ENDitorial : IGF – UN innovation or just another conference ?

By EDRi · November 8, 2006

(Dieser Artikel ist auch in deutscher Sprache verfügbar)

From 30 October to 2 November approximately 1500 people gathered in Athens,
Greece for the first global internet governance forum (IGF). The IGF is one
of the outcomes of the Tunis Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in
2005, with the aim of creating a new global policy space to advance
discussions related to internet governance. Since the ICANN (Internet
Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) stalemate could not be resolved
at the Tunis Summit, the participants agreed to establish a process to
continue the debate, which is a classical way to deal with issues that are
politically difficult. So the idea of the IGF was born and actually first
proposed by civil society actors active in the WSIS negotiations. Civil
society actors were also very active in preparing the IGF through the
Advisory Group that was set up in May 2006 to assist UN Secretary General
Adviser Nitin Desai and the Swiss diplomat Markus Kummer in preparing the

The overall theme for the first IGF was “Internet governance for development” – divided into four topics: Openness, Security, Diversity, and
Access. The IGF was structured around long plenary panel debates on the four
issues, combined with 30+ workshops organized by governments, civil society
and industry actors on a broad range of topics, ranging from privacy and
identity management, privacy and development, freedom of expression, content
regulation and access, capacity building, open standards, access to
knowledge, infrastructure security and so on.

Optimists hope for the IGF to harvest new grounds for the development of
public policy on internet-related issues, using a model based on an open and
informal deliberative process in which the role of civil society is not
subordinated to that of governments. As several interventions stressed,
choosing Athens -“the cradle of western democracy”- as the IGF’s host city
may suggest that a new model of networked policy making is being born. From
this perspective, the IGF represents the first step towards truly
multi-stakeholder policy dialogue and cooperation, at UN level. Others are
more skeptical and see the IGF as yet another talkshow where everyone talks,
but no one listens, and where the broad civil society coalition and pressure
have been demobilized into individual goals and actions. Not least since
there are no mechanisms to ensure that the many words are followed by

Looking at the IGF meeting from the perspective of European Digital Rights,
the interesting point is to which extent the IGF may advance the protection
and promotion of human rights such as privacy, freedom of expression, access
to information etc. in the digital world.

The IGF was definitely a new way to follow up on UN Summits, and in many
ways more interesting and inspiring with regard to the content being
discussed than the usual UN setting of pre-prepared statements and
constrained modalities for civil society interaction. One example, among
many, was the way internet architects Vincent Cerf and Robert Kahn actively
engaged in the debate with policy makers, NGOs etc. on how to find common
ground for the internet. Another example was the way contentious human
rights issues like imprisonment of bloggers, censorship on the net, industry
cooperation with governments that violate human rights, or intellectual
property rights regimes and their effect on access to knowledge was aired
and discussed in the main sessions to an extent that you rarely see in
normal UN gatherings. However, I should not be forgotten that this type of
debate is possible precisely because no common decisions are taken, and no
binding commitments are agreed upon.

Another perspective is the IGF as a policy laboratory, where new approaches
and cooperation may be tested. One example is the new so-called dynamic
coalition on Privacy, which already has 40+ supporting organizations
ranging from privacy commissioners, governments, academia, industry, human
rights groups etc. The coalition is a new platform that aims to advance
privacy concerns on the global internet policy agenda, where it continued to
be absent during WSIS. The initiative is a direct outcome of a couple of
Privacy Workshops organised by “edri-associate” Gus Hosein from Privacy
International (London) and EDRI-member Ralf Bendrath from Netzwerk Neue
Medien (Berlin). Also, a number of new coalitions related to access to
knowledge and freedom of expression are already launched or in the pipeline.
It remains to be seen whether these new initiatives will have impact on the
content and shaping of future Internet policy decisions.

The IGF has no real powers in terms of enforcement, the concrete outcome
depends on how seriously it is treated, especially by governments. From a
civil society perspective, the IGF was a step forward in terms of
participation and in terms of setting the substantive agenda. However, it
appeared that policy makers were much more bewildered as to which role to
play. How should they interact in this rather loose setting where debate was
much less diplomatic than the usual policy spaces ? and how may the IGF feed
into the more closed policy spaces where decisions are actually taken?

Since the core idea of the IGF is to create new and more participatory ways
for policy deliberation, it is crucial that government delegates find their
feet in the process and are open to new ways of preparing for decisions. It
is also crucial that civil society groups keep up the pressure, and ask for
concrete indicators of progress. If not, it will just be civil society and
industry having yet another internet conference.

Internet Governance Forum

IGF Greece

(Contribution by Rikke Frank Joergensen, EDRI-member Digital Rights Denmark)