Skip to content

7th Internet Governance Forum – so what?

2012 November 12
by breyan

From 5th to 9th of November, I’ve been in Baku, Azerbaijan where this year’s Internet Governance Forum was hosted. There were two reasons to be excited to go: first of all to experience “multi-stakeholderism” and “civil society participation” in “internet governance”, three buzz words that you rarely see in action; second, to visit the capital of a country that most people don’t even know where to place on a map or would consider visit one day.

On Monday the 5th of November, I attended the Global Internet Governance Academic Network (GigaNet) symposium. You can find the program and papers discussed here. The topics discussed ranged from the Internet Governance process in itself to the transfer market from IPv4 to IPv6 to the role of internet intermediaries as private law enforcers to deep packet inspection and political activism. At the same time in the afternoon, there was a very interesting workshop organised by Index on Censorship on the privatisation of censorship going on – so I spend my time moving from one room to the other. My own presentation focused on the discourse networks surrounding two bills introducing access blocking of sexual child images in France and Germany. The slides of the presentation are here and you can find the paper on the GigaNet website. The symposium was a great place to exchange thoughts about internet governance issues from a broad diversity of perspectives and get to know researchers working on related topics.

The Internet Governance Forum as such did not reinvent the wheel in terms of content discussed. Much of the issues were more or less familiar to me – although there were many sessions I couldn’t attend with over 12 workshops running in parallel most of the time. Some sessions were excellent while others made you wonder whether global dialogue would ever be possible. The richness of the IGF is certainly to bring a broad diversity of stakeholders together and to provide a space to discuss issues they care about.

True, there were many organisational issues (not enough internet access, not enough food, not enough water or coffee). The venue wasn’t ideal for interaction: the ambient noise was always present so that you could barely hear your neighbour speak and needed headphones to follow the debates (as one participants pointed out to me, this made it actually easy to ignore dissenting voices or interruptions), the coffee and lunch area was a long and unattractive corridor with near-to-no spaces to sit together around a coffee. There was nowhere to escape (except the annexe exhibition) as the expo center was situated a long way from the city itself.

Also, not all stakeholders were there: not all governments take it serious and send a delegation, not all civil society participants find funding to attend (plus what is “civil society”  anyway?), small and medium sized businesses are near to not present at all. Plus, the tone of the discussions is often very diplomatic so as not to offend anybody in particular (panelists were asked not to “name and shame” countries in particular – especially the host, activists were asked not to distribute critical material about the host country). There were the usual suspects or “internet governance stars”, in particular Vint Cerf , since 2005 Google’s “Chief Internet Evangelist”, who managed to be at a record number of sessions, sometimes in two parallel sessions at once. The European Commission was very present, making headlines after condemning Azerbaijan’s human rights violations and when two of its delegates indicated over twitter that their computers had been hacked while at their hotels. The private sector was mainly represented by US companies, with Google having representatives in many sessions but also Facebook and Microsoft being present.

Human rights issues were on top of the agenda with many sessions dedicated to them, including in their intersection with business and government. As I’ve heard from people who’ve been attending the forum since the start in 2006, this was the first time human rights issues were that prominent at the IGF. There continues to be debate on whether a forum that deals with freedom of expression and communication should actually be hosted in a country that has repeatedly violated freedom of expression. My personal stance is that particularly in such countries the forum can help shed light on practices that are too often ignored and never make it into Western media. For once, over 1600 participants to the forum and over 4000 following the livestream could listen to Azerbaijani activists’ and inform themselves about what was actually going on in this country. Of course, the restrictions do not stop because foreigners are there. However, awareness is a first step in the right direction.  Plus, it’s a great opportunity for activists’ to connect to the outside world and provide more detailed accounts of what will happend once the forum is finished.

For my own topic – internet blocking in liberal democracies – it was particularly useful to meet researchers and practitioners working in these areas. The content industry was there pointing out unemployment in the music industry due to increases in piracy, the child protection organisations were there arguing that blocking was “the least that could be done” as governments’ were not willing to spend more money on criminal prosecution and that the world was just “not perfect” with awareness and education campaigns not helping solve the issue, there were also the businesses trying to navigate between governments’ demands for stronger cooperation and protection and securing their business models and there were the hackers and geeks and freedom lovers arguing against any type of internet surveillance and blocking considered as ineffective and easy to circumvent. The whole range of the debate I had analysed in my research (see above) was represented, including positions I found hard to agree on. Some of the debates became quite emotional although it was also the first time I encountered the “technical community”, the folks working at ICANN and other organisations who focused mainly on the technical side of the network of networks.

The main question the IGF triggers is the “so what?” question: having 1600 people from 128 countries fly to a three-million city on the Caspian sea to debate internet governance, for what? There are no binding agreements coming out of the IGF. There are press releases, statements, twitter posts and reports. But no concrete action, no overarching agreement on the issues debated. Will there ever be agreement? What comes out of it? What is there beyond the debate? Beyond the connections that are made and maintained over the years? Should there be another IGF? Should the discussion continue?

This was the 7th forum. The focus on human rights showed that the discussion is evolving, the debate is shifting. Some issues are resolved, some compromises are made, new people come, others leave, some come again. The forum reveals the variety of interests in a global information infrastructure – the internet or what will come after it – business interests, civil liberties interests, security interests… It reveals that there is a need for debate, for discussion. That people want to understand what the internet is and the way in which it affects our lives, our modes of policy-making and governance. There is no easy solution, no one-fits-it-all answer to a  broad range of economic, political, legal and social issues. However, it shows that the issues are similar across the world, that we all want to protect our children, that we all want to communicate and that the issues behind “internet governance” are simply human issues: there are questions of power and control, of freedom and profit. It’s the question of what type of society we want to live in and what role technology shall play in it. There is no simple answer to this question.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.