Internet Governance Forum, all talk, no action, but some progress

I guess I had better write something about the Internet Governance Forum meeting in Rio de Janeiro (November 2007).

 

I have to say that, even for someone who has been involved in the discussions and the lead up for several years, the meeting was unusual. And that might be its strongest attribute.

 

It was unusual for governments, who are used to making all decisions by themselves, operating in negotiating mode, and making formal diplomatic statements at organized plenaries. But here, the WSIS concept of multi-stakeholderism prevailed, negotiations were verboten, and plenaries and formal statements downgraded in favour of participative workshops.

 

It was unusual for business interests, because on the whole it didn’t seem to be going anywhere or have any formal agenda. Rather, the days were spent discussing and informing.

 

It was unusual for the civil society groupings, whose usual presence at UN sessions was complicated by an eclectic bunch of single interest groups less skilled in the ways of the UN and in many ways wholly disorganized.

 

And it was unusual for the internet old-timers who call themselves the Internet community, because they were required to think beyond their usual boundaries, address issues outside of their area of competence, go over the same ground time and time again, and interact as equals with people they would sometimes like to regard as incompetents.

 

So let’s just say that there was a degree of discomfort for everyone present.

 

Within those constrains, the event worked surprisingly well. Only someone convinced they knew everything already would have failed to learn something from the very competent line up of speakers, panelists, and participants bringing a wide range of viewpoints, experiences, and perspectives to bear on internet governance.

 

The level of expertise was very high. The level of interaction was a little disappointing at times, and the format not quite right yet.

 

ICANN of course had its usual moments of attention – indeed the speed at which a broader discussion could turn to a criticism of ICANN was astonishing to note at times. I was frustrated that people cannot see beyond the narrow walls of a names and numbers organization to the wider issues that internet governance needs to address. (I was equally frustrated that despite some years of discussion around this, the perceived US dominance of ICANN by the United States Government has also not been addressed).

 

Still as Bertrand de la Chapelle pointed out, what has started to happen is that people who were previously diametrically opposed on issues are now beginning to hear and understand each other. That’s the big gain , I think.

It may take longer than I would like, but the increased understanding arising from IGF gives hope that something sensible will eventually evolve from this exercise. Paticularly if activity starts to occur more frequently between annual meetings in the dynamic coalitions and other working groups.

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