The UN Internet Governance Forum will meet in November at Sharm El Sheikh. The IGF has matured into a useful tool. But it is under threat. Stakeholders should speak up!
It’s IGF season again. Representatives of key stakeholders are meeting again in Geneva to prepare the ground for the forthcoming fourth meeting of a body that has turned out to be considerably more useful than those of us involved in its invention expected. But despite its success, the future of this, the only multi-stakeholder forum available to consider Internet Governance, is under threat. If we want it to continue then we all, we multi-stakeholders, must speak up and demonstrate how and why we find it useful.
These issues were highlighted last week at the excellent East African Internet Governance Forum. Very well run, with solid participation from regional governments, CCTLD’s, Civil Society and Industry. A novelty was a special session for Parliamentarians. I argued that Members of Parliament had a vital role to play and should consider themselves internationally as another stakeholder group. They knew what their constituents needed, and were best placed to put pressure on governments and resist unnecessarily restrictive legislation, which might stifle the benefits of the Internet as we have come to know it.
All this was taking place in Nairobi, against the background of the remarkable progress being made in Broad Band connectivity in Kenya. No less than four undersea fibre-optic cables will be coming on shore in the coming two years. One has already landed and will be coupled to links reaching beyond the immediate East African region and north to Ethiopia and South Sudan. We talked about various different methods for distributing links beyond the cable proper. Wi-Max systems will link up the smallest municipalities with all the attendant benefits. Exciting stuff. It will be fascinating to see how these cables will spread their invaluable tentacles throughout the region. Can there be a more effective multiplier for economic and social development?
In Nairobi we also discussed the proposal for a Commonwealth IGF, designed to take advantage of that unique coalition of like-minded countries of all sizes, shapes and stages of development. The Commonwealth Secretariat is active in support of this initiative and side-events are planned for Sharm El Sheikh. Something else which will be raised in Geneva this week where representatives from Commonwealth countries will consider how best to share experiences and best practice across the broadest possible range of ideas.
But governments are only one element of the unique multi stakeholder approach to which many of us attribute the phenomenal success of the Internet. And not all the influences are positive.
At WSIS, when we created the IGF, we also agreed that there should be a programme of “enhanced cooperation” among all the actors involved in Internet Governance. The UN Secretary General was asked to produce a report on how matters might be improved, possibly with recommendations.
I think this report was supposed to be produced after about a year, but it eventually appeared a couple of months ago in the form of a compilation of the views of interested parties which had been called upon to contribute. It included submissions from e.g. the Internet Society, ICANN, and also from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). In each case the views and ambitions of the authors were made very clear. I would recommend that all those interested in the continuation of liberal internet governance look at this report, and in particular the views of the ITU Secretariat. [http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/un-dpadm/unpan035383.pdf I say Secretariat because I understand the contribution was not necessarily cleared in advance with its membership. Nevertheless it would appear to be a clear statement, as it were, of intent, and should serve to encourage us to work harder to ensure that the IGF mechanism will continue to give all parties, all stakeholders, an opportunity to express their views.
This should of course include developing countries whose interests are I believe much better served by this liberal approach rather than by the repetition of the sort of government driven bureaucratic rules previously deemed appropriate for the old telecoms system. I think our experience in Kenya last week amply demonstrated this.
And so I was delighted when the Kenyan Government formally announced its intention to host the IGF in the year 2011. (Next years event is already fixed for Vilnius, Lithuania). This guarantee of continuity is very important as we face the five-year review process built in to the WSIS decisions. I am a great believer in such reviews. Too often we create mechanisms which trundle along, impelled only by their own bureaucratic existence. Not so with the IGF which has demonstrated a real vitality as all the previous meetings, and in particular Rio (2007) and last year Hyderabad have shown. And all with only the most limited bureaucratic support. “Secretariat-lite!” Well done Markus Kummer!
Nevertheless there are still those who for a variety of reasons seek either to supplant or suppress this useful mechanism. If we are to maintain this admirable energy we must all, all we multi-stakeholders, redouble our efforts to renew the mandate of the IGF. Some governments are doing their best, but I would like to hear more from Industry, and from Civil Society, particularly among developing countries where most of the next billion Internet users reside. We should all speak up to announce that we all still have much to learn from each other, through Sharm El Sheikh, then Vilnius and on to Nairobi in 2011.
(Nick Thorne CMG was UK Ambassador to the UN in Geneva from 2003to 2008 and led the UK and the EU at the Tunis WSIS Summit. He now consults on Internet Governance issues and is International Relations Adviser to the President and CEO of ICANN. )