What’s the IGF?*
The world’s ninth Internet Governance Forum (IGF), organised by the UN, is happening this week in Istanbul. The IGF is a free and open gathering of people from all over the world who have come to talk about how the internet is run. Last year’s IGF was in Bali. The year before was Azerbaijan. Turkey’s jailing of bloggers and recent attempt to ban Twitter are actually part of an established tradition of IGF host countries showing a certain carefree whimsy about human rights and the internet.
IGFs are a bit like weddings or London glass box house extensions. They’re all basically the same, but the tiny, barely discernible differences between them consume vast amounts of energy and generate heartache for everyone involved.
What’s the same about this IGF?
For participants, IGF Istanbul is much the same as all the IGFs that came before. It has the usual long, hot queues for a registration badge, extravagant security measures and slavish worship of alleged VIPs, the near-riots by participants not about the free flow of information but the free flow of coffee; the endless, paint by numbers speeches by a dozen or so communications ministers, a venue network that barely functions, and a gala reception with no alcohol.
These first world problems are actually a plus. They bring the 3,000 participants together, providing just enough shared moaning to break the ice between the different tribes of government, technical community, business and civil society.
Nothing overt, but the ground is shifting. This is the second IGF since the Snowden revelations shattered global confidence in the US’s leadership of the internet, and the first IGF since Brazil initiated a global dialogue about who should be in control. There is also the ongoing saga of how ICANN can prove itself worthy of being cut loose by the US government before the Obama administration finishes. But no world-changing announcements are expected at this IGF.
As ever, countries including Russia that want to control the internet would prefer to have the discussion about it in a forum that governments dominate: the International Telecommunications Union. But those countries still come to IGF and take part, albeit grumpily. They see efforts to stop them getting their hands on the internet’s controlling levers as stemming from the west’s desire to keep it for itself, with freedoms and human rights simply a smokescreen. All the work-shopping and hand-shaking at IGF won’t mask the ugliness of the internet’s basic geopolitics, especially in a city straddling Europe and Asia, and looking up the Bosphorus to Ukraine, Crimea and Russia’s (other) Black Sea resorts.
Who goes to IGF?
Typically a couple of thousand people attend, from technical experts to ministry officials, from activists to business lobbyists. The business lobby is mostly American, though it’s usually fronted by a suitable, middle-income-country poster child for bootstrapping, intellectual property rights and government staying the hell out of the way.
The government people clump together in groups, looking slightly bewildered by all the egalitarian questioning and relatively open discussion. They typically give off the air of nerds who’ve been unexpectedly invited to the party and can’t be sure they’re not being mocked.
At IGF, nerds are not quite kings, but they’re the only ones who know how the whole internet thing really works, so we mortals duck into their workshops for the first 10-15 minutes to pay homage to our household gods.
The real king of the IGF is Vint Cerf, the “grandfather of the internet”, who is omnipresent in his trademark three-piece suit. People say he’s selling himself cheap at this year’s event and appearing on too many panels about ICANN’s coming independence. I think he just happens to believe in it.
Other larger than life figures include an EU commissioner, Neelie Krooes, who’s clearly enjoying her last few months in the job and saying pretty much whatever she likes; Larry Strickling, the US assistant secretary at the Department of Commerce – when he opens his mouth, everyone else closes theirs, the better to parse every word and interpret them in a self-serving fashion later – and ICANN’s charismatic CEO, Fadi Chehadi, whose silver tongue could charm anyone, but just the once.
And then there is my sometime tribe, the pro-freedom, human rights activists from civil society who agonise about whether being here legitimises all sorts of wrongs, from the host country’s jailed bloggers to the realpolitik really driving the internet debate. As Mao Zedong didn’t say about the French Revolution, it’s too soon to tell.
Does IGF matter to the Internet?
An old friend from the technical community stopped me today and said, à propos of absolutely nothing: “You must remember that we are here for damage control. Nothing more, nothing less.”
This illustrates two things. One, that the people who built the internet and keep it running grudgingly accept they must keep explaining it to and protecting it from the governments and corporates who want to use it for their own purposes. Two, that many people here are on broadcast-only mode. One way to have a successful IGF is to come with a simple, honed message and tell it to everyone you meet. If you’re good, you’ll soon hear other people adopting your meme as their own. It’s good lobbying tactics but pretty poor for actual conversation.
So does IGF matter? Not a lot. It exposes governments – often of not especially free or tolerant countries – to a wider range of views than they are used to. But the effects aren’t always what you might wish. I recently gave a session (not at the IGF) on the problems with electronic surveillance to an authoritarian-lite telecoms regulator. The feedback afterwards was: “That was good. But next time, could you make it more of a ‘how-to’?”
But to some not-quite-insiders, the IGF is an annual chance to challenge powerful people with tough questions. Activists fly thousands of miles to tackle their national luminaries on topics like net neutrality, local communications monopolies, censorship, and failed broadband rollouts. I can only hope the end result amounts to more than the momentary thrill of watching senior civil servants squirm before their peers.
How to survive the IGF
You need considerable stamina or, ideally, the ability to be in several spaces at once. How else would you choose between eight competing sessions, four times a day? Who’s to say which will be better; the internet and economic development in small island states or cloud computing in the post-Snowden environment? You won’t know till you’ve slogged up several floors, got lost twice, been flagged down by precisely the person you were trying to avoid, and finally arrived at an apparently electrifying session that nonetheless finished ten minutes early.
My tactic is to do half an hour each in the best-looking sessions in any slot, only occasionally ducking into the main auditorium. The main sessions usually have the most grandstanding, canned and scripted inputs and speakers so diverse in experience and concerns that it takes the whole time to come to agreement on the basic terms of discussion. Best avoided in person and followed on Twitter.
The key session to avoid is the opening ceremony. There is no reason to willingly submit to 25 ministers’ statements delivered in multiple languages but all following the same template:
“The internet is important. My country is important. I am a minister. I too am important.”
Ed Vaizey, UK minister for culture, communications and the creative industries, went down a treat at this year’s opening. This is because he largely confined his comments to enthusing about Turkish food. He also said governments shouldn’t get in the way of the people who run the internet, presumably in their stampede to the buffet.
“Ed Vaizey likes food. Ed Vaizey likes the internet. Both are important. So too is Ed Vaizey.”
Still and all, we’ve only got one internet (China’s private version of same notwithstanding) and we’ve only got one IGF. An Australian activist, Asher Wolf, tweeted to IGF participants this week that those of us in Istanbul are incredibly privileged to be here, and she’s right, and that we should speak truth to power every chance we get, and she’s right about that, too.
Participate remotely in the IGF here
- Re-posting this on CT, first published on Guardian.com.