The Internet rollercoaster starts up the track again: IGF in Geneva

I am in Geneva for a stock-take of the first Internet Governance Forum in Athens last November.

It should be an interesting meeting. The one thing that no one is any doubt about is that the IGF will be bigger and more important in 2007. Born out of international discussion (some might say argument) at the United Nations over problems thrown up by the Internet – especially the best way to agree to fix problems – the IGF caught most people by surprise when it became a tremendous success, despite all the opportunities for it to be otherwise.

This year the meeting should get the resources it was starved of last year but at the same time the 2007 meeting in Rio de Janeiro could prove explosive mostly because of continued disagreement about how the Internet is currently run and who gets to make the decisions.

That argument is still ruminating so this 13 February meeting should be an opportunity for people to review and enjoy IGF 2006, discuss what worked and what didn’t, and agree on how to make this year’s meeting better. To this end. the organisers asked people to send in comments to help form discussion and have posted them on its website.

I have been through them all and have put together this quick summary of what everyone agrees on; what most people agree on; and where there will be argument. Where there’s argument, I have given what I hope is a balanced and objective review of what the argument is about and why it’s happening, plus predicted what is likely to happen.

There about 20 responses in all, covering governments, business, academia and non-governmental organisations, which is surprisingly few considering the IGF’s profile and the clear interest there will be in the meeting this year. Here’s the breakdown:

Everyone agrees there should be:

  • Faster, cheaper food
  • Better wireless access
  • Fewer panellists
  • More notice of events
  • Events finalised earlier and speakers approached earlier
  • More online collaboration

Everyone also agrees that:

  • The dynamic coalitions were a good thing
  • The host country should sort out visa issues early

Most people agree there should be:

  • More interaction in workshops
  • Shorter main events
  • An expansion of the “plaza”
  • Less overlap of main sessions and workshops

But there will be disagreement on:

  • The members and structure of the Advisory Group
  • Whether recommendations or conclusions should be made by the IGF
  • Whether the discussion should focus more on “access” and include “internet governance” – which means ICANN.
  • Future funding of the IGF

Before getting into the arguments though, I also came across three potentially interesting ideas in the papers:

  1. The IGF act a body that helps foster and promote inter-operable technology
  2. The IGF adopt the traditional RFC Internet approach to produce texts of broad agreement
  3. The IGF incorporates three-minute presentations of ideas and announcements

Now, the problem areas:

Advisory Group make-up:
The Advisory Group is very large (40+ members) and it has a slight bias toward governments. Inevitably, governments are fine with this, whereas those who end up with fewer people at the table – most notably civil society – want it to change. There are two arguments likely to be put forward:

  1. The Advisory Group did a sterling job and tearing it up and trying to decide a new group will eat up months of valuable time that should be spent organising the Rio conference.
  2. The huge size of the group resulted in most of the agreed problems with the Athens conference: namely that people couldn’t agree on panellists or topics so we ended up with far too many panellists and far too many topics. The government influence also led to the three-hour plenary sessions that people broadly agree are too long.

Likely outcome: The advisory group stays as it is with perhaps a few changes, but is pressured into developing better ways of being decisive.

Should the IGF make recommendations or conclusions?

A real sticking point. Under the Tunis Agenda, the IGF is allowed to make “recommendations”. However, the IGF Secretariat recognised early on that it would be far better that the Athens meeting did not do so or it would quickly have descended into argument and fallen apart before it even started. Instead the emphasis was on constructive discussion and information-sharing. And it was all the better for it, sparking the creation of “dynamic coalitions” that stretched right across the globe and stakeholders.

However there is a strong argument that if the IGF does not make recommendations then it will quickly become an irrelevance. The people turning up to the IGF are busy people and they won’t spend a week in one place just to have a chat over problems.

Of course, the reality of the situation is that it comes down in the middle. The IGF couldn’t afford to make recommendations last year and it almost certainly can’t make them this year because it will result in massive arguments, which will see the IGF fracture and its recommendations be ignored either way. The IGF needs to have another year building on the success of 2006 and then, when its processes and philosophy is rooted and agreed upon, *then* it will be safe to make recommendations.

Likely outcome: Same approach as last year is taken, with emphasis placed on the dynamic coalitions.

Discussion of “access” and ICANN
The elephants in the room. The two most difficult topics concerning the Internet behind which pressure is building.

One thing that everyone will say publicly is that “access” has to be discussed more. Access in this sense is usually taken to mean “getting people in developing countries online”. And everyone broadly agrees that this has to happen – without it, the poorest nations will lose out further. But politically, it is a can of worms. There are a lot of unpleasant truths to be faced once you get beyond the grand words.

For example, access comes with a cost. It will be very, very expensive to provide, say, Africans with fast Internet access because it not so much upgrading infrastructure as creating the infrastructure. There is also little profit incentive since the end customers have such low income, and it is companies that work by profit incentive that have the most resources and expertise in Internet matters.

The limited infrastructure usually comes courtesy of a monopoly telco with a business model of getting a lot of money from tens of thousands of individuals (including companies) rather than smaller amounts from millions of people. In Western minds, this is usually explained with reference to corruption; and in developing countries’ minds with Western companies’ control of the data pipes. Both are true to greater or lesser degrees but what is clear is that the very people in the best position to change the situation have the least to gain by putting through any changes. Unless, that is, the political and business landscape changes around them.

This is why the more debate and the more global pressure brought to bear, the more likely the situation is to change. But before that debate can even take place, there is a need for people to understand the situation so that perceived racial and cultural biases don’t cloud the issue. How do you do that? By having discussions and putting access on the agenda, but not make it the centrepiece.

A new conceptual model

That said, I was intrigued by an idea I heard last week from someone who knows a thing or two about this problem. He suggested that rather than the IGF’s agenda comprise four different topics wedged into a square, like it was last year, that it be given a different conceptual pattern: that of a circle in the middle with the other issues circling around outside it. Access forms the circular core. I rather like the image and the idea.

One of the things of real practical use in Athens was the workshops where advice and help was given almost informally about regulation regimes, infrastructure and capacity building and – vitally – engineering courses so countries can develop their own talent. A hundred local engineers are always going to have a bigger impact than 100 imported short-term-contract engineers.

It may also help to expand the view of access beyond just poor countries without Net access. Access is vital in every country: from more Wi-Fi hotspots in Europe; to cheaper computers in India; to making the business case for government-backed broadband roll-out. China is leaping ahead, as is South Korea. In Mexico recently, I noticed that there was plenty of bandwidth in the cities but people were still using Internet cafes. The same was true when I was in Colombia. And I remember when in Tunisia, the pride with which I was shown the new computer room in the hotel I was staying at.

The prices of Internet cafes have come down with demand, but it is absolutely vital that the jump is made to where people have their own computer, like I am using my laptop right now. When you have access in your pocket (as I have done for at least two years on my phone and PDA), the Net’s possibilities explode.

I should also mention the $100 laptop punted by Nicholas Negroponte which I have always been, and remain, deeply sceptical of. But I hear that the demand created by his high media profile has created an expectant market and now Intel is looking at a $200 laptop to cover people’s needs. That’s the power of discussion.

And that is really the extent of my knowledge and understanding of access issues – all pretty shallow stuff based on little more than anecdotes. Which is all the more reason why access should be discussed more widely – so we can get some facts and figures and everyone knows what we are really up against.

ICANN

The other topic of controversy is, of course, ICANN. At the last IGF there was some quite explicit efforts to prevent widespread discussion of ICANN (under the cloak of “governance of the Internet”). There was nonetheless some public conversation about in the opening session, and a workshop effectively dedicated to it, but it didn’t blow up and sweep away the other topics much to everyone’s relief. A lesson from WSIS.

But as numerous people have pointed out, this doesn’t mean it is off the agenda. And since the next IGF will be held in Rio, it is sure to come up in sort form as the Brazilians are one of the most sharply critical parties when it comes to ICANN – or, more precisely, the US government’s continued oversight of ICANN.

I would predict though that there is still a majority of people though that want to make sure not so much that ICANN *isn’t* discussed but that all the other vital elements *are* discussed. There will always be a venue for Net governance arguments, but the IGF is – and should be – much more than that.

I should state by the way that I am now actually an ICANN employee (general manger of public participation) so my comments may be viewed as biased. In my favour, I have publicly held the same view for a long time while acting as a journalist.

Likely outcome: Some element of ICANN’s role, discussed under some pseudonym, will be on the Rio agenda; the access discussions will progress slightly but still take up far less space than they should.

Future funding

This post is going on a long time – apologies – last point of controversy: funding.

The IGF suffered tremendously last time from having only a tiny pot of funds. That the IGF wasn’t a complete shambles is mostly thanks to the remarkable skills of Markus Kummer and Chengetai Masango who made up the IGF Secretariat (although it would be extremely unfair not to also mention the voluntary and very hard-working Advisory Group; the hosts, Greece; the UN staff and organisers; and the people that did put money in of whom I am certain about only two – Nominet and ICANN).

This time around, the situation should be much better. For one, the IGF was a big success – something that Kummer said in the press conference on the last day of Athens would be a huge boon as he could now showcase what the conference was to potential donors. Plus the business crowd were more impressed than they expected to be, so there should with luck be more businesses putting in money and also making more of the plaza idea. And then maybe governments will be persuaded to invest a little more seeing as the IGF appears to have carved out its spot.

Nevertheless, there will still be argument about where the funds come from or should come from. And then, no doubt, complaints about perceived bias in favour of donors, or exclusion of others on the grounds of financial ability. And then there’s the issue of travel grants to people in poorer nations – another hot potato. And so on, and so forth – whenever it comes to money, there is usually argument both behind and in front.

All that aside

I have perhaps concentrated too much on the negative here but I felt it might be useful to point out the situation surrounding the points where people are likely to disagree.

Personally, I am looking forward to seeing all the people I met in Athens, and have met at previous Geneva meetings, because when you step away from the small arguments every one of them – and they are a very, very diverse group – is in the room in order to make the Net work better and to get the most out of it. And it’s always exciting to be in amongst that sort of gathering.

I should also say that the collaboration site I set up with Jeremy Malcolm for the IGF meeting in November may serve as a useful resource for people wanting to know about what is going on in the meeting tomorrow. Check out the http://igf2006.info/wiki/RemoteParticipation webpage for more information.

The IGF official site is at http://www.intgovforum.org. And – ah ha ha ha – I have just noticed that the IGF Secretariat has put together its own synthesis document of all the contributions it received, so this entire post may have been a waste of time. If you want the official, and no doubt more objective view of people’s positions, you can download it here [rtf].

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