The best internet policy people in the world are attracted to the Internet Governance Forum, an anuual event that is officially no more than a talk-shop but in reality is the Internet world’s equivalent of the World Economic Forum in Davos – without the hefty fees or invitation-only environment. Anyone can go to the IGFs. Over 2000 apparently turned out in person for the Sixth IGF in Nairobi, Kenya last year – with an additional 1000 effectively connected via remote hubs. The WEF boasted a record 2600 registrants for its 2012 gathering, but with only 17 percent women, one might add. While it is not clear from a superficial perusal of reports what the gender balance was at IGF6, it would appear that close to half of the participants in Nairobi were women. We follow the IGF through its informal consultations which are regularly held in Geneva to plan these major gatherings, but all plenary sessions are available as video webcasts, and all other sessions by audio. The IGF itself has rotated around the regions (Athens, Rio, Hyderabad, Sharm El Sheikh, Vilnius, Nairobi) and will meet this year in Baku, Azerbaijan, sometime in November. The informal consultations were overdue this time around – they should have started last November – but there were various hiccups about the future of the IGF that delayed the launching of the preparatory phases until now. Other differences on referring to IPR versus only patents, derivatives and disclosure also remain in the latest draft.
The Multistakeholder Advisory Group of the IGF (the MAG) has four stakeholder groupings. Governments hold the most seats (25), but are a minority of the total, with ten representatives each for the private sector, civil society and the academic and technical community. We are impressed with this format, since the private sector representatives are part of the process and meet together with the other groupings in a common venue. Even at the various UN gatherings that are more open to multi-stakeholder participation, there are “major groups”, for example, in the Rio+20 Summit process – in this case nine of them including Business and Industry as one of them – they do not meet together are equal participants with governments. Instead, they present their individual positions to the intergovernmental representatives who are the sole decision-makers. So the IGF is different. We are aware that some governments are proposing to replace the IGF with a more formalized intergovernmental structure, and we know that the main private sector representative to the IGF, the BASIS coalition from the International Chamber of Commerce, strongly opposes this in favor of a non-policy making, non-regulatory body like the IGF. We are encouraged that the IGF consultations are back on track and were convened a few weeks ago here in Geneva.
We poked our head into the closing moments of the meeting of the MAG and caught the spirit of the participatory setting. We understand that participants discussed the major theme for this year’s IGF, with some strongly favoring a human rights emphasis (reflecting both gender concerns and the impact of the Arab Spring) and others preferring a sustainable development emphasis (reflecting the Rio+20 orientation of a new concept of sustainability and its implication for the Internet). In 2011, the Nairobi theme had been “The Internet as a catalyst for change: access, development, freedoms and innovation”. One can expect that the human rights and sustainable development dimensions will somehow be combined for the 2012 IGF in Baku. The participants in the consultations also discussed the newer emerging issues of network neutrality and the mobile Internet, but also the interplay between the Internet and “conflict minerals”. Other applications for the Internet in a “smart grid”, and in healthcare delivery were also mentioned. These are all potential sub-themes to allow for a wide variety of participatory programmes. Cross-border issues are certainly becoming prominent as the SOPA/PIPA controversy in the US illustrates, but this also gets into social networking, ethics, and new models of sharing content. Although there are also the extremely techy kinds of issues like “IPv6 implementation” or “DNS security”, the emerging issues of tension between open space and intellectual property rights, between security and privacy, between access and diversity are all making this a place for business to be looking at the implications for the global economy and marketplace. All of the meetings are fully recorded and available on the IGF website here. The next consultations will occur in Geneva on 15 to 17 May 2012.