By Marc Raboy
A year after the World Summit on the Information Society concluded that there should be a permanent global meeting-place for discussion of Internet policy issues, the UN’s Internet Governance Forum is holding its first meeting in Athens this week. Media@McGill’s Jeremy Shtern is there and will be blogging from the event.
The Internet Governance Forum emerged as a compromise in the final stages of the WSIS, as a range of countries from the European Union to China, as well as civil society organizations, argued that global Internet governance should no longer be left in the hands of a single national government, that of the USA. The US, which controls the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, refused to budge on efforts to create a new, more open governing structure for Internet domain names but consented to creation of the IGF, under the patronage of Kofi Annan, as a non-decision-making discussion forum.
Other players, particularly those representing civil society, are hoping that discussions will highlight social and not only technical issues facing the Internet, such as access, privacy and multilingualism on the Web. More than thirty workshops have been organized on a range of topics such as these, and one grassroots nongovernmental organization alone, the Association for Progressive Communication, will have more than twenty delegates in attendance.
Unlike traditional UN meetings, government representatives will not be the primary participants in the IGF. Following in the spirit of multistakeholder participation that the NGOs and other civil society organizations promoted vigorously at the WSIS, participation in the IGF is open to anyone who registers. Close to 1000 registered participants are expected in Athens, about 600 of them from the nongovernmental sector. The agenda and procedures, however, have been drawn up by a “multistakeholder advisory group” named by the IGF secretariat, in which governments, private sector representatives and members of the Internet technical community played the leading role.
The process is thus in stark contrast to the Working Group on Internet Governance which operated during the WSIS, and which most observers agree stood out as a unique model for democratic deliberation in multilateral, multistakeholder talks. The WGIG produced a groundbreaking report which stakes out the parameters of the main public policy issues concerning Internet governance globally; indeed, it suggested that a structure such as the IGF would be a good way to go about identifying Internet policy issues and proposing possible solutions to them on a permanent basis.
This first of what will likely be annual meetings of the IGF therefore holds out both hope and uncertainty as participants converge on the meeting site in a beachside suburb of Athens. The meeting begins on Monday, October 30 and will run through Thursday, November 2. For more information, see http://www.intgovforum.org/. And follow Jeremy Shtern’s reports here.