What is the IGF for?

Patrik Fältström, one of the panelists at the IGF security session blasted by IGP’s Michel van Eeten in a December 5 blog, has responded. Patrik’s response makes it clear why the IGF often generates so much frustration among the people working “together” on it. It’s very good that this disagreement has taken place. It reveals two very different – and almost inherently incompatible – visions of the Forum. I would go further and say that if Patrik’s conception prevails, the IGF will not last for the next five years.

Patrik thinks of the Forum as nothing more than an educational arena where technical experts like himself inform the ignorant masses about what is happening with the Internet. As he puts it, “The intention is definitely not to be a conference where for each topic there is deep future looking, topic specific, discussions for each area (where cyber crime and cyber security is one such area), but instead a meeting that is … an exchange of experiences, capacity building, that brings people not familiar with the topics up to speed on what is happening.”

In contrast, IGP and other advocates of a real Forum see it as a site where people with different policy perspectives engage in debate and dialogue in order to explore and develop solutions to Internet governance problems. It should be a place where the Patrik Fältströms discover how much they don’t know about the economic and political aspects of security, and a place where the Muellers and van Eetens learn from the Fältströms about the technical constraints on their proposed policies, and both react to the political aspects brought in by government delegations. By talking together they can all arrive at better solutions. But this vision of the forum relies on intensive interactions among fairly high-level, expert, multistakeholder groups. The IGF is not a place for remedial education about the Internet, it is not a place for people who are casually curious about some Internet issue. Of course, there is room for tutorial sessions, and the workshops can serve an important educational function. But that is ancillary to the Forum’s main purpose, which is to engage real stakeholders in exchanges and negotiations around real policy conflicts.

Where Patrik thinks of the IGF as a place for one-way education, we think of it as the place for peer production of policy.

I said that if Patrik’s version of the forum prevails, the IGF will die for sure. That is because his vision conflicts with the Tunis Agenda that created the Forum, and because it is simply not viable to run the Forum as a mass education vehicle. Business interests and policy experts like me simply will stop coming if the Forum becomes what Patrik says it should be. And we already know that key governments are getting tired of happy-talk and want to engage on the actual political issues. Van Eeten’s blog post was typical of the kind of reaction one can expect from most business people and academic experts who are exposed to the meandering inanity and superficiality of some IGF sessions. China's reaction is typical of how certain governments will react (by abandoning the IGF and turing to other institutions).

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