I’ve just back from the sixth meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). It was held in Nairobi. Out of the six IGFs the only one I have missed was the first, in Athens in 2006. I think of the IGF increasingly as being like going back to University for a week. I love it. A seemingly infinite number of seminars and lectures are there for you to choose from. Sometimes I’m giving the lecture or taking part in the seminar, at others I’m more passive, listening and learning. But I’m afraid I rarely come away feeling that I have connected with all the key parts of the internet’s multi-stakeholder community, which was kind of meant to be the main point of it.
Who goes there?
A quick look at who was at Nairobi shows you why. Actually, right now I have no way of knowing who finally turned up. No doubt the figures or an analysis of them will be published later. They were for all previous IGFs, with the exception of Athens.
What we have available now for Nairobi is information on who registered to attend. It seems that fewer people turn up than register but assuming the difference works in a random way the registrations shown on the IGF web site ought to provide a reasonable insight.
Turning first to national governments, we can see that altogether a little over 300 representatives attended, sent by about 60 nations. The UN has nearly 200 countries as members, which means more than two-thirds of the nations of the world did not send anyone along to the IGF although I guess they might have been indirectly represented through regional or other bodies of one sort or another.
Kenya is tops
About 30 international governmental-type bodies were there, out of I have no idea how many. Combining national government representation with international governmental bodies we see that, between them, altogether they sent 385 representatives. However, 40% of these came from just seven entities viz Kenya 69, USA 26, Nigeria 14, Egypt 12, Council of Europe 12, China 10 and the European Commission 10.
Also in attendance, indeed the main bulk of the people who went, were just over 1,500 individuals named as belonging to “Other Entities”. I am not going to do a detailed sector analysis of this heterogeneous group. I’m sure someone else will. The largest category of people in this section were simply described as “Others”: there were 137 of them. The largest individual delegation with a discernible name was from Strathmore University, a private educational body in Kenya. They registered 27 people. Universities were very well represented overall.
Leaving aside the amorphous and mysterious “Others”, the second largest delegation with a discernible name in this section was from our own dear Childnet International. With 17 people Childnet had a larger delegation than China and Nigeria. It was larger than the delegations sent by the Governments of France, Germany and Italy combined, though it was not quite as large as the USA’s. Go Childnet!
Big companies were thin on the ground
21 people registered from Microsoft. That made them the largest single company delegation. Google registered 8, Facebook 1, Apple 0, Yahoo 0, BT 0, Telesonera 0. There’s a big list of 0s. I guess they could have had their lobbyists there looking out for them, but that sort of misses the whole object of the exercise.
Certainly it was the case that some of the major internet companies sent very senior people to represent them: I’m thinking in particular of Microsoft, Google, Nokia and Facebook. But, er, that was just about it. As far as I could tell from my own highly unscientific survey the rest were either top people from smaller companies or middle and lower management, or corporate affairs and PR people from the larger players. All important, all welcome, all with a contribution to make, but some can contribute a lot more than others.
It must be happening somewhere else
Whilst in Nairobi one was left with a feeling that there must be another meeting taking place in a different room. It is a room where all the key discussions are happening but no one has given us the address or sent an invite.
Just look at the acres of coverage President Sarkozy got when he intervened in the internet governance debate earlier this year around the meeting of the G8 and the G20. For all that Sarkozy was accused of grandstanding and playing to a domestic French audience, a substantial chunk of the final communiqué endorsed by all the Governments spoke directly to precisely the sorts of issues that were discussed in Nairobi’s many workshops. But to state the very obvious: Sarkozy was not in Nairobi. His speech was not delivered to the IGF.
The Economist speaks
In the days immediately following the Nairobi IGF “The Economist” wrote a piece about it entitled “The plaything of powerful nations”. They reminded us that the IGF was a compromise designed to provide a route out of an impasse that was reached at the World Summit on the Information Society, (WSIS) held in Tunis in 2005.
In the run up to and at Tunis several powerful Governments expressed great dissatisfaction with the way the internet was being managed globally, and in particular they resented the enduring influence of the US Federal Government. Even to this day, through its ultimate ownership of and relationship with IANA, the US Government is in a singular position of authority.
Acknowledging the role the US Government played in helping with its early development, this situation might have been acceptable or tolerable for as long as the internet remained a minor or peripheral technology. But today the internet is centre stage in practically every country’s economic, social and political life. Peripheral it is not.
Immovable object meets irresistible force
The Governments who were arguing for change, in effect, called for all of the key functions relating to the management of the internet to be put under the supervision of the United Nations, more specifically the International Telecommunication Union. The USA and its allies resisted that but rather than end WSIS on an entirely negative note, perhaps cementing a permanent divide or at any rate substantially worsening an existing one, the IGF was created as a place where all parties, all stakeholders, could feel they at least had somewhere to go to air their views and influence the direction of travel. The IGF is the very elaborate and expensive result.
“Is there anybody there? Knock once for yes.”
The problem is, to influence the direction of travel you have to be sure the bus driver is at least within earshot. It looks like she isn’t. Thus, while the IGF’s shapeless, formless, voteless meandering format nonetheless remains attractive for some, a growing number either think they have walked into a well camouflaged trap or they smell a diversionary rat. Alternatively they have concluded that in the end the project is anyway pointless.
There is more than one way to manage the internet
Supporters of the IGF are deluding themselves if, when thinking about how to manage the internet’s infrastructure, the only choices are between the arrangements we have now and a rapid transition to a form of global totalitarianism which will lead swiftly to the extinction of free speech online, to be replaced by the virtual equivalent of daytime TV. Even the EU took the trouble, in the run up to Nairobi, to reissue a series of position papers which contained some pointed digs at the status quo.
I shall continue to go to the IGF precisely because of its unique nature and the platform it offers. Every workshop I attended where child protection was on the agenda was packed. We heard about some tremendous work going on around the world and I hope we were able to help by informing people how the European Union, the Commission and the Parliament, were working with and through the children’s organizations, through bodies like eNACSO, pressing on with a radical agenda that was paying major dividends in terms of online safety for children and young people and the enrichment of the online environment. In addition, as a Brit I was glad sometimes to be able to tell people about the fantastic work the previous and the current UK Governments have undertaken.
The meetings of the Commonwealth IGF, which are becoming a regular feature at the parent IGF, are also showing huge potential in terms of reaching into major parts of the developing world.
I am absolutely certain little or none of this is what the founders of the IGF had in mind for it when they set it up, but there you go. It’s funny how things turn out, innit?
Our greatest enemy is ennui
However, I am afraid if the IGF’s organizers do not break out of their predictable formulaic approach next year there will be even fewer big hitters attending. The whole reason for going will start to become questionable for all but the dedicated inner circle for whom the IGF is obviously a major part of their life. They all need to lighten up and make it more of an event.
The IGF should aim to be more like Davos: where people use sharp elbows to force their way in. We ought not to have to exhort people to go to the IGF out of a sense of public spiritedness or obligation. There should be kidnappings and duels at dawn as people fight eagerly to get tickets. A man can dream.