The Internet Governance Forum – third time lucky

I was at the United Nations in Geneva last week to watch what was happening to the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) as it prepares for its third outing, this December in Hyderabad, India.

Actually I was there for a different reason – an ICANN consultative meeting on the future of the organization the morning before the UN meeting – but it seemed daft to fly all that way and not check out the day of open discussions about the IGF. Plus I have a real soft spot for the IGF and the people that have worked extremely hard to make it a success.

I was a witness to the IGF’s creation, on paper, at the World Summit on the Information Society back in 2005, and then followed it all the way through various preparatory sessions as a reporter.

At the inaugural IGF in Athens, I was asked to be the conference’s “blogger-in-chief” – a position that, ironically enough, my current employer tried to veto. As a semi-official part of the IGF, I also got to see behind the scenes, and was impressed with the hard work, dedication and calm handling of what was an enormous and risky experiment. A lot of people at the time confessed to turning up just to see what would happen – spectators to what could have been the biggest diplomatic car crash for a decade. In the end, despite the odds, it shone through.

Her name was Rio

Inspired by the meeting’s efforts to find Internet-style solutions to some very big problems, I also helped set up one of the new “dynamic coalitions” – for “online collaboration”. The extremely limited resources the IGF team had meant that their Internet options were extremely limited – and this at a time when everyone was talking about Web 2.0.

By the time the second IGF came around, this time in Rio de Janeiro, I had made the unusual choice of taking a job with ICANN which unfortunately put a whole different complexion on things. The Brazilian hosts were making it very plain they intended to make ICANN a central discussion point of their meeting – and not in a positive way. ICANN instinctively went into a defensive crouch, and you can hardly blame it considering the organisation was nearly torn limb-from-limb during the WSIS process.

As a result, I stepped back from helping out the IGF organizers – something I still wish I could have avoided. Although since I helped ICANN to become more open and forthcoming in Rio, I am content with the belief that I helped ensure that the IGF didn’t come to represent a place of combat rather than a location for collaboration and open discussion.

The Rio meeting also saw the collapse of the dynamic coalition I had worked hard at. Partly it was due to the fact that my new job left me with no free time, but more so it was thanks to several people trying to use the credibility that had been built up behind it as a political platform for their personal agendas.

I explain all this because from a personal perspective my natural bias would likely be to see the IGF as going down the tubes. It has only a five-year mandate from the UN Secretary-General and the Rio meeting saw a lot of people pondering whether they would bother to attend the next.

It’s not as if there aren’t already 1,000 different conferences about the Internet. Governments appeared to be stepping back from the process; the fight-fans who had hoped to get ringside tickets to a global Net bout felt cheated; what were the dynamic coalitions actually achieving anyway; and, what exactly was the point of going to India? What would you miss if you didn’t go?

Muffled movement

I’ve not followed the progress of IGF 3, so I have to say it was a delight to see that, far from it falling apart, the whole Internet Governance Forum seems to be coming together.

Don’t get me wrong, if any normal person off the street walked into Room XIX in the Palais des Nations last Tuesday, they would have been overcome with the sense of self-interested individuals having an incredibly long and incredibly boring discussion about something that should somehow be exciting and riveting but very clearly wasn’t.

The IGF process remains the domain of insiders, geeks, paid advocates and people with too much time on their hands. A significant number of the Meeting Advisory Group (MAG) that makes most of the decisions surrounding the IGF don’t even bother turning up to the open consultations. I was tempted to do a headcount but for some reason my natural trouble-making inclinations failed me.

So if it was the same old rigmarole, the same people talking to the same people saying the same things in a heavily padded room through little plastic ear cups, where does my optimism come from?

Almost entirely I think from the IGF Secretariat. The UN staff has been given some stark assessments from headquarters in New York. It is fortunate that the IGF hardly costs the UN anything, relying instead on voluntary contributions, but it is still a big show put on by the United Nations so it has to show its value, and show it soon.

A review of the forum has been ordered and despite efforts to socialize the idea among the great and good gathered in Geneva, it is going to start at the Hyderabad meeting whether people like it or not.

The IGF has to show progress, it has to start carving out its own role, demonstrating its value, and produce something of real originality. Otherwise it’s a goner in 2010. And the IGF Secretariat has started work on that, very carefully and cleverly and with all the diplomatic nous that its main figure, Markus Kummer, is renowned for.

The most significant example of this is in the colour-coding of workshops that will take place in Hyderabad. The emphasis of the IGF has always been on multistakeholderism, which means, basically, getting governments, business, the technical community and civil society talking together.

The workshops are supposed to be multistakeholder i.e. have someone from each group, but this has been frequently ignored, or given lip-service to, or somehow not quite managed in the past. This year, the workshops were listed online and given a colour code – green for fully multistakeholder; amber for not fully multistakeholder; and red for more work needs to be done.

The pressure is then placed on the organizers to get to a green status. And this process has also had the effect of getting people to work together to merge different workshops in order to get the full quotient of people. It has forced people to work together to a common goal. And it has worked in large part. I counted 88 workshops for a possible 98 spots with 1 red, 15 amber and the rest green.


There will be three main issues at the 2008 IGF, and they are:

* Reaching the next billion

* Promoting cyber-security and trust, and

* Managing critical Internet resources

For these three, there are two “official” workshops each, and the same gentle pressure has been applied as with the other workshops – albeit with less success – to get those jostling for position to work together.

This is a step forward from last year where the workshops often proved more valuable than the main sessions. By getting egos to clash over workshops, it may be that the main sessions aren’t dragged down through bureaucratic compromise.

There will still be the need for people – especially government ministers – to have set pieces, but there have been requests this time for moderators to be expert in the field, rather than simply expert moderators. And that shows that there is a hope for more in-depth discussion of the issues this time around. A depth that you get from policymakers, not politicians.

Dead dynamics

The IGF seems to be finding its feet and becoming more structured. Panels in the morning will “distill lessons” that will then “focus the debate” in the afternoon. It won’t work like that in reality of course, but the stated intent is there and everyone agrees with it, which is a clear step forward.

The IGF website is also far more organized. It still looks horrendous, and it is difficult to find material, but the amount and quality of information has taken a big step forward – particularly the inclusion of carefully edited MAG list emails. Only a handful of people will ever read them, but it is the act of having them that is important.

There was also an effort by Nitin Desai – the UN-SG’s special representative – to press the dynamic coalitions into coming up with the goods. Those coalitions that haven’t produce reports on their activities have been threatened with being “archived”. The IGF Secretariat was very careful not to come across as making demands but it is clear that a clean-up is underway (to arrive at a “reasonably tidy house”, according to Desai) – and rightly so. That the coalition I formed (and resigned from just after the Rio meeting) is more than likely to be swept up with the broom can only be a good thing.

It is also worth noting that one or two governments and businesses are also taking a bit of a punt of the IGF and have contributed significant sums of money this time around, lifting at least some of the pressure off. The Canadian government in particular is said to have donated a couple of hundred thousands dollars just to allow for increased participation in the Hyderabad meeting.

The prep meeting

So, what actually happened at the all-day Geneva meeting?

Well, from my perspective, there were five things of note:

  1. The usual prepared statements were fewer in number – thank god
  2. The governments seemed to be taking less of a public role – not a good thing and also the explanation for why there were fewer prepared statements
  3. The Brazilians have decided to use the emotive issue of child pornography to political ends. What political ends people will find out in December, but the cynical powerplay is disheartening
  4. The IGF Secretariat were larger, more prepared and more confident
  5. Some people – notably civil society – still don’t get it

On the Brazilian thing: the Brazilians, who I very much like on a personal basis, flew over a Senator who has been heading a drive against child pornography at home. He then provided a very loud, almost-ranting political speech about the subject, claiming that Brazil was three years ahead of the rest of the world.

I have a very significant distrust of anyone using child pornography on the Internet as an argument for doing anything with the Internet. As a UK citizen, I have seen my Parliament’s main committee on the Internet completely overrun by zealots for all sorts of controls using the emotive shield of child porn to deflect perfectly reasonable questioning. I have seen efforts to introduce ridiculous laws written through the distorting lens of child porn. And I have seen upfront and in person the lives of innocent people ruined because political pressure opened the door to flawed police investigations.

Every time someone raises the issue of child pornography online, they come armed with a rhetorical question: why aren’t we doing more about this? And then proceed to outline a series of measures that would see them laughed out the room if they were discussing any other subject.

As such, when I hear a Senator boasting about how his country is so much more advanced on fighting child porn than anyone else – which, incidentally, is exactly what the UK claimed last year – I become immediately concerned. My prediction is that shortly after the Brazilians outline the fantastic work they have done removing this repulsive (and extremely niche) activity, they will then outline how everyone else can do the same. And that it will just so happen that those methods fit perfectly with their political goals.

Debate and dialogue

But onto the fact that some people just don’t get it. The most notable case is an academic who I’ve known for a number of years and who I know from experience never tires from railing against imagined malignant influence.

There was a semantic argument at one point in which someone asked for the main sessions to be called “debate and dialogue” rather than just “debate”. The idea being that people don’t necessarily want to just argue with one another, that there should also be some sharing of ideas and experiences.

It was a fairly harmless proposition, subsequently agreed to by others, but in the eyes of some the suggestion represented something far more grave and sinister. And so a false debate started on the issue of debate. The proposition was that the word “dialogue” be added to the title, but it was misrepresented as having been put forward as a sole replacement – and then furiously denounced as such.

The issue of debate thus became that day’s controversy, and speakers, bored from having flown halfway across the world to sit in a huge beige hall, found something to fight over. It was a complete waste of everyone’s time but it does demonstrate that some people still haven’t got it.

Got what? That the IGF’s unique selling point, it’s original nature, its very value and essence comes in getting people from different backgrounds and cultures to overcome their suspicions and differences and find a solution that they can all agree on in furtherance of an Internet that everyone benefits from and which no one can control. And a big part of that process is people letting go of the chips on their shoulders.

Civil society, for example, wants public policy debates where advocates thrash it out, firing facts and figures at their opponents, uncovering misdeeds and through this approach define the best way forward.

What it fails to realise is that the people that actually make those decisions in the real world – governments mostly, but also industry actors in democratic states – don’t use that approach for the simple reason that it doesn’t work. All you end up with is bold but unworkable statements from parties that are now in a confrontational relationship. It’s the opposite of arriving at policy decisions. Fine in a courtroom; pointless in a drafting office.

The people’s representative

It’s not just civil society that still has problems adjusting. Governments have terrible trouble grasping the idea of being an equal stakeholder rather than the decider. They failed miserably when the MAG was being readjusted to provide non-government actors with more power and insisted on retaining their majority position. Likewise, government representatives still can’t bring themselves to participate in the debate, preferring instead to read prepared statements or react only to statements for which they know the official line.

Government representatives also rarely mix with the others in the room. Many shun public meetings altogether. And they provide only a minimum of interactivity with the IGF’s flagship products: workshops and dynamic coalitions. Their placid behaviour in public is, sadly, matched by petulant and unreasonable behaviour behind closed doors.

But it is all very much better than it was. Three years ago, no one trusted anyone else. As the IGF processes have continued and no one has “lost” anything, so the focus has gradually drawn into the issues and solutions to the issues.

There is still paranoia and its flipside, plotting, but what the Geneva meeting demonstrated through its glorious tedium was that the multistakeholderites are just as content planning a meeting together as they fighting with one another.

The longer the IGF continues in the same vein – finding a way to avoid pressing one another’s buttons – the more this understanding will be allowed to foster. And then we will really have a forum worth visiting. It won’t be sexy, it won’t be good TV and it won’t be particularly interesting but it will get some serious work done on an enormously complex subject – namely, figuring out how to deal with this Internet thingy.