IGF-Rio: Remote Participation

Dialogue Forum on Internet Rights
Rome – 27 September 2007 (a personal account)

The Internet Governance Forum in Athens did an admirable job setting up a number of instruments for remote participation at the meetings. These include web casting, a discussion forum, live text chat, email, SMS, blog aggregation, and even submissions via video!

The effort was admirable — just the mere fact of the existence of such possibilities in Athens brought new elements into the process. But we could observe also that the remote participation procedures in Athens did not raise much interest. This is a serious problem if the IGF wants to project itself as a new kind of open framework for dialogue on Internet governance.

It’s not like there aren’t important topics being discussed: freedom of expression, cyber-crime, multi-lingualism on the net, surveillance, spam, etc. Certainly there are lots of potential interest, expertise and experience out there that could be integrated into the discussions.

In my view, the problem is that the “if you build it, they will come” approach doesn’t work for remote participation. It requires more.

The Brazilian Ministry of Culture has obtained some good results implementing remote participation procedures in its main events lately, as was the case of the “International Seminar on Cultural Diversity“, organized by the Brazilian Ministry of Culture along with the OAS’ Inter-American Committee on Education and Culture, which happened last June in Brasília.

In this event, the main mode of remote participation turned out to be a chat interface projecting the latest contributions from the web onto a screen behind the main plenary, in real time. The remote user experience was somehow enhanced as the chatters were dealing with an interface integrating the chat space with the webcast, as you see below.

Chat-Stream Interface

Chat projected in the conferenceThe moment the chat was projected on the big screen and started to fill the conference room with new and diverse visions and insights about what was being proffered by the conference presenter, we could immediately perceive the feeling shared by the audience — the room had suddenly been enlarged. The comments and dialogues arriving from the people elsewhere following the webcast in real time brought a new life to the event.

Lenore Garcia, Director of the International Affairs Staff of the U.S. Department of Education, declared that the interactive experience was a real “exercise on a new kind of democracy”. It’s worth adding that the blog that hosted the debates and the coverage during the event in June is being used till today by its registered members.

But as we’ve said earlier, the thing does not work solely through the model: “build and they will come!”. The Seminar’s succesful experience on remote participation was achieved through a plan which started being implemented 3 months before the occurrence of the main event — a project designed to engage the attention and bring the main specialists of each theme into the debate.

For each of the Seminar’s four main themes, a specific address on the web was created with a blog-like interface. A call was made in order to select a curator and a web-specialist (blogger) to form the team that would be piloting each of these blogs during the pre-seminar period.

The role of the curator was to be a respected name from the theme’s environment, write some notes and articles in order to provoke the debate, and also build an outreach list to engage specific networks, constituencies, and other events who should be invited to collaborate in the blog. The manifestation could come in diverse formats: a paragraph, a pertinent previous article, a comment on some of the other posts, etc.

Additionally, each theme has a blogger who manages the space where the debate will happen, and provide visibility to the opinions flowing through the blog. He also has to suggest new ways of packing the content generated from the debates: podcasts, videos, interviews, etc. It is important to mention that the role of the blogger calls for a mix of skills ranging from multimedia editing and publishing, an extensive use of syndication and the principles of the live web, and also a good (and quick) text.

What happened was that, at the end of these three months, each blog gathered not only the main theme specialists as they were selected by the curator, but also many other registered users who felt attracted by the online debate. This discussion phase brought forth presentations of relevant content regarding the main topics, helping to qualify the debate and transforming the group of registered users of the blog into a temporary community . In our view, this is what turned the remote participation procedures of the “International Seminar on Cultural Diversity” into a fruitful experience.

It is very important that the remote participation must be recognized as part of the event’s official agenda. In terms of usability, the best way to make it work is to set up some kind of ‘social network’ platform offering a more customizable experience to all people interested in the IGF. Such a platform should help people stay closer to their own main interests in the IGF process, and also to connect with other people through their affinities. For those who want to participate remotely, the possibility of registering in a way similar to those who will attend in person could make a big difference and turn the IGF’s remote participation into a more inclusive process.

Such a platform could also help achieving the IGF goal of keeping the conversation flowing in the periods between the events. I’ve heard many times that the IGF is a platform for discussion, and I like the name. But the word should not be used only to indicate that it’s about discussion and not decisions. Let’s build the platform!

There are obviously issues with online participation, such as dealing with irrelevant or unconventional contributions, or inadequate number of participants. But a previous process of preparation and qualification of those who will participate in real time, along with careful moderation and clear guidelines for all the other kinds of participation can help mitigate this.

The preparation process for an event that will happen on November 12-15 should be already set up. But there still is time to start the outreach phase and establish the web-spaces for each of the IGF’s main themes — Access, Diversity, Openness, Security, and Critical Internet Resources.

The technology to make broad participation possible is available and not difficult to set up, but there are some questions on how to connect these procedures with the official IGF’s registration process. The most important thing is to gather the proper political will, and the Brazilian Government is eager to make of the IGF-Rio a real and meaningful next step from where Athens has brought us.

The larger goal of beginning a global conversation on the future of the Internet is too important to leave it to those (myself included) who are able to go to Rio in November. I really think we still can and must do something about it.

This post was inspired by Rik’s comments on the remote
participation tools of the IGF 2006 in Athens.