IGF in Athens: searching globally for the Internet’s common ground

Originally published at Global Voices Online

Internet Governance Forum - IGFThe first meeting of the Internet Governance Forum – IGF, which aims to be a a place for a “multi-stakeholder policy dialogue”, starts tomorrow, going from 30 October to 2 November in Athens, Greece. The idea of the forum emerged during last year’s meetings of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis which sought to be an alternative to the stalemated debate about the future constituency and role of the all powerful ICANN, or Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

Approximately 1300 participants are estimated to attend the workings of the meeting, one third of which are state representatives (84 different delegations of countries), while the other two thirds consist of representatives from the civil society and the private (business) sector.
What Will Be the Outcome of the Internet Governance Forum Meeting in Athens?CircleID

‘The Internet has become a global commons, providing a uniform platform for commerce, communications, debate and research for all nations. But, with the rapid rise in Asian Internet users, the Internet runs the risk of becoming balkanized’, Nitin Desai, chair of the U.N.’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF), warns. Speaking at a conference hosted by Nominet, the UK body in charge of domain names ending .uk, Desai pointed in particular to a problem that could lead Asian nations to break away from the current Internet structure and create their own, separate Internet: most Asians don’t know the Latin alphabet, the basis of all domain names. [mp3 files]
U.N. Official Warns of Internet BalkanizationIP & Democracy

In order to delve deeper into the meaning of this “multi-stakeholder policy dialogue”, the Australian Jeremy Malcolm is developing a thesis where he suggests that the IGF model is a completely new approach. He is promoting his vision in a wiki and in a blog, trying to broaden the reach of the debate. In fact, choosing Athens –“the cradle of western democracy”– as the IGF’s host city may suggest that a new model of democratically networked policy making is being born, or at least longed for. This could be a political system that promotes the perception of the network as a world of ends with a center empty of content and agendas but, nevertheless, a center which could perform the role of guardian of the free flow of conversations. In spite of such promise, mainstream commentators still see the IGF as a naive, though well intentioned, venue where “everyone talks, but no one listens.”

This paper describes how the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), recently established under the auspices of the United Nations, might participate in the development of public policy on Internet-related legal issues, using a governance model … geared towards the achievement of consensus on legal norms for the Internet by an open and informal deliberative process in which the role of civil society is not subordinated to that of governments. It is theorised that such a model is better suited to the distinctive cultural and architectural features of cyberspace than a hierarchical model that would provide governments or intergovernmental authorities with a pre-eminent role.
Civil Society’s Role in the Collaborative Development of Transnational Law within the Internet Governance ForumJeremy Malcolm

Sadly, this seems unlikely to be achieved, largely because the IGF is only a talking shop and has no power of its own. It was the sop thrown to the online community by national governments who were unwilling to give up any real power over the network during the debate in Tunisia, and no-one with any real authority is obliged to listen to what it says. There will be fine words spoken and important commitments are bound to be entered into, but behind the self-congratulation and sense of achievement the impact is likely to be minimal
Everyone talks, but no-one listens – Bill Thompson in BBC Techonology

In the begining of October an article on The New York Sun set a tone and, as many bloggers assented, it transmitted a general skepticism of American cyber-activists in regard to the IGF. Indeed, there is often negative feedback from US bloggers when some new international effort is made to put Internet governance into debate. It seems like even a vague suggestion of governments’ interference frightens the geeks who actually made the Internet and keep it running. Sometimes they appear to be more scared of governments than they are about multinational corporations.

The UN taking over the internet. That should really, really, really worry anyone with half a brain. Currently, the internet is governed by ICANN, a private organization which has virtually no real oversight, but pays lip service to the US in tht area. Kofi Annan has pushed initiatives to give governance of the internet to the UN. Imagine that political mess governing speech on the internet.
This Should Scare YouBlue Crab Boulevard

The IGF, being a spin-out from the UN is a government-o-crat playground. And from what I’ve seen it seems that one characteristic that cuts across all government-o-crats, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, is that they hardly deign to consider mere humans as much more than ants at a picnic. They do, however, seem to have rather more esteem for industrial interests. Indeed, for some governmental delegations, particularly that of the US, the question of whether industry is government’s marionette or vice versa is very much open to question, with the smart money being on industry as the master of puppetry.
On the Eve of the IGF/AthensCaveBear Blog

Finding common ground over such a loaded word as ‘governance’ and its natural corollary ‘government’ among each and every country in the world seems quite impossible to achieve, especially because you have as many kinds of governments as you have kinds of people. But isn’t the gathering of so many different tribes already a happening capable of advancing social movements? For example, to Amnesty International activists the IGF seems like a perfect occasion to promote the freedom of expression agenda, and the Greek government has unintentionally helped to create the perfect stage for this to manifest.

Bloggers are being asked to show their support for freedom of expression by Amnesty International. The human rights group also wants web log writers to highlight the plight of fellow bloggers jailed for what they wrote in their online journals. The organisation said fundamental rights such as free speech faced graver threats than ever before. The campaign coincides with the start of a week-long UN-organised conference that will debate the future of the net.
Blog Free Speech under threat?Trepidation
It wants to make the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) lobby the UN to “act as a debating body for national net policies”, helping bloggers and anyone expressing their “freedom of speech” rights do so without persecution.
Blog Challenge: Blog About Those Who Dare to Speak OutLorelle on WordPress

There are several reports that the Greek authorities arrested a man for linking – not writing, but linking – to blog posts that had satirised a businessman (possibly a TV evangelist). The businessman complained to the police and the police picked up the adminstrator of blog aggregation site blogme.gr – and charged him.
Update: The man arrested was Antonis Tsipropoulos and the target of the satire was Dimosthenis Liakopoulos – a controversial Greek tele-evangelist. The satire site that mocks Mr Liakopoulos can be found at funel.blogspot.com, but since it is hosted in the US, neither the Greek authorities nor even Mr Liakopoulos can get at it. What Mr Tsipropoulos has been charged with, god only knows. But this is a spectactular own goal by the Greek authorites on the eve of the IGF. Particularly since making a crime of linking to someone else’s content is pure, and legally foolhardy, censorship.
Greek blog aggregator arrestedkierenmccarthy.co.uk
It seems that the Greek state has joined that illustrious list of enlightened regimes that feels that it can use the full force of the law to gag bloggers who have unpopular opinions. The owner of a Greek blog aggregating service http://www.blogme.com is being sued for hosting a blog with some satirical material about a famous person. Antonis Tsiropoulos, Blogme’s administrator was arrested and hauled off to the spend the night in jail and later to taken in handcuffs to the District Attorney. This is akin to arresting the owners of Technorati or Google as they hosted something you disagree with.
Protest emailTeacher Dude’s Grill and BBQ

The IGF is starting tomorrow
, and we hope it fulfills it’s role of inaugurating an inclusive and innovative dialogue. From my perspective, as a Brazilian and as a blogger and as one who knows the importance of cordiality and relationship, the great opportunity here will come as the fresh and excited new “ends” of this ever expanding global network meet “close and personal” within a non-hierarchical arena. The challenge for the “admins”, the ones responsible for the maintaining the core structure, is to preserve and protect an open center guaranteeing the free flow of conversations. In order to do that, the “admins” will have to be open to a real discourse with all new “users”.

I see the IGF as a laboratory, as a great study and, possibly, as a birthing ground where many new approaches may come into manifestation. For its part, the UN may have the opportunity to discover new models for the accomplishment of its role in the world. But all this is speculation. There’s only one way to find out. Let’s get to work.