Magazine article Information Today

Internet Governance Forum: All Talk, Different Format

Magazine article Information Today

Internet Governance Forum: All Talk, Different Format

Article excerpt

From my perspective here in Vouliagmeni, Greece, it's impossible to say what the inaugural meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), held in an Athens suburb last month, actually covered. The meeting really wasn't about anything in particular, and yet it was about everything in the world that relates to making the Internet global.

The official agenda only listed four items: openness, security, diversity, and access.

But virtually every topic that had emerged in the epic WSIS (World Summit on the Information Society) process that culminated a year ago in Tunis, Tunisia, was somewhere to be found, either obliquely written between the lines of a speaker's remarks at the open forum or in the sidebar workshops--36 of which were taking place in adjoining rooms during the event.

Though WSIS would have appeared to have resolved or at least sidelined many of these topics, even the topic of what Internet governance should be (and whether a treaty should rule the Net) was alive, well, and living in the sidebar workshops.

As an international, diplomatic event, IGF was conceived and chartered by WSIS not as a decision-making assembly, but as a multi-stakeholder forum where matters would be discussed without binding resolution. The sessions were meant to inform, not to determine.

Unlike the preceding summit meetings where only government officials spoke with any authority and formal protocol ruled the sessions, at IGF, ministers of state not only shared the platform with leaders of industry and representatives from "civil society," but they also took questions from anyone in the room. The radical new U.N. format is the main bit of news emerging from Athens, and the only thing that can be definitively said to have happened there.

Old Ghosts Haunting the Halls

Though many of the officials at the opening session said this would be a "format-divergent meeting," nothing in the grand U.N.-style opening was anything other than a U.N.-sponsored event. The diplomatically correct speakers were on the opening stage, including the prime minister of the host country, Konstantinos Karamanlis (Greece), who entered and left the forum with a police guard.

The simple but highly symbolic issue that had often stymied and caused rifts in WSIS negotiations (e.g., the role of the U.S.-based ICANN centrally controlling the assignment of domain names under a memorandum of understanding [MOU] with the U.S. Department of Commerce) was intentionally excluded from the IGF agenda. But as the IGF meeting started, the old specter of the U.S.'s domination of the Net could be detected in the speakers' remarks.

"I should have thought," said the Greek prime minister in a comment interpreted by many as directed toward the U.S., "that before we move to Internet democracy, it is rather logical to firstly enhance democracy on the Internet itself."

Vinton Cerf, founding father of the Internet, ICANN chairman of the board, and Google's Internet Evangelist, dwelled unnaturally on the topic of root system integrity in his opening remarks, especially in the face of demand from other nations to use non-English character sets in Internet domain names.

ICANN's CEO Paul Twomey sat on the first discussion panel with Sharil Tamizi (Malaysia), chairman of ICANN's Government Advisory Committee (GAC). In a carefully timed move, ICANN's new MOU with the Department of Commerce was signed on the eve of IGF's opening. The new MOU provides more autonomy to ICANN, pushing it toward the longstanding U.S. goal of spinning the entity off into a private sector corporation.

For a topic not on the agenda and presumably settled in Tunis last year, ICANN's central role in assigning domain names still seemed to be a hot-button issue. Even a new MOU may not resolve it. During WSIS, the recurring refrain from the floor was "no single government should control the Internet." At IGF, comments that business should not control the Internet either were heard from the audience. …

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