Participation matters: Potential effects of the IGF on internet governance capacity building

By Brandie M. Nonnecke and Dmitry Epstein

Now over a decade in existence, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) continues to convene thousands from around the world at its annual meeting. Stakeholders from academia, civil society, government, technical community and private sector come together to explore and deliberate the most pressing internet governance issues — from the extremely technical such as domain name system to critical social issues around diversity and inclusion online.

Transnational in scale and diverse in its scope, the IGF supports deliberation about internet governance among stakeholders, albeit without binding or prescriptive outcomes. As such, it attracts a wide range of responses from the highly critical, claiming that the IGF is merely a “talk shop” potentially detrimental to substantive debates about internet governance, to the highly supportive that paint the IGF as a transformative institution of multistakeholder engagement with its intrinsic value lying in providing a unique space for deliberation of complexities of internet governance.

The IGF neither produces binding outcomes nor recommendations. Yet, its mandate includes strengthening and enhancing “the engagement of stakeholders” and “capacity building for internet governance” with an emphasis on developing countries.¹ Building on social and political theory, we unpack the potential intangible outcomes of the IGF by focusing on perceived and actual knowledge about internet governance, internet governance self efficacy — or the belief in one’s ability to achieve her goals within the internet governance domain — and trust in internet-governance-related institutions. All three factors are important for effective engagement in policy deliberation and decision-making.

We designed a pre- and post-survey to measure possible impacts of participation in the IGF on knowledge of internet governance issues, perceived self-efficacy in influencing internet governance issues, and perceptions of trustworthiness of different institutions related to internet governance. Surveys were distributed before and after the 2016 IGF held in Guadalajara, Mexico through internet governance-related listservs (e.g., GigaNet, Internet Society, Internet Governance Caucus, IGF Dynamic Coalitions).

A total of 150 individuals completed the survey, with 50 individuals completing both the pre- and post-survey, 64 completing only the pre-survey, and 36 completing only the post-survey. Majority of participants, 70%, identified as male, 29% as female, and the rest as other. Nearly half of participants, 47%, were from high-income countries, 17% were from upper-middle-income countries, and 35% were from lower-middle-income countries.² Nearly half of all respondents, 51%, identified as representatives in civil society; 46% in academia and education; 29% in business sector; 23% in technical community; 13% in government; 10% in international or intergovernmental organizations; and 6% in other, mostly noting that they represented either themselves or media.³ Almost 37% of the respondents attended 2 or more global IGFs in the past.

To capture changes in knowledge, we asked participants⁴ to both assess their own expertise in a series of internet governance topics and asked them a series of factual knowledge questions. While the differences in pre- and post-IGF metrics were not statistically significant for both perceived and actual knowledge, the average score for the former went slightly down after participation in the IGF, while the average score for the latter went up. This, somewhat counterintuitive observation may indicate an interesting dynamic whereby participants gain internet governance knowledge, but at the same time develop an understanding of breadth of internet governance issues and opinions, making them more critical of their own expertise.

We measured changes in trust by capturing three different dimensions: general trust in internet-governance-related institutions, trust in explicit institutions of internet governance, and trust in institutions making structural decisions about the IGF itself. First, we observed statistically significant differences in all three dimensions we measured. In general, our participants were more likely to trust civil society compared to the private or the public sectors. When it comes to making internet governance decisions, our participants tended to trust the i-organizations (IETF, IGF, ICANN) more, compared to UN organizations (UNESCO, DESA, ITU, UNGA), with the lowest trust placed in their national governments and WTO. As to making decisions about the IGF itself, the participants trusted themselves, the IGF secretariat, and the IGF MAG more, compared to UN organizations that govern the IGF within the UN structure.

While there was no statistically significant change in the dimensions of trust between pre- and post- surveys, there were marginal, but consistent shifts in averages that suggest potential avenues for future research. Thus, for example, average general trust in the UN and multinational corporations went up in the post-survey. Similarly average trust in DESA and the IGF itself has increased between pre- and post-surveys. More nuanced analysis should provide more insight into those dynamics.

Most interesting, however, is the impact of participation in the IGF on internet governance self-efficacy. In our study we observed a statistically significant increase in self-efficacy between the pre- and post-IGF surveys. This is an important finding because self-efficacy lies at the basis of any meaningful participation in political processes. More analysis is needed of course, but even this preliminary observation suggests that broadening the scope of what we mean by IGF impact is necessary.

Our readers should keep in mind that we worked with a self-selected, rather small sample. As a result, our preliminary findings suggest directions for potential influence of the IGF, but mostly raise additional questions. For example, the strong preference in trusting the civil society or the i-organizations may be a reflection of our sample, rather than the entire population of IGF participants. Similarly, lack of significant changes over time in trust and knowledge may be indicative of survey respondents coming from the more knowledgeable and affluent spheres of the IGF. Those changes may become more pronounced with a more comprehensive and representative sampling of IGF participants.

With that being said, our initial findings are promising in pointing towards the need for a deeper and more comprehensive look into potential impacts of the IGF. As a dynamic and continuously evolving arrangement, the IGF could benefit from developing a consistent and reliable framework for data collection about its participants and their engagement. Making such data available to impartial researchers will not only allow the IGF community to reflect on its own composition and practices, but it will also be an impetus for future improvement and development. In the meantime, the 2017 IGF is now underway. If you’re not able to participate on site, you should participate online. After all, participation matters.

Brandie Nonnecke is a postdoctoral researcher at CITRIS and the Banatao Institute at UC Berkeley. Check out her research at nonnecke.com

Dmitry Epstein is an assistant professor of digital policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Check out his research at thinkmacro.org


¹ For the full mandate, see: http://www.intgovforum.org/cms/aboutigf
² Classification based on World Bank Data as it is extrapolated by the International Sociological Association: http://www.isa-sociology.org/en/about-isa/membership/table-of-economies-by-category/
³ Participants were able to select more than one stakeholder category to identify themselves. Almost half of the respondents identified themselves within more than one stakeholder category.
⁴ Note: Participation in the Internet Governance Forum includes onsite and online participation.