Why you’ll always regret not going to the IGF

I was grabbed after the recent IGF meeting in London by a young bloke who told me he was from some organisation in London that tried to involve and educate about various developing country issues. He wanted to involve “southern” journalists – by which I assumed he meant south-of-Equator – in the IGF.

I told him great and started trying to persuade him to contribute to the IGF blog I had just set up. He didn’t seem so keen on that as he had his own blog to push. Anyway, Murali Shanmugavelan – I have his card here – got back to me and asked if I would write a piece for his blog “introducing the Internet Governance Forum and why it matters to southern journalists”.

I said sure, and here it is. I quite like it. The catch is to appeal to journalists but I think it holds true for everyone.

Update: Check out the IGF2006.info website for all the info you need about the IGF meeting in Athens.


Why you’ll always regret not going to the IGF

By Kieren McCarthy

One of the greatest pleasures – and priviledges – of journalism is that you can, very occasionally, find yourself sitting in the middle of history while it is being made.

Sometimes you knew it would happen and just had to get there. Sometimes you suddenly discover it is happening while you are in the room. But most of the time you only realise months or even years afterwards that it occurred in front of your very eyes – and you got to tell the rest of the world about it.

The Internet Governance Forum, which will take place in less than two weeks in Athens, is, I believe, going to be one of those times.

You can find a million different perspectives on the Internet but the one thing that everyone from Washington to Windhoek can agree on is that this vast, global network of computers is going to have an enormous impact on human beings in every corner of the planet.

The Internet has already been behind revolutionary changes in the societies and economies in which access to it is abundant. And the advantages it has brought – none more extraordinary than the ability for anyone to share almost any form of information with extraordinary ease – has seen those countries not linked to the network clamouring for connections.

It is also extremely clear that the Internet is at a crossroads. It has become so influential that all the passions and tensions that the human condition has thrust upon civilisations for thousands of years have exploded onto the Net. It is no longer possible to ignore them by referring to the technical underpinings and history of the Internet.

It is for this reason that the Internet Governance Forum has been set up. The Forum will run for five years, moving to a different country each year, and it will be the place where the world meets and gathers and discusses what should be done with a global phenomenon.

If 2006 seems several years too late, that’s because it is. The first official meeting held in an effort to address the problems and issues that the Internet was throwing up, took place in Bamako in May 2002. A few months later, a preparatory conference was held in the United Nations headquarters in Geneva. Then more meetings in Romania, Japan, Lebanon, before eventually a summit in Geneva in December 2003.

It soon became clear that the problem was much bigger than anticipated and the Geneva summit, it was widely agreed, would have to act as part one. Part two would take place in Tunisia in two years’ time, giving everyone more time to draw up plans. In that preparation, there were dozens more meetings across the world involving tens of thousands of people, all of whom attempted to explain how the Internet had affected their lives and how they were trying to incorporate this network in their daily lives and national laws.

The World Summit on the Information Society was then held in Tunis in November 2005. It was overshadowed by a diplomatic fight over the United States’ continued oversight role at the top of the Internet but, almost unnoticed at the time, the years of dialogue had led to an extraordinary conclusion by the world’s governments: that the Internet had, by its very nature, created the situation where governments were no longer the people best equipped to deal with the problems that it was causing them.

Because the Net can be used, and is used, by every sector and strata of society equally, it had slowly become obvious that the traditional way of deciding issues across the world – by putting government representatives in a room with name-paddles and earpieces – wasn’t going to work with the Internet. And so the governments were left with no option but to build an entirely new model from the ground up in which ordinary people and businesses were given as much right to talk, and were granted as much access to information as anyone else.

The UN Secretary General himself, Kofi Annan, saw what had happened and welcomed in a new era of global decision-making where all sectors of society stood alongside one another in reaching a decision. The governments created the Internet Governance Forum – the first time any such body had been purposefully formulated since ancient times. It is perhaps fitting then that the first meeting of the IGF will be held in Greece.

The term you will hear is “multi-stakeholder”. It means that the Internet’s problems will be solved by those who use it. But don’t be fooled into thinking this is a comfortable concept for anyone: the IGF’s formation has confused, terrified and excited all participants in equal measure. No one knows if, over four days, a new model not only for Internet governance but also global governance will be formed – or if the whole thing will collapse in on itself and be dismissed as a noble but flawed experiment.

Governments have refused to pay for it, so has business. The Advisory Group convened to decide its ground rules has been a microcosm of conflicting cultures that has only been forced into action by a series of impending and unavoidable deadlines. Even now, less than a fortnight before the conference is due to take place, the list of speakers remains undecided. The venue itself was only decided at the last minute and the organisers now fear it will not be big enough. And some of those within the process itself are so uncomfortable with the new approach, they are willing it to fail.

And yet, despite the fears and concerns and confusion, an enormous determination has grown up in an unlikely alliance of people from all creeds, colours, races and backgrounds that the IGF is the way forward because, despite their nervousness, it somehow feels rights…

Like I said, sometimes you know when history will happen and it’s just a matter of getting there. Other times, it suddenly happens in front of you. But most of the time, the full impact of what you have witnessed only becomes clear months or years down the line. And you got to tell the rest of the world about it.

The Internet Governance Forum will be held at the Divani Apollo Palace & Spa on the Greek coastline at Vouliagmeni, 10 miles from the centre of Athens, between 30 October and 2 November 2006.

  1. Who says that the Forum will run for five years? I’m not challenging the statement, just asking. It is not found in the Tunis Agenda or in the Secretary-General’s message convening the IGF or its Secretariat or the Advisory Group. Is this another example of policy by pronouncement by the Secretariat? If so, I can’t even find the pronouncement!

  2. Ah. Now I’m sure that it is written that the IGF will “run no longer than five years” before being reviewed. And that has been widely interpreted as “if it’s not a disaster, we will have five of them”.

    Of course, it could all be scrapped after this first year. And you can bet that with the ITU Plenipotentiary taking place on 24 November, a meeting which only happens every four years, the ITU will make a big pitch that the IGF didn’t work but it will take over the role outlined in the Tunis Agenda for the next four years.

    So my understanding is, it’s one year or five for the IGF.


  3. WSIS was always planned as a two phase summit. Tunis not an after thought. And what you describe from Bamako on is WSIS.
    And what’s that crap about the advisory group as conflicting cultures and being forced into action?
    I haven’t heard of anyone inside the process willing IGF to fail. Source?
    People tend to read Para 76 of the Tunis Agenda as suggesting a five year mandate. But you’re right, if Athens is terrible, it might be just one.

  4. Yes, WSIS – it’s all part of the same thing. IGF was born of WSIS. I didn’t mean to represent Tunis as an after-thought though, and I’m concerned that you think I have.

    But as for the Advisory Group – it *has* been forced into action. It has required all Nitin Desai and Markus Kummer’s skills to even produce a schedule. People can’t decide to cut out particular workshops, so all workshops get approved. It can’t decide on which panellists or which presenters. The problem comes from having too many people on the Advisory Group, including too many government representatives.

    The governmental element – vital of course – has meant that the timeframe has effectively been very short. But it has also meant that the flexibility needed – and very much a part of business – was lost. One example: by the time the IGF Secretariat was in the position to request speakers, it was impossible late to ask big names to attend.

    As for willing it to fail, it’s no secret that some people would prefer the IGF to collapse. Who? You only have to look at who has the most to gain.


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