IGF: George Sadowsky reports

By George Sadowsky (Message to Dave Farber)

Having just returned from the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Rio, I must say that the contents of Jack Chang’s article do not adequately characterize the event or the audience.

There were 1300 people who showed up, from 109 countries. Many of the were governmental and NGO representatives. The IGF is not a planning body, as Chang asserts, but a forum for discussion, and it must stay that way. It was set up as a compromise result of the WSIS (World Summit on the Information Society) conferences in Geneva in 2003 and Tunis in 2005. The negotiations over the summit statement and the terms of reference of the IGF were not the friendliest.

A major issue at this year’s Forum (the first was in Athens last year) was U.S. “control” over the Internet, The Brazilians hammered this theme until the end, and were aided by the Russians, who announced on the last day that they would introduce a process in the UN General Assembly to allow the Internet to transition to intergovernmental control. Whether that’s a credible threat is still to be seen. There was a lot of ICANN bashing, since ICANN is the embodiment of that “control.”

The deliberations ranged from serious to ridiculous. perhaps you remember the meeting we both attended at the UN at the end of March 2004; this was a continuation of the same. Political correctness was the order of the day, with “multistakeholderism” being the word that would allow disputes to be settled and problems to be solved in peace and harmony.

All of the main sessions were transcribed by the excellent team that ICANN uses, and all of the detail is on line at www.intgovforum.org. It makes for fascinating reading, and anyone who wants to protect the Internet and help it to evolve should read some of this to understand how representatives, some self-appointed, from other parts of the world view this technology and the institutions that enable it presently.

About joly

isoc member since 1995

2 thoughts on “IGF: George Sadowsky reports

  1. Response from: Lee McKnight

    I was at the IGF meeting as well, and flew down actually on the same
    flight as my old pal George; I saw the meeting somewhat differently than
    either the prior report or George’s.

    First, I agree IGF is definitely a place for talking and discussion; and
    ICANN was indeed a topic of some discussion. It would help if ICANN got
    over the hyper-defensiveness born out of its own growing pains, but
    that’s a separate topic.

    Second, on the Brazilian position, I interpret that as playing to the
    domestic audience/ tv soundbites; the surprise would be if the Brazilian
    government came out saying positive thing about an entity tied to one
    government, namely the US.
    Anyway, not a serious threat to ICANN, ISOC, or anyone else on the net
    in my opinion – and I know Brazil well, visiting most years, as my wife
    and kids are all Brazilians as well as US citizens.

    Third, re the Russians, that too sounds like domestic politics on the
    world stage to me, no imminent threat. Bashing the US
    adminsitration/Bush administration is a popular pastime here in the US,
    noone shold be surprised the rest of the world vents too when they have
    a chance.

    Fourth, mainly IGF is about workshops on a wide range of issues, I
    encourage folks interested to view the agneda, tapes and docs. And
    consider participating in IGF III next year in India.

    Lee

    Prof. Lee W. McKnight
    School of Information Studies
    Syracuse University

  2. Rob Faris
    Berkman Center for Internet & Society
    Harvard Law School

    Reflections from the IGF**

    November 17, 2007

    Thursday afternoon in Rio de Janeiro, the second Internet Governance
    Forum effectively came to an end after the penultimate session. With the
    closing remarks still to be delivered, most of the remaining attendees
    mingled in conversation at the back of the plenary hall, ignoring the
    pleas of the chairman to come to order. The next couple of speakers went
    forward with their comments without the full attention of the plenary,
    while the many participants that were weary of the structure pursued
    their own agendas.

    Close to fourteen hundred people came together for this
    multi-stakeholder event representing more than one hundred countries.
    Given the flagrant lack of real power placed in the hands of the IGF, it
    is laudable that so many people came to share what should be done—in
    full knowledge that this body could not make it happen. On the other
    hand, many of us don’t need much urging to visit Rio.

    The choice of venue was risky with the beach less than 100 meters from
    the podium. It fortunately rained for most of the forum; had it been
    sunny, attendance on days three and four might have been left only to
    the virtual and virtuous. I find fresh coconut milk the perfect fuel for
    digesting the enormity of Internet governance, particularly in
    combination with the sonorous lapping of waves. When that isn’t enough,
    a caipirinha can help with one’s courage of conviction.

    A few of the speakers at the forum resorted to impassioned arm-waving,
    but most of the proceedings were carried out in the subdued tones of
    civil discourse on matters of critical import. The mode of the
    proceedings was the panel, which is great at giving as many attendees as
    possible a moment of discursive glory. The downside is that it is nearly
    impossible to deliver a coherent message in less than 10 minutes, except
    to those singing to the choir. This most often leaves us with little
    more than a chance to state priorities and identify important facets of
    a puzzle to be solved at a later point in time. Like the others, I
    dutifully recited the table of contents of what I would have gladly
    expounded upon for a full hour or two.

    If the diversity of attendees or the number and range of opinions
    expressed is the gauge of success, then the 2007 IGF was a huge success.
    Perhaps this indeed should be the best measure of accomplishment for a
    multi-stakeholder initiative, with apologies to those that cringe and
    run for the door when that phrase in mentioned. Everyone who wished to
    briefly share their thoughts had an opportunity to do so. The problem
    was getting people to listen. I, for one, left Rio with all my
    preconceptions, biases and dogmas unscathed. I suspect that most
    participants were similarly immune to the words of their counterparts.

    Andrew Keen did not convince me to shut down the cacophony of opinions
    coming through my ethernet cable and spend more of my time with the BBC
    and CNN. He is right that I should become a more discerning and
    perspicacious consumer of online media. I continue to search the web for
    guidance on that. Neither was Vint Cerf convinced by Keen’s remarks:
    Cerf’s response was that Keen’s “diatribe” was a lot of “crap.” (Wow,
    how many of us are envious that he can get away with that in such an
    august public forum.) Yet, I have little faith that Keen has now
    realized the error in his ways having been chastised by one of the
    godfathers of the Internet. I do agree with Keen regarding the value of
    the The New York Times. Perhaps we could join forces to get the paper to
    the next 6.5 billion readers who don’t read the New York Times. If only
    there were a low cost way to duplicate and distribute information around
    the world we might have a chance.

    The IGF included almost one hundred different sessions, each with a
    finely targeted topic, except that upon closer inspection, these turned
    out to be the same ten or so topics. Expanding access to the Internet
    was properly placed at the top of the list of priorities for most. If
    innovative approaches to this issue were broached I missed it while
    sitting in on a parallel panel. A session that discussed ICANN without
    advertising the fact seemed to upset everyone, those who attended that
    didn’t want to hear any more about it, and those that missed it who
    wanted to hear more on the topic, if only they had know it would be
    aired out again. In another egregious error in the program, all the
    panelists that spoke at the human rights and net neutrality session
    agreed that net neutrality should be protected. (I believe that there
    was also broad consensus that human rights are good.) Internet security
    was presented by dozens of experts in twenty minutes or less, with the
    number of definitions for security far outnumbering the presenters.
    Others discussed how open source and propriety approaches could be
    utilized to protect intellectual property online. Other panels confirmed
    that cybercrime should be addressed and that children should be
    protected. More on that next year.

    I regrettably missed the sessions on ‘critical internet resources’. This
    euphemism seems to intentionally lend itself to an infinitely wide
    spectrum of interpretation, though most often seems to correspond to an
    attack on the conspiracy to keep control of the Internet out of the
    hands of the international community, who would otherwise bring order to
    the chaos, and deliberate the Internet into submission. As far as I can
    tell, the ICANN board did not grasp the logical justice for
    democratizing the network and failed to immediately turn over the keys
    to the Internet. The search for a governance body capable of restoring
    civility, security and accuracy to the medium continues. If confused by
    this, tell me how you feel about international hegemony and democratic
    accountability in international institutions, and I’ll tell you which
    side to line up on. I can also give you a few key talking points that
    will induce the other side to cower and seek cover, at least for a while
    anyway before they come up again firing.

    Another key question of conscience discussed during the IGF is whether
    technology companies should: a) govern themselves; b) follow local law;
    c) be subject to binding international law; d) none of the above; e) all
    of the above. By the way, the second choice is not allowed.

    The intrepid Google representatives were inescapable, sitting on
    innumerable panels to respond to those that question their lack of evil.
    They talked about privacy, market power and their choices to compromise
    with governments that would otherwise block their services. At times
    they resorted to describing the numerous services that users around the
    world voluntarily use for free—raising further suspicion. All agreed
    before ripping into them that it was great for Google to come and take
    the heat. Others were of course conspicuous in their absence.

    With so many diverse and interesting opinions expressed—all uttered by
    experts—it seems a shame to not aggregate these into something that one
    can take to the policy-makers and international negotiators. One
    possible savior from the randomness of it all, Jimmy Wales, did not beam
    into the freedom of expression panel as expected. We still don’t know
    whether to lay the blame on Skype, the poorly managed Internet, or Rio.
    I looked to Wikipedia to make sense of the noise, and found neither a
    concise treatment of the proceedings nor the full breadth of vision
    found at the conference. (There is a link to the full text of the
    plenary proceedings on the IGF website, though one must provide their
    own tropical drink.) Perhaps Wikipedia has finally met its match. As for
    me, I guess I can’t have my complexity and simplify it too.

    Removing tongue from cheek for a moment, this clearly was not a forum
    for making major decisions or generating new strategies for tackling
    profound questions that involved multiple trade-offs between privacy,
    security and freedom of expression, or for finding the best way to
    reward innovative thinkers while continuing to promote innovation. There
    is inestimable value in the conversations and connections made off the
    official record and unknown benefits to be reaped by the potential
    future collaborations. For those who attended with the hope of moving
    from talk to action, the forum may have provided a unique opportunity to
    meet and converse with others who similarly inclined.

    The question I am left to ponder is how the exchanges of opinions can be
    aggregated and channeled into something genuinely useful. Many of the
    sessions consisted of people talking past one another, all of us on
    separate trajectories with no notion or appreciation of where the others
    were heading. Some in pursuit of greater protection of children online,
    others in search of greater internet security, others urging for greater
    social responsibility and freedom from cyber crime. It is hard to argue
    with any of this, until you start to consider how to get there from
    here. A lingering disappointment in the IGF, and life in general, is
    that so many bright, well-meaning people can not cleanly reach consensus
    on how to govern the Internet. I haven’t figured out yet whether this is
    an indication of too much or too little coconut milk. In the meantime, I
    will be embracing the chaos and looking forward to New Delhi.

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