The Internet Governance Forum: Talk Shop?

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The UN sponsored Internet Governance Forum (IGF) begins its fourth annual meeting next week in Egypt. It is a bit of an unwieldy and esoteric entity – a forum without a mandate for any specific outcomes, nor any operating role. It is often criticized as nothing more than a “talk shop”, which to some degree is true.

That said, stakeholders in the Internet community ignore it at their peril.

The IGF is the offspring of the World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS), a meeting held in Tunis in 2005. While this may seem a little dry, it is relevant because this was the time that governments were really waking up to the power (both positive and negative) and potential of the Internet, as well as the fact that they didn’t really control it.

The WSIS process was, for some, an attempt to assert increased government control and rearrange the bottom-up, multi-stakeholder model that had governed the Internet up to that point. This was particularly the case for governments that were less predisposed to the rights and freedoms of the individual. Fundamentally some wanted to take “the people” out of the process and make it a more traditional multi-lateral, government to government governance structure.

On the other hand, many of the more liberal democracies and Internet pioneers believed that the success of the Internet was in fact built upon the multi-stakeholder, bottom-up governance process. They argued against a more traditional multilateral structure.

Locked in a conference room in the heat of a Tunis night ( I am told there was no air conditioning provided), an arrangement was hammered out. It is called the IGF, a forum with a five year lifespan to discuss, in a non-threatening way, the major issues confronting the Internet, not the least of which is the very governance structure of the Internet itself.

It may just be a “talk shop”, but we better pay attention. I certainly am. I’m on my way to Egypt as I write this.

As a representative from the Canadian Internet community, what are the issues you think I should bring to the table?

Disponible en français sur demande.

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