Today is the start of the fourth Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Took yet another shuttle bus into another conference centre that has heavy security - or at least the show of it - big Alsatian dogs, burly men in uniforms and guns, mirror-checks under vehicles, bags into x-ray machines and so on. Funnily enough, a friend's 7 year-old son was not allowed entry despite having been registered. When asked what was the security risk, the response was that he might run around and make a lot of noise. Ironic, considering that "protection of children" was high on the agenda, with at least 1-2 workshops per-day talking about how to protect children from potential exploitation online. Not to mention how this is highly problematic in an age where gender mainstreaming policies were pushing for more child care facilities in public spaces to enable greater participation of people with children. It goes to show what is the privileged form of identities and assumptions that accompany this important public policy space.
As a quick backgrounder, the second phase of WSIS (World Summit on Information Society) did not come to a resolution on how the internet ought to be governed. The historical development of the internet meant that the technical and academic community played a large role in how it was developed and the standards and rules which accompanied it. As the internet became more important in economic, social and political life in the past two decades, States, the private sector and civil society have claimed an increasing stake in how it is governed. But the infrastructure, bodies where particular parts of the internet is located in, norms and rules which are informal, contractual and legislative and the nature of networked exchange over the internet being as distributed as they are, who ought to have final say in how it's governed, in what way and how continues to be not an easy thing to settle.
But important issues continue to crop up that needed a space and process for discussion and negotiation, with all the parties involved and invested in how the internet continues to be shaped coming together to have a say in it. With that, the UN Secretary-General was mandated at WSIS II to establish an Internet Governance Forum, which is a "multilateral, multi-stakeholder, democratic and transparent" forum that engages in debates and provide recommendations on internet governance issues. The next IGF is also the last one when the mandate ends. I guess at WSIS they thought that 5 years was enough to resolve this issue of who, what and how. What has happened instead, is that the IGF became a robust place for fairly open debates about existing and emerging facets of critical issues like access, security and development.
Which is also one of the biggest topic of this year's agenda. Should IGF continue beyond its 5-year mandate? How effective has it been anyway given that it has no decision making powers. There are no resolutions signed at the end of each IGF, where governments agree that this is the path to take. That would also have been weird in a way, because it would mean that everyone is agreeing that governments do have the final say, which I am not so sure that everyone does. But on a similar vein, there are no declarations by the multiple stakeholders who are present.
I did not attend the first and second IGF, which took place in 2006 (Athens) and 2007 (Rio de Janeiro), but contributed remotely to APC's preparation. APC WNSP organised workshops that were aimed at bringing gender into the discussions around internet governance. We've looked especially at communication rights issues, on the tensions between freedom of information, right to expression, opinion and privacy and freedom from violence against women. Despite the then recent bombings in Mumbai, I did make it to the last one in Hyderabad.
The experience was revealing. At minimum, it was a crash course on emerging technologies and lines of arguments. Cigarette breaks and workshop sessions were equally productive moments to think about the extent of the impact that technologies like Deep Packet Inspection could have on tracking ordinary people's communication over the internet, a more material sense of how pervasive daily life and existence have been digitised and the amount of control we have over this, the direction of policy and legislative interventions, and who were the powerful players in this area in greater detail than just names of countries or corporations. Some of the more sci-fi talks are already reality and being implemented, and some of the moral panics are already becoming laws.
Importantly, I was able not just to read about reports of trends and who was pushing for what, but was able to walk up to people with particular stances, expertise and positions of power, to engage in a discussion - whether they were government officials, legal experts, academics, people from key transnational corporations like Google or other civil society actors. This is I think, one of the key and critical value and importance of IGF. Maybe the fact that it had no decision-making powers meant that everyone was more open to debate and exploring the dimensions of a particular issue. And such an opportunity is invaluable. There are few policy spaces where you could participate as a civil society actor without having to slash through a forest of red tape and protocols or scour lobbies for the person from the government to influence after exhausting all your networks etc. All I had to do was work up my courage :) Oh, and of course, find funding since IGF seems to like to happen in remote, exotic, five star locations in the country (Sharm El Sheikh resembles scenes in a Hollywood movie where rich people go for holidays when they run out of imagination) - not a small challenge which deserves a post of its own.
In a way, everyone who is at the IGF has their own power to determine how the internet is going to be shaped, through technology, policy, legislation, norm and standard-setting or use. Everyone has knowledge, perspective and interest from various entry and vantage points. Decision-power or not, IGF does have an impact on how the internet and related ICTs are being developed and defined, through the persuasive power of discourse and exchange. The fact that it is persistently shaped as multi-stakeholder adds to its worth and significance.
This doesn't mean that it is a perfect model free from the tiresome problems that plague an unequal world. For example, the barring of entry of a 7-year-old child as mentioned above. Then there was the incident this afternoon, when security officials interrupted a OpenNet Initiative (ONI) reception to announce the launch of its new book, "Access Controlled", and demanded the removal of its banner which mentioned the China's Great (Fire)wall. When this was refused - it's really just a statement of fact - the security officials took the banner, dismantled it and took it away. Meanwhile, the internet is buzzing with this act of censorship. Another ironic moment. As Ron Diebert of the ONI project put it aptly, "This is a forum on internet governance, and one of its important topic is about access to information, freedom of expression and privacy. If we can't talk about these topics, what is the point of IGF?"
These challenges are very real ones which needs to be recognised and addressed in deliberations on the continuation of the IGF. The value and significance of this space will be severely compromised if complex and challenging topics does not have space to be openly debated, by stakeholders and actors from varied stances, powers and investment. Which also means that access and participation of IGF needs to be examined not just from the point of view that stakeholders fit into these neat categories that understand all actors as being equal. There are still very, very few actors from the diversity that makes up these categories of stakeholders participating in this forum. At the most visible and minimum, there's definitely a gender gap. Something that the IGF Gender Dynamic Coalition have consistently raised from the beginning, and by the WSIS Gender Coalition before, during the WSIS process. And we haven't even begun talking about race, class, disabilities, sexualities, age and more. The gatekeepers of internet governance must begin to create platforms and processes where even the least privileged and powerful have a legitimate and equal space to speak for themselves what they want their networked world to be. The challenge for all of us would be, how to make this happen?