The sixth IGF, and the sixth that I’ve attended. How does it compare?
I thought it followed the positive trend of the last four meetings. Participants from different stakeholder groups are now very comfortable with one another and with the meeting’s tone. Debates each year seem better-informed, more interesting and constructive. Some (but by no means all) workshops are useful, and a few really insightful. The lack of pressure to reach conclusions depoliticises the IGF and enables the open and constructive discourse which is absent from traditional UN meetings I attend (including much of WSIS). The importance of this should not be underestimated by those who are frustrated by its lack of powers to make decisions or even recommendations.
But there is a flipside. There is something of a comfort zone about the IGF today, and there is insufficient outreach beyond the internet community. The same personalities tend to dominate debates year on year. It deals well with controversial issues within the internet community, but has not reached out successfully beyond it. Governments are represented by ICT ministries, the private sector by internet-focused businesses, civil society by academics and activists who are personally interested in the internet.
If internet debate is to be owned by the world community, as it should be, debates at the IGF need to embrace internet outsiders as well as insiders – government departments that manage e-government services, businesses that use the internet but don’t provide it, the civil society organisations that are found in other UN fora (development and environmental agencies, faith groups, trades unions, etc.) but are absent from the IGF. They need to be brought in and listened to.
And one small plea. By far the best workshop I attended was one so crowded that people had no room to do their emails: they had to listen to what was being said instead, and so were properly engaged. Too many workshops consist of platform speakers talking at roomsful of people who are typing into laptops oblivious to what is being said. Proper debate requires full attention, and the IGF would be better still if people were prepared to give it that.
Posted by the UK IGF on behalf of David Souter.