IGF: The *real* story

You’ve seen the show, read the reviews, bought the T-shirt, but now it’s time to reveal the *real* Internet Governance Forum, the kind of IGF that only photographs with pleasingly childish captions can provide…

The two special guests (aside from the Greek PM and EC rottweiler Viviane Reding) at the inaugural Internet Governance Forum were the “fathers of the Internet”, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, inventors of TCP/IP and the men that pushed the dream that is now the Internet, against the odds. It doesn’t matter how times you hear it, it is still incredible to think that these two blokes developed the basic technical protocols that made the Net possible. It is also them we have to blame for dragging us around beige conference centres across the world trying to understand what the hell to do with this global network.

Being an Internet conference, it was, of course, virtually impossible to actually gain access to the Internet. Everyone learns this the hard way. As soon as you try to connect more than 10 laptops in any one room, the rules of the game change. The Greek hosts promised they would be able to handle the load, and they failed miserably. It took two days and some expert knowledge to finally get the network working. Amid much talk of “best practice guidelines”, it seems the most needed documents is “How to provide access to a Net conference”. There was then the added excitement that someone had set up a “free wireless access” point that was in fact another computer. Rumour spread that whoever was on the end of it was trying to hack into people’s laptops. This was followed by conjecture about who was most likely to be behind it. Amnesty appeared as the unlikely compromise candidate.

That wasn’t the only problem. It became clear the day before the opening ceremony that only half the delegates were going to be able to attend. A rapid system of UN-style “overpasses” was created, and were farmed out to various representatives to disperse – a system commonly known as “spreading the blame”. Suddenly, old favours were called in, elaborate lottery systems developed, and a number of people found themselves oddly popular. Milton Mueller was on the end of the civil society’s tickets (the most dangerous section) while others, mostly members of the IGF’s Advisory Group, kept a lower profile.

Most notable among the opening speeches was that given by ITU Secretary-General Yoshio Utsumi, who took the Athens-democracy thread further than everyone else by basing his speech around Socrates “the wisest man in all of Greece”. In a barely concealed message to the assembled that told them, yet again, that the ITU was the best place to make decisions about the Internet (rather than these new-fangled ICANN, ISOC, IETF, IGF, and so on), by referring to how Socrates’ “subsequent teachings are seen as a great contribution to modern day thinking” but at the time he was treated as a heretic. “He felt no fear of death and at the age of 70, he drank hemlock and died,” Utsumi opined, leading many in the audience to wonder how well Utsumi was taking the fact that his reign at the ITU is due to end in a fortnight after eight years.

Another problem was the fact that limited time and political battles had meant the panels for each of the main sessions were incredibly big. So big in fact that in many cases panelists weren’t able to fit behind the tables and had to be propped up at the edge. Despite everyone agreeing that this was actually impending discussion (especially since that, even over three hours, the average panellist only got a few minutes of talking time), no one would back down from being on the panel. And some even complained at the end that they hadn’t been asked to be on one. It was uncertain whether this was an elaborate joke.

All the main sessions were thankfully translated by a legion of UN staff into English, French, Spanish, Russian, Mandarin and Greek, revealing at a glance people’s linguistic abilities (headphones on or off). No one messes with the translators – without them we’d be halfway through World War VI by now. Also, a useful tip is not to stand in front of the booths when events are going on – sometimes because of the combinations of languages, some translators rely on the English text scrolling up on the screen to translate into their language. An angry translator stuck in a sound-proof booth is a dangerous thing, best avoided.

There was more controversy when the Chinese government delegate was hounded during the Openness debate about his country’s record on freedom of speech. It sounded like a familiar refrain for many, and also helped turn attention away from the fact that many of the liberal Western democracies also filter content (and not just child pornography) but are remarkably quiet about the fact. The scribes, who now follow the Internet conference circuit more loyally than Vint Cerf, confessed that the IGF has been a particularly tough one given the sudden and unexpected jumps in languages and tempo.

It wasn’t just the Chinese that were in hot water for censorship. A few days before the conference, the Greek authorities arrested a blogger for linking to allegedly libellous material. The blogosphere was up in arms, and the Greek minister for Transport, as chair of the IGF, took some heat about the situation. He claimed not to know about the case, although surprised many by complaining about bloggers that “made up lies” and created “false news” and said that new rules might be needed to balance freedom of speech online. Asked again later, he was equally defensive, although it was hard to make out his words with his foot stuck in his mouth. Greece has the worst roll-out of broadband in Europe. In fact, most people get online using dial-up cards bought from the local kiosk. None of this deterred the Greeks from happily chairing the main sessions while hopelessly out of their depth.

And if all that wasn’t bad enough, many conference delegates were forced to work on empty stomachs when the hotel failed to provide anything but a full restaurant service for the 1,500 starving attendees. With Greek service giving snails a bad name, it wasn’t long before rumbling stomachs, with Internet notables attached, were flooding out the hotel in search of quick snacks. The fact that the hotel’s “club sandwich” cost 16 euros and took 30 minutes to arrive was not seen as a plus. Greek sandwich sellers missed out on a pay-day.

Many of the IGF conversations were relatively civil but the ongoing issue of the US government’s control of the domain name system was never far away. A workshop decided to tackle the problem head-on and threatened to be a lively affair, although bouncers specially hired from the Jerry Springer Show were not needed in the end. Unsurprisingly, there was a disparity of views, fairly evenly split down the lines of whether the speaker gained or lost from the current situation. Unbelievably, no lasting compromise was reached.

Many would argue that it would be just a cheap shot to have another go at the ITU, whose top-bods arrived at the IGF in their way to the somewhat less-snappy three-week Plenipotentiary in Turkey the next week. They would be right of course – but cheap laughs have an even longer and richer history than the glorious International Telecommunications Union, so we should show our respect. Houlin Zhao was there as head of the ITU-T (“T” for “tell me again what went wrong”), and ITU top analyst Bob Shaw can claim to have been through all the Net’s political battles from the very early days.

Just when everyone thought the IGF had accidentally become a big love-in however, the news that the British and Norwegian government delegates had had a bit of a fracas at one of the social events put things back into perspective. And, as this snapper was able to reveal, UN head honcho Nitin Desai, decided to intervene with a new kind of diplomacy – one that he hopes to promote post-IGF: the chop and leave.

Next year’s event in Rio de Janeiro is widely expected to be the most violent Net conference on record.

  1. nice work, Kieren, laughing my butt off!!

  2. well done..really funny and harsh….

  3. […] If you are interested in the proceedings, go to the official homepage of the IGF http://www.intgovforum.org/ and if you would like to know what else happened there, check out Kieren McCarthy’s site at http://www.kierenmccarthy.co.uk/. He’s got some real funny page out there with some self-made cartoons, making fun of people at the IGF: http://www.kierenmccarthy.co.uk/2006/11/07/igf-the-realstory/. […]

  4. Thanks for the photos and captions! I feel I was there. I think one of the main purposes of these fora (if not the only one) is to illustrate how poor Internet access is in much of the world. OK, Greece is part of Europe, but Internet access is still problematic. I think that’s a useful lesson to learn, in person. Holding a previous Internet conference in Tunisia, where censorship is rampant, was also useful as BBC reporters realized that access to the BBC.co.uk site was not guaranteed.
    Let Western reporters HOWL at the poor Internet access and this might actually improve access! Which will be a useful, tangible result of the conference.
    Other issues (spam, cybercrime, international domain names) are best left to smaller, issue-specific groups.

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