Looking at The Internet Governance Forum’s 10th Anniversary and Beyond

This year marked the 10th Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which was held from 10 to 13 November in João Pessoa, Brazil. The meeting attracted more than 2,400 on-site participants plus thousands of remote participants, and was considered one of the best, if not the best IGF meeting since its inception. However, before I dive into this year’s IGF, let me take a step back and provide a little background.

 

More than 15 years ago, a decision was made at one of the United Nations conferences to convene a summit on information society. Two years later, the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) took off and convened over two phases, one in Geneva (2001-2003) and the second in Tunis (2003-2005). One of the key issues on the WSIS agenda back then was Internet Governance. During the first phase of WSIS, Member States could not agree on what was meant by the term Internet Governance (IG), but they agreed to call upon the UN Secretary General to establish a Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) to develop a working definition of the term. WSIS concluded in 2005, and Member States adopted the definition of Internet Governance as proposed by WGIG[1], but they also asked the UN Secretary General to convene a new forum for multi stakeholder policy dialogue. This new forum was to be called the Internet Governance Forum (IGF).

 

Perceived as an experiment, many in the community had high hopes and worked hard to make the IGF a true success. Initially born with a five-year mandate (2006-2010), the IGF was renewed for another five years in 2010. The first few years of the IGF were far from easy, as stakeholders familiarized themselves with how to work and collaborate. There were times of tension and mistrust, but by the end of the first term, it was clear that the experiment was making progress, albeit with the need for improvements in some areas. During its second term (2011-2015), it became clear, as the term progressed, that the IGF succeeded in building bridges of trust and cooperation across its participants, and demonstrated far more maturity in its discussions.

 

Today, on the 10th anniversary of the IGF, deliberations on the renewal of the IGF mandate are taking place in New York, with a final decision to be made at the UN General Assembly in December.

 

This brings us to two important questions: Why is the IGF essential for the billions of those who use the Internet today and those who will use it in the future? And why is its mandate renewal of import to us?

 

There are three main reasons why the IGF is essential:

 

  1. The IGF is a global forum where all stakeholders come together and engage equally and freely in discussions around all kind of IG issues. While some organizations, groups and processes are mandated with specific Internet related functions or are responsible for making decisions in certain areas of the IG ecosystem, the scope of the IGF remains to be far broader than any other venues, to the extent that it has become the de facto place where the IG community can debate any existing or emerging Internet policy issue. There is no such a place in the IG world as the IGF where policy makers, together with representatives from civil society and business, would sit around the table and have a constructive dialogue on a wide range of political, social, economic and technical issues pertaining to the Internet. Although the IGF does not make decisions, it does influence and inform the decision-making processes that take place elsewhere.
  2. The IGF offers a unique opportunity for stakeholders from developing countries to engage with the global IG community, learn from others’ experiences, explore avenues for helping their local communities and return back home with some lessons learned and homework to do. For example, for policy makers or businesses from developing countries, the IGF would be a perfect venue to connect with stakeholders from around the world and explore new ventures.
  3. The IGF inspires communities around the world to come together in an open, inclusive and multi stakeholder manner and create national and regional IGFs. Many such forums have arisen all over the world and become instrumental in raising awareness and encouraging participation, particularly from developing countries, in multi stakeholder IG processes. National and regional IGFs are to some extent inspired by the IGF, and, as such, the continuity of the IGF is essential for their own continuity.   

 

So, with the final decision on its mandate renewal taking place this month (December) in New York at the UN General Assembly, where does the IGF stand today and how does its future look?

 

First, it’s important to recognize that the Internet today is not the Internet of 10 years ago, when the IGF was born. The extent to which the IGF has evolved to keep up with the innovation of the Internet is in and of itself evidence that the experiment has succeeded.

 

Secondly, the 2000+ participants who were in Brazil felt that the IGF was standing on solid ground, and could see its mandate being renewed for a further ten years. This gave the meeting a boost of energy and helped discussions become more forward-looking.

 

Lastly, this year’s IGF was able to produce tangible outputs through its Best Practice Forums and Dynamic Coalition sessions, as well as its research work on the theme of “connecting the next billion.” The meeting definitely had rich substance, with many of the discussions reflecting a high level of maturity and understanding of the issues, even when there was no consensus about some of the issues raised.

 

This was a remarkable achievement for the IGF as, until very recently, many community members were reluctant to push the IGF toward producing outcomes, lest it would become a negotiation forum and lose one of its fundamental characteristics as an open forum for dialogue. Producing documents summarizing experiences and best practices around various IG issues is, in my view, a turning point in the IGF, and it will likely continue to be one of its attributes in the future.

 

There is no question that the IGF has made significant impact in fostering dialogue among stakeholders and building bridges across all interested individuals, groups and organizations from developed and developing countries. The question about the IGF’s mandate beyond 2015 is no longer whether the mandate should be renewed, or why the IGF should continue, but rather how the IGF should further evolve and become a forum that not only connects people, but also connects economies.

 

About Baher Esmat

Baher Esmat is Vice President of Stakeholder Engagement at ICANN Middle East. In his role, he is part of the advance guard of Internet proponents for a free, open and affordable Internet within the Arab world.

He joined ICANN in 2006 after a four-year tenure at the Egyptian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. Baher is a former member of the WSIS Working Group on Internet Governance, and served as Chair of the Egyptian IPv6 Task Force. He is currently serving on the Internet Governance Forum’s Multistakeholder Advisory Committee, and the Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation of the Commission on Science and Technology for Development.

He has a Bachelor’s degree in Electronics and Communications Engineering and a Master’s degree in Computer Science.

 


[1]Internet governance is the development and application by Governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programs that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.”

 

 

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