As internet governance meetings go virtual, compromise becomes harder to reach

Asia-Pacific internet address registry strategist says smaller nations get better access – when their broadband works

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The move to virtual meetings among internet governance bodies has had mixed results, according to Joyce Chen, a senior advisor for strategic engagement at the Asia-Pacific internet registry APNIC.

Writing on the APNIC Blog, Chen said that APNIC has recently been involved in numerous international meetings with the International Telecommunications Union, United Nations and other governance bodes, and observed: “One of the advantages of a fully virtual format is greater representation and diversity of participants.”

“Previously, physical intergovernmental meetings were represented by a select few per economy that could afford to travel to these closed-door meetings. Economies with smaller travel budgets and small delegations tend to be at a disadvantage in terms of getting their views adequately represented.”

But smaller nations may have another problem: unreliable internet access.

“However, virtual meetings have also brought to light the problems of unequal last-mile connectivity,” Chen wrote. “Connectivity issues can present a governance risk when not all views are properly registered.”

She also worried that virtual meetings don’t allow for side conversations and therefore make it hard to reach compromises.

“In addition, virtual meetings do not lend themselves well to effective ‘corridor chats’, where many private conversations and negotiations take place at the sidelines of the meeting. The lack of corridor diplomacy affects participants’ ability to network, negotiate language or text for declarations and resolutions, or share information in a private setting.”

“Remote participants in a virtual meeting generally come with pre-baked positions that sometimes become intractable due to the lack of opportunities for proper engagement,” she added, “What results is the inability to reach a compromise in an effective and efficient manner.”

Which ironically leaves the internet as both an enabler of ongoing internet governance meetings and a problem for their conduct.

Chen opines that collaborative drafting or side chats could improve matters in future.

“Although there is no rulebook or set of guidelines for engagement in a fully virtual environment, necessity dictates that policymakers will need to continue to adapt and evolve new rules of engagement to cope with this ‘new normal’,” she concluded. ®

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