As I write this I am flying back to New York from Athens where I attended the first ever Internet Governance Forum. It’s been a tremendous experience that I feel very fortunate to have been able to be a part of.
What follows is a quick flyover of how the whole deal went down and where its going from here.
The UN-sponsored Internet Governance Forum brought together 800-some people to the Divania Apollon Palace Hotel in the swank Vouliaghmeni neighborhood of Athens from October 30-November 2. The point of the IGF was to create a multi-sector space for various constituencies to gather to discuss cutting edge issues of Internet public policy. With no real decision-making mandate, the success of the new Forum depends largely on whether it is a useful arena for governments, businesses, and NGOs to coordinate with each other, to work together to craft better Internet policies nationally and internationally. If this first IGF meeting achieved that is still an open question.
What I can say is that the Internet Governance Forum could become an innovative space where some new possibilities for breakthroughs on intractible challenges of the Internet might emerge. Already the format and structure of the Forum was a fairly dramatic break from typical UN process.
First off, there were no clear divisions between government, private sector and civil society. Everyone was issued the same color badge, which is a bigger deal than you might think. There were no special areas that only governments had access to. We all sat in the same seating area with no nameplates announcing our affiliations.
All of the sessions were designed to be multi-stakeholder dialogues, with moderators to guide a discussion beyond the usual pre-packaged speeches re-iterating the public positions of various institutions. Side-events and workshops were also supposed to be multi-stakeholder events, and new initiatives coming out of the Forum should be in the form of “dynamic coalitions” of different constituencies.
Beyond the conference halls, an online dialogue was also supposed to be taking place, facilitated by blog, discussion forum, email, SMS and pre-recorded video submissions.
So the overall message was: let’s all be one happy family of Internet policy-makers.
The real event of course didn’t work out quite as nicely as that. There was grumbling from government diplomats who were sometimes quite snappishly reprimanded by the moderators for going on too long or speaking on a topic not on the agenda. Many participants in panels and workshops couldn’t help themselves and gave pre-packaged speeches instead of engaging in a more free-form discussion. Online interaction was hampered by the frequently non-functional wifi.
On the plus side, it does seem that the Forum was effective in getting at the real nut of several problems in Internet policy, from enabling multi-lingual content to freedom of expression to cyber-crime to the high cost of internet access for users in the developing world.
I was very impressed with the discussion in the “openness” session on the potential role of corporations in encouraging countries to be more open and democratic – from Google in China to Diebold in the United States. What could have become just a shouting match between a representative of the Chinese delegation and a human rights activist from Rapporteurs Sans Frontieres turned into something a bit more nuanced and I think productive. I think there was an appreciation for the difficulties faced by even well-meaning corporations such as Google to act ethically in this space.
On the last day of the Forum, there was a “summing up” session where various groups announced initiatives coming out of the IGF. At least five “dynamic coalitions” were announced on the issues of:
- Open Access to Knowledge and Free Expression
- Open Standards
- An Internet “Bill of Rights”
- and a “Framework Convention” for the Internet
More pertinent to my own work, a new collaborative body for academics involved in Internet Governance was formed called “Giganet.” The group will continue to communicate and work together using various ICT tools, including possibly an online publication and research papers in preparation for the next IGF meeting next year.
Much was made of the open nature of the first IGF, being open to really the participation of anyone who could get themselves to the meeting, and in a limited fashion to those who could participate online. However it was clear that many from the developing world would not be able to participate in the future without some support. Izumi Aizu of the Japanese NGO Glocom has proposed the creation of a dynamic coalition on funding for the IGF, with a particular focus on raising funds to support developing country participation.
The next three IGF meetings have already been decided: Rio in 2007, India in 2008 and Egypt in 2009. The next meeting in Brazil will take place from November 12-15, 2007.
What exactly will be the process between now and the next forum is not quite clear. There are at least the possibilities of some online discussions and collaborations continuing, with Jeremy Malcolm, a graduate student in Australia, announcing that the website www.igf2006.info will continue to be available for participants to work together.
But once everyone has returned home, and new events and developments start to pile up, whether or not the IGF will be seen as a useful space for collaboration is still an open question. From civil society, I can say there are definitely actors willing to try. We’ll have to see if governments and business feel the same.