IGF: The more things change, the more they stay the same

Compared to other international and intergovernmental negotiations, which move at a snail’s pace, the Internet Governance Forum is still a highly dynamic process with a continuing openness towards change and experimentation. This year's most interesting area of experimentation concerns the outcomes of the Internet Governance Forum. The IGF is a space for policy dialogue; it is a non-binding process without any oversight functions. Even recommendations are permitted only in one specific area of “emerging issues”. But after a year of less polarized discussions in the MAG, the original antagonism inherited from WSIS had a comeback at last week's meetings.

Against the background of an overall acceptance of the IGF's dialogical mission, a growing number of participants grew noticeably tired at the Hyderabad meeting with what seemed to them a continuous rehash of the same issues. Experts in the fields of Internet access, for example, pointed out that there is nothing new anymore to discuss after three annual IGF meetings and that progress can only be made if the participants agree on taking action: decisions at the IGF instead of decisions of the IGF.

Last week's public consultation and MAG meetings in Geneva carried forward this drive for action and the intent to move from overly broad issues to a more specific focus. Based on the comments the IGF secretariat had received, a program paper was presented that suggested new categorizations and related discussion formats for Internet governance topics. Particularly, the program paper suggested to introduce “Round Tables” as a new format for discussing “mature themes” that are ready for action. Plenary meetings and open dialogue sessions, which facilitate debates among large audiences, could be devoted to emerging issues and topics such as ICANN that are known to be controversial.

Despite some suspicion about this movement towards action, a majority of participants supported the idea to try out new discussion formats in order to allow participants to agree on recommendations or to commit themselves to certain actions. Such a new format would stay within the mandate of the IGF but would help building outcome oriented coalitions among practitioners in specific, non-controversial areas such as child pornography.

Critical Internet resources once again became a bone of contention. Some members of the MAG expressed their frustration about the fact that the central issue that led to the founding of the IGF is not adequately addressed. This concerns questions such as the role of governments in the allocation of Internet addresses, particularly in the transition from IPv4 to IPv6, but also the future management of Critical Internet Resources after the end of the ICANN agreement with the U.S. government (JPA). In stark contrast to the MAG meetings three years ago, there is now a general willingness to address controversial issues and devote full main sessions for their debate. However, the argument has moved on as well. The central conflict between the proponents and opponents of ICANN and US oversight revolved around terminology and perspective: i.e., does the term 'internationalization' appear in the Tunis Agenda, yes or no? 'I couldn't care less', you may think but for some MAG members, the issue of internationalization is what the Internet Governance Forum is all about and progress in this area should form the central criteria for the upcoming evaluation of the IGF. Without being mentioned that often, the evaluation, and thus the future of the IGF, seemed to linger in the background of many discussions.

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