IGF 2013: Why so many theme and format changes?

igf-2013-logoFor the first time in years, the IGF Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) as a whole seemed ready to embrace change. This is probably a response to a number of developments:

  1. The CSTD WG on IGF improvements issued a report recommending, in essence, that IGF be responsive to stakeholders’ needs as the Internet environment continues to change.
  2. WCIT showed that many Member States still have serious reservations about the current Internet governance ecosystem. It’s becoming increasingly clear to even the least perceptive of Internet governance folk, that unless the community finds ways to address such issues in friendly forums like IGF, unhappy Member States will increasingly press for intergovernmental venues, like the ITU and UNGA, to address their concerns.
  3. UNESCO’s WSIS+10 review in February and ITU’s WTPF in May both showed that it is in fact possible to have open and frank discussions about differences of opinion without any side feeling like they’ve lost the battle.
  4. With WSIS+10 only a couple of years away, everyone with any connection to the original WSIS action lines is aware that failure to achieve the original WSIS goals could result in the United Nations deciding on a new plan of action with unwelcome side effects on the current Internet governance ecosystem.
  5. Pending the outcome of the WSIS+10 process, IGF’s second mandate of renewal is due in 2015. IGF must be seen to be relevant and responsive if it is to be renewed.
  6. After seven IGFs, the forum has matured enough that people feel able to experiment without fearing that failed experiments could lead to IGF’s demise.
  7. Given, over the last few years, IGF has been slightly short of funds needed to execute everything everyone wants it to do, MAG members are aware that developing a more attractive sets of themes and more flexible set of forum sessions may once again attract donors.
  8. Workshop proposals for IGF 2013 have also been creative in their formats for discussion.

Even China, which was rather passionately arguing to keep the critical Internet resources theme and dump the human rights/freedom of expression theme, was on board with the larger set of changes.

Will the changes work?

In all probability, newcomers to IGF will find wider array of session types just as confusing as the old IGF format (with up to 11 parallel tracks!) And there is a large possibility that more technically or operationally minded participants will find the new focus on high level issues related to multistakeholder enhanced cooperation and Internet governance principles a bit esoteric. But if the IGF website documents the program well, and if the daily onsite orientation sessions are effective, the various stakeholders, with their wide range of interests, will find their way to sessions that meet their needs.

Of course, not all the new ideas that the IGF 2013 MAG has decided to include in the Bali meeting will work. But the fact that a major UN-hosted event is willing to try so many experimental approaches is something we should all support.

The changes are particularly commendable when you consider that IGF 2013 is trying to attract governments who have never attended an IGF before. The previous IGF formats were already a bit of a stretch for governments used to more formal intergovernmental meetings. The addition of more non-traditional meeting formats in upcoming IGF will no doubt ratchet up the discomfort factor for some governments. But, with any luck, the inclusion of topics directly responding to governments’ calls for greater involvement in Internet governance##enhanced cooperation, Internet governance principles, combatting cyber threats-will more than help governments overcome their fear of non-hierarchical and informal session formats.

IGF 2013 is about building bridges. If the skeleton program that came out of the May preparatory meeting is any hint, IGF 2013 will help members of the Internet governance ecosystem to build some very innovative bridges, indeed!

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