The Internet Governance Forum or IGF is a discussion forum on matters relating to the administrative and policy questions surrounding the Internet. A handful of IETFers attended the yearly IGF meeting, this time happening in Guadalajara, Mexico, in December. We wanted to report what we saw and talk about why the discussions at the forum are important.
There are other reports from this meeting, including the official transcripts and videos, Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) Chair’s summary (Lynn St. Amour became the MAG Chair in 2016) article, Constance Bommelaer de Leusse’s (ISOC) article “Reflections on a successful IGF 2016”, Samantha Dickinson’s article “Despite Renewal, the Internet Governance Forum Is Still on Life Support”, and the Geneva Internet Platform’s excellent report “Reflecting on IGF 2016”.
From an IETF geek perspective 2000+ people gathering to discuss policy issues in the Internet was quite amazing. The best moments are when people with very different backgrounds can connect. When the medical doctor from India explains the benefits of telemedicine just in reduced travel costs, let alone faster start of treatments. Or when you can connect the Bollywood movie director’s difficulties in getting paid for content in the sharing economy to your friends’ difficulties in your local newspaper industry. I felt we learned to understand the world better in some of these discussions.
IANA, and its transition had dominated global discussions of Internet Governance for the last couple of years. Perhaps unfairly; IANA is not the only and certainly not the most complex issue in this space.
But with the IANA transition behind us, you could feel the change from last year. There was a positive feeling about the community being able to complete this change and a even clearer support for the multistakeholder model of working together on Internet issues than in previous years. And of course, the forum was now able to concentrate more on other issues.
Role of the IGF
The IGF meeting is not all happy progress, however. First off, many of the issues are difficult and global trends run their own course. What can you or me or the Bollywood movie director do about the sharing economy, for instance?
Secondly, people really are different, ranging from the government officials to business specialists to lawyers to techies. And in many cases our ability to be multilingual, to speak both about our tech, policies, and business aspects is limited. You see the (rare) government official who just reads statements, you see people who have a difficult to understand that the world really has changed, us techies sometimes struggle to see the big picture, and all of us would benefit from even better connection to ongoing Internet practical reality.
But the value of the IGF in our view is that it offers a place for discussion, place for understanding the global challenges and opportunities better. It is not a perfect solution to get rid of your favourite Internet annoyance; but there may not be perfect solutions.
We’re also kind of fond of the IGF’s new working methods that focus on Best Practice Forums (BPFs) and Dynamic Coalitions (DCs) that operate throughout the year, and produce guidance that is voluntary but can help various parties recognise how they can deal with a particular issue.
As an example, the Dynamic Coalition on the Internet of Things (DC-IoT) has produced a document that outlines guidelines for “ethical” IOT applications, including meaningful transparency, user-control of data collected by the application, and so on.
Also, in the Geneva Internet Platform’s report, they asked IGF-longtimer Markus Kummer if he thinks the IGF being ‘just a talking-shop’ is really a weakness. I thought Markus’s answer was spot on:
This is one of the reasons why some governments don’t come here; they feel it is not serious enough, it is not some place we negotiate. But this is precisely the strength of the IGF – the absence of pressure to negotiate outcomes allows people to speak freely and also to think a bit outside the box, to do some brainstorming, and then go home and actually try to implement the ideas.
Key Topics at the 2016 IGF
Connecting the next billions of people remains as a key focus in many of the discussions. This is obviously very important, but we were also glad to see many references to more complex goals, such as ensuring the openness of the Internet; quality and not just quantity is important. And lets not forget that connecting all the people will not be the end of our efforts. Think of how much, say, agriculture or traffic would benefit of the optimisations that Internet communications can bring. This is true of both the developing and developed world.
The Internet of Things was also a key issue in many sessions, with a lot of focus on how it can be sufficiently secured. While Internet of Things as a technology in its own right, it also seen as an enabler for sustainable development, education, and helping the “global south” catch up.
Free and open source software is also considered as another enabler for the global south. Open source can help the poor use the tools they need, without having to afford additional expenses. It also allows auditing to protect people’s rights and information. A concern was raised from the floor of the meeting that big companies don’t care about open source. It’s important that the IETF continues putting our efforts into connecting with open source projects and supporting development of free and open source software (Hackathon, encouraging open-source implementations as we develop protocols, etc). And contrary to the concern perhaps, we think that is likely inline with what small and big businesses also want us to do.
The growing digital divide was referenced many times. While a lot of progress has been made in enabling more and more people to use the Internet, at the same time the divide is also growing. Think of the elderly who may be falling behind on the ability to use new technology, and are being shut out of many functions of the society that have moved online. Or the poor who cannot afford connectivity, which in turn may lead to the even worse outcomes due to more difficult access to commercial services, job markets, etc.
There was also discussion of big data, with suitable anonymisation and privacy protection, to assist governments and other actors in providing services, being aware of important trends, and the like – but data must be timely, relevant, and local.
Other topics of high interest included gender and diversity, freedom of expression, education, and legal matters.
The thinking sparked by these discussions will continue throughout the coming year at local and regional IGF gatherings. And, IGF 2017 will be held in Geneva, Switzerland on 18-21 December.
Jari Arkko, Andrew Sullivan, Ted Hardie, and Barry Leiba
Photos: The IOT Dynamic Coalition meeting with Max Senges speaking with Joe Alhadeff, Vint Cerf, Maarten Botterman and Avri Doria in the background (photo by Jari Arkko), Larry Strickling speaking at the IGF Opening Session (photo by Jari Arkko), and your IETF and IAB chairs hard at work on the in-the-meeting-compound Tequila farm (photo by Ted Hardie).