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Internet Governance

We have come a long way…

Some reflections on the 2013 Internet Governance Forum (IGF)

I was not the only one who said that the 2013 Internet Governance Forum meeting was the best ever. 

In many ways, IGF 2013 was a defining moment. There was a strong sense of community among the participants – no stakeholder group defended their own interests, but they all stood up to defend the principle of multistakeholder cooperation. Much of the discussions focused on Internet governance principles,  principles of multistakeholder cooperation and  the role of governments in this multistakeholder environment.

Some priority was also accorded to what I am tempted to term “WCIT left overs”. At the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in December 2012 in Dubai there was an emphasis by some emerging economies on certain perceived problems related to the Internet, such as spam. The IGF picked from there and dealt with these issues in some depth, documenting that there are some solutions available to address these problems and there was a suggestion to take these discussions a step further and integrate into the 2014 IGF programme some technical training workshops.

In all these debates, participants agreed to take the discussions forward, towards points of convergence. The agenda for the 2013 meeting was guided by the attempt to make the IGF more responsive to the broader policy discourse, defining the Internet governance space.

The 2013 IGF meeting proved its worth as a one-stop-shop where the community gathers to share experiences and exchange information. It lived up to the challenge created by government surveillance and focused on the need to rebuild the trust of Internet users.

By tackling surveillance head-on – the proverbial “elephant in the room” – and by allowing for an open and frank discussion of government surveillance and monitoring, it proved its value.  The IGF facilitated this difficult debate and proved that it had matured and lived up to the expectations of participants who wanted to voice and bring to the fore their concerns.  It was significant in this context that the US Government was present with a fairly large and senior delegation that recognized that the IGF was the unavoidable option to face the community and discuss this issue. For the IGF, this was a win – had the IGF avoided discussing this issue, it would have been considered irrelevant.

The open microphone session on the last day allowed to take stock and it showed that we – indeed – have come a long way. Many speakers pointed out that the IGF had matured and created a sense of community that allowed the discussion of difficult issues in an open and frank manner. While agreeing to disagree on various issues, participants showed respect and listened to each others’ arguments. Fundamentally, however, they all agreed that this kind of discussion would have been impossible a few years ago. The Bali meeting clearly showed that the community was rallying behind the core principle of open and inclusive multistakeholder cooperation.

A first sense of this community spirit manifested itself at the 2008 meeting in Hyderabad. The 2008 meeting took place in the wake of the Mumbai terrorist attacks when many participants for understandable reasons cancelled their attendance. This led to a solidarity effect among those who were in Hyderabad and who expressed their sympathy to the Government and people of India. It was then for the first time that I noted that the commonalities among the IGF participants exceeded their differences.

This notion of pursuing a common interest was much bigger still in Bali. The challenge this year was not a threat to the host country, but to the Internet itself. The  monitoring and surveillance activities by governments and the loss of trust that followed brought the community together. The underlying theme was the necessity to rebuild the trust of Internet users. There was a general agreement that the IGF was the privileged place to pursue these discussions and that the multistakeholder format was the only way forward.

While the IGF has been criticized by many for not providing solutions, it needs to be pointed out that it was not created to provide solutions, but to provide a space for dialogue. In this respect, the IGF has exceeded expectations – it has proved to be a space for discussions that could not have taken place anywhere else. For those who attended the first IGF meeting in Athens in 2006 this would have been unimaginable. Discussions then were tense, unstructured and there was much mistrust between stakeholders.

We have come a long way!