I travel a lot around the world talking to people about child protection on the internet, and there is no doubt that the UK is widely perceived as having developed a very advanced and very interesting approach to dealing with the broad range of challenges which the new technologies constantly throw up.
Self-regulation is the order of the day: in other words in the UK in the internet space Government looks first to the stakeholders to help define the problems, come up with solutions and then implement them. Legislation that is not based on a broad consensus should be extremely rare, if it happens at all (which it has).
The origins of this British approach to internet self-regulation can be traced back to mid-late 1990s with the establishment of the Internet Crime Forum and the Internet Watch Foundation. In those days the sponsoring Ministry was the former Department of Trade and Industry. Early 2001 saw the creation of the Home Secretary’s Internet Task Force on Child Protection, latterly replaced by the new UK Council on Child Internet Safety.
At bottom, the WSIS and IGF processes which started in Geneva sprang from impulses which were not a million miles removed from those which had been at play earlier in the UK i.e. a desire to see what could be achieved by talking.
The alternative to talking at the international level was obviously not so much to do with warding off the threat of cumbersome or ineffective legislation, rather it was a worry that we would start to see the internet fracture into distinct linguistic, religious, geographic or even politically defined blocs. Part of the whole point and value of the internet would therefore be lost, perhaps irredeemably.
Another important objective behind the WSIS/IGF processes is the development agenda. In fact for many around the IGF this is still the dominant issue reflecting, as it does, a longstanding priority for the UN. There is a strong drive to ensure that countries in the developing world get access to the new technologies as quickly as possible for fear that, otherwise, the terms of trade will once again turn against them unfavourably.
The IGF therefore has had to embrace a much wider range of interests than the UK’s child-focused or crime focused self-regulatory machinery.
It is still early days for both the main IGF and its UK counterpart. Rio was really my first major engagement with the IGF, although I had lobbied around the WSIS statements and attended one PrepCom. Certainly as a relative newcomer to the (perhaps inevitably) Byzantine complexities of UN processes, I am only now beginning to feel that I have something of a handle on how the “Big” IGF works. I see both the UK IGF and the Big IGF as a space and a place where we can engage with parts of the internet community and parts of the world with whom we normally have little or no contact.
Thus the Big IGF provides us with an opportunity to build the international networks and alliances that we know are important to advancing our work on behalf of children and young people and we hope our interventions influence policy-making in the right way. Crucially, we also get the chance to learn from the experiences of others. The UK’s internet community can sometimes lapse into excessive politeness, so one is sometimes not completely sure whether people really agree with you or whether it’s all a bit too cosy and you let things go because so-and-so is a nice person and you don’t want to upset him or her by airing your disagreements or reservations. There is little risk of that within the Big IGF. You live or die by the strength of your case. No prisoners are taken.
Having implied that the Big IGF can be, and usually is, a rough old shop, it is nonetheless built on a fundamentally optimistic idea: that dialogue works; that through the application of reasoned analysis and debate we will inevitably elaborate a good, perhaps even the best possible solution which will be broadly accepted and then adopted on a widespread basis.
Will such optimism be justified? Even within the confines of the UK we have sometimes been bumping along at the very edges of what self-regulation can deliver. Everything becomes a negotiation. Everything becomes a compromise. Maybe nobody ends up feeling entirely satisfied? Up until now the children’s lobby has been able to stick with the UK processes because we can see there is a lot of goodwill around and (almost) everyone genuinely seems to be trying to go the right way. But it has been difficult sometimes to hold things together. The larger worry is that it is entirely possible that, up until now, in the UK we have only been picking or trying to pick the low hanging fruit. Maybe the really tough stuff is only now coming on to the agenda, I’m thinking particularly around the privacy question and how that intersects with various aspects of children’s and young people’s rights. And if this is how I am feeling about the situation in the UK, then frankly I worry about what, in the end, we can realistically expect of the Big IGF.
Maybe we need to start managing people’s expectations about what the IGF machinery can do? For my part I very strongly support the idea of maintaining both types of IGF because whatever individual nations or regional groupings of states end up doing, or whatever individual high tech companies end up doing, it is more likely that their decisions are going to be sound if they have at least taken part in, and been exposed to, the debate which the IGF facilitates. Maybe we should think of and start to market the IGF as being the internet equivalent of Davos? And if that’s not possible then we need to create such a thing on our own.
John Carr, Secretary – Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety