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Experiences from IGF 2018

30 Nov 2018

The Internet is not merely about technology and business. The Internet affects many aspects of our lives and societies. And of course, our societies affect the Internet. One way that this happens is via regulation, which was a hot topic in the most recent Internet Governance Forum (IGF) meeting.

IGF 2018 Plenary Session

The IGF is an open forum under the United Nations, and met this time in UNESCO offices in Paris right after the IETF week. There were 3000 people registered, of which 1400 were online. IGF is a global organisation, but the topics that it focuses on are also discussed at many other places. There are, for instance, various national and regional Internet Governance meetings–such as Europe’s EuroDIG or the Finnish Internet Forum. Also, other organisations, such as RIPE or even the IETF discuss related topics at times, such as around the administrative arrangements that were discussed during the IANA transition effort. And the effects of many IETF technology developments are also discussed in governance and policy-related forums.

I was at the IGF this time primarily to attend a session that we had put together with Alissa Cooper, Maria Ines Robles, and Wout de Natris to talk about “Internet Mega-Trends”: the encryption trend and what is the IETF’s role, concerns over Internet consolidation and centralization, and the shift from device-centric to service-based networking (slides here). These seemed interesting topics for the IGF attendees, and there was quite a bit of discussion. Wout observed: “Connections between tech and other communities are important, to understand the importance of technology work but also aid in understanding the implications of the work or associated trends." We were able to make a few new connections in our session, which was good.

President of France Emmanuel Macron addresses IGF 2018
President of France Emmanuel Macron addresses IGF 2018

The biggest discussion item at the IGF centered, however, around regulation and the role of governments. The French President Emmanuel Macron gave a forty-minute speech at the opening ceremony where he emphasized among other things content regulation and the role of “multi-lateral” co-operation between governments. To those who have long supported a light-touch, multistakeholder approach to Internet policy and governance, the intense focus on regulation came as a bit of a shock to the system. Yet it built on the context of events over the last year, when the European privacy regulation (GDPR) came into effect, the Copyright Directive is being negotiated, a new proposal on dealing with extremist and terrorist content is being discussed, and, on the other side of the world, a proposal that would give rights to the Australian government to ask “assistance” (such as access to cleartext communications) on any Internet service is before the Australian Parliament. The IGF touched on almost all of these issues.

These discussions occur against the backdrop of the concrete realization of the kinds of dangers the Internet brings, from spreading misleading information to influencing democratic processes to massive leaks of personal information (such as the Cambridge Analytica case).

It should be noted that the global, regional, and national IGFs are not places to make decisions, be they are about technology, regulation, or commercial choices. Discussions can be useful in furthering the understanding of issues, particularly when people from different backgrounds can meet and better understand the bigger context. As Maria Ines says: "I had the pleasure to talk to people belonging to government, academia, human rights, and non-governmental organizations. It was very positive to see all these people, all with different backgrounds, meeting with the same goal: the goal of offering to the societies an Open, Secure, and Inclusive Internet."

Whether regulation is the answer to some of these issues is a complex question, however. In some cases it can be useful, for instance, to protect users' privacy. But in other cases regulation can be ineffective or even harmful. One of the big question marks at this time is what will be the results from the increasingly "extraterritorial" approach to regulation, or the effects of potentially conflicting or competing regulations throughout the world. As the Internet Society noted during the IGF, "hasty action, unilateral movement, and attempts to legislate values along national lines are as likely to break the Internet as they are to address social issues arising from Internet use."

So true, and I should also add that big parts of the meeting were focused on how to improve networking in communities, or how to ensure that benefits from various new technologies such as artificial intelligence can be gained all over the world.

IGF 2018 in Paris, France
IGF 2018 in Paris, France

Photos by Jari Arkko

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