While I’m not attending IGF this year, I still believe IGF has much value, and very much hope that IGF can be rescued from its funding woes and reclaim its place as a vital and indispensable centre of coordination, exchange and facilitation in a dynamic system of Internet governance events and processes.
There are still very good reasons that IGF exists and should be supported:
- Internet policy is so politicized these days, we need a place where people can express their views openly and honestly without fear that it will be used against them in a “final text”
- IGF keeps the other bastards honest
- If you’re only able to attend one or two meetings per year, IGF is the best place to meet the widest range of contacts in one location
1. Internet policy is so politicized these days, we need a place where people can express their views openly and honestly without fear that it will be used against them in a “final text”
The recent ITU World Telecommunication Development Conference in Buenos Aires reminded me why we need something like the IGF. As soon as you have an event that has concrete outcomes (resolutions, compacts, declarations), you also create a nightmare of negotiations that go through to the small hours of each morning, where people stop focusing on finding solutions to the real issues that make everyone happy and instead focus on fiercely arguing about individual words of no real consequence in outcome texts.
In those environments, governments rule the day because they have decades of experience at tough multilateral negotiations. Other stakeholder groups, however, are relative babes in the woods, with limited political experience of how such negotiated recommendations and resolutions can be used to advance positions that most of the participants of the negotiations never even considered to be a possibility.
2. IGF keeps the other bastards honest
A now-deregistered Australian political party, the Australian Democrats, had the slogan “keep the bastards honest”. The Democrats were only ever a minority party, but as the largest of minority parties, their few votes could help influence the behavior of whatever party was governing the country or state at the time.
The IGF has a similar effect on other Internet-related forums. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the WSIS Forum duplicates the IGF format. The World Internet Conference is another attempt to coopt the format, albeit in a way that is more in line with the particular political sensibilities of the government of China.
Multiple organizations now hold open consultations on Internet-related issues:
- ITU CWG-Internet
- CSTD WGs on IGF Improvements and Enhanced Cooperation
- UNGA 10-year review on WSIS
The IGF as viewed by many stakeholders as the new standard of what a multistakeholder Internet governance process should be. Basically, any process today that discusses Internet-related issues tends to be compared to the IGF, even if the process has no aspirations to be multistakeholder.
3. If you’re only able to attend one or two meetings per year, IGF is the best place to meet the widest range of contacts in one location
For the last couple of years, my reason for recommending that people attend IGF hasn’t been the formal sessions or workshops. Instead it’s been, “You can hold an amazing range of side meetings with everyone you could possibly want to discuss issues with”. The IGF Secretariat makes this possible by making sure there are is a range of small meeting spaces that can be booked on a first-come-first-served basis.
Even if you don’t organize formal side meetings, it’s possible to have amazing conversations in the corridors. Last year at the IGF in Jalisco, I spent almost an equal time in such corridor meetings as I did in actual workshops and sessions.
There are lots of online mapping and observatory initiatives that aim to provide paths of entry into the world of Internet governance, but in reality, attending the IGF is still the best way to get a crash course in the often-confusing world of Internet issues.
The WSIS Tunis Agenda gave the IGF a number of mandates, five of which are about coordination and facilitation:
- Facilitate discourse between bodies dealing with different cross-cutting international public policies regarding the Internet and discuss issues that do not fall within the scope of any existing body.
- Interface with appropriate intergovernmental organizations and other institutions on matters under their purview.
- Facilitate the exchange of information and best practices, and in this regard make full use of the expertise of the academic, scientific and technical communities.
- Strengthen and enhance the engagement of stakeholders in existing and/or future Internet governance mechanisms, particularly those from developing countries.
- Identify emerging issues, bring them to the attention of the relevant bodies and the general public, and, where appropriate, make recommendations.
 I have witnessed this naivety firsthand at the CWG-Internet physical open consultations, where non-government stakeholders in the room are basically silent during the negotiations on the summary report of the day’s discussions, but governments are highly proactive, because non-government stakeholders have no understanding how the summary report can be used in the closed CWG-Internet meeting later in the week.
This is part of a 4-part series on the IGF. The other 3 parts are: