outcomes.

Suggested citation

Van Der Spuy, A., & Agüera Reneses, P. (2021). Beyond multistakeholder tokenism: A Provisional examination of Participation in the IGF. Research ICT Africa.

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