First Internet Governance Forum Concludes

Despite embarassing connectivity problems and wide agreement that some of the plenary discussions needed to be more focused and outcome-oriented, the UN's conference in Athens concluded Friday with most participants reasonably satisfied. So far as we know, neither governments, business nor civil society participants thought they had been slighted or excluded, and most felt the whole exercise had been worthwhile. Thus the Forum succeeded in its most fundamental goal: establishing the basis for a cooperative, pluralistic dialogue that spans governments and other sectors of society. IGP's two Workshops on DNS and free expression were standing room only affairs, and so were many other workshops, as our prediction came true that the participant-defined activities provided the most focused and mobilizing elements of the agenda.

Freedom of expression emerged as a major theme of the conference, the topic of no less than three distinct workshops and one of the most well-managed plenary sessions. Amnesty International captured much of the mass media publicity around the Forum with a news conference promoting its “irrepressible.info” campaign against internet censorship. Several informal groups, called “dynamic coalitions” in Forum jargon, formed to follow up on Workshops. There was one on privacy, open document standards, an Internet bill of rights, a framework convention and travel funding for future Forums. In an important note of acceptance of the Forum, a participant from China called for creating a “world norm” on “openness, security, access, diversity, and harmonious collaboration.” Prior to the Forum, business spokespersons had often pushed to avoid certain issues and any overlap with the policy domain of established insitutions. But in the Athens summing up session, “BASIS”, a business umbrella group, made surprisingly positive comments about the results, showing that business spokespersons had either abandoned, or chosen not to emphasize, their fears about the Forum going off track. Sounding a valid caution, however, ICANN CEO Paul Twomey urged participants to make sure that governments are engaged and that the Forum should not become a civil society – business dialogue only. Looking forward to Rio, civil society and several developing countries pressed the Forum participants to develop ongoing working groups that develop more concrete outcomes.

A great deal of the positive feeling around the Forum reflected participants' knowledge that it was the first experiment. Nothing went terribly wrong, mistakes could be identified and improvements made. The non-binding discussion format succeeded in facilitating discourse and allowed nearly all participants to get something that they wanted — the airing of an issue, a chance to confer or coalesce with like-minded participants, etc. Expectations in Rio are likely to be — and should be — higher. See the IGP's “Road to Rio” paper on applying “results based management” practices to the Forum.

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