While the uncertainty surrounding attendance at this year’s IGF was mostly unfounded (there were more than 1200 attendees despite the Mumbai attack, an amount comparable with previous years IGFs), the usual doubts surfaced about what the Forum is accomplishing. Nonetheless, it seems that more participants are pushing the Forum to engage in substantive policy debate, and to identify a process for producing tangible outputs.

IGF Purpose: Education or policy debate?

The quality of the workshops and main sessions continues to vary widely. Some were organized by likeminded entities intent on presenting an overview of an issue to educate its audience, while others assumed that bringing together participants with diverging opinions and engaging in an open and frank discussion of conflicting policy views could lead to greater understanding of an issue. (see this exchange between IGP's van Eeten/Mueller and Patrik Fältström) If one believes audience size to be an accurate reflection of the better approach, then the later format won hands down. For example, the ICANN-organized workshop where the speakers consisted only of a few members of its own Presidential Strategy Committee (which deals with internal reforms for improving accountability of the organization) drew few attendees, while the panelists of the IGP co-sponsored “After the JPA, What?” workshop, which included multiple independent perspectives, attracted nearly 100 attendees. Workshop moderator Lee McKnight even conducted a straw poll (see the results and the workshop report) among the audience on whether the JPA should expire, pushing expectations of what Forum workshops could actually do.

It is clear that Forum attendees, while they are appreciative of informational efforts, are more inclined to hear about and discuss substantive policy debates. This feeling was also apparent in comments heard about workshop topics. Participants expressed a desire to move on from “hot-button” issues where there is largely consensus (e.g., child pornography is bad), to other issues within the ambit of the Tunis Agenda that are more controversial. The most notable of these, the control of critical Internet resources, was raised forcefully by the Chinese delegation in a main session. Going forward, Forum participants would be well advised to pressure the Secretariat to scrutinize and select workshop and main session proposals that support open and substantive policy discussion.

IGF Outcomes: A push for consensus and beyond

In the closing session, the representatives of three governmental bodies (Brazil, European Union, and Switzerland) clearly expressed their desire that the Forum identity those issues upon which there is “sufficient consensus,” and move beyond consensus to pursue some sort of output. Brazil’s Everton Lucero identified that the greatest challenge to, and in fact the future of, the Forum is related to its ability to identify “mature enough” discussion that could then “shift towards practical measures.” Bernard de le Chapelle, representing the French presidency of the European Union, suggested moving from “the mapping stage, where we explore the different dimensions” to “developing consensus” within a formalized group discussion, with the idea that this exchange could lead to better cooperation outside of the Forum. Thomas Schneider of Switzerland recognized the value of the Forum remaining “an open discussion platform” but argued its “outreach should be strengthened.”

As one would expect, the current regime of Internet governance institutions took issue with any hint of broadening the Forum’s influence. In the words of ICANN’s Jean-Jacques Subrenat, the specific characteristic that “this Forum doesn’t lead to recommendations or resolutions” [has] “allowed everyone to speak frankly and openly.” While perhaps partly true, one must recognize that the current governance institutions will instinctively push back on any Forum outcome that might interfere with or threaten the status quo.

In closing, Chairman Nitan Desai recognized the participants’ desire that the Forum evolve and suggested that it is already having influence. He summarized that the Forum should now “consciously focus on searching for consensus, on trying to narrow differences through our processes of discussion and dialogue” because this “process of dialogue and discussion helps in reaching decisions elsewhere.” But he asked participants if they could formalize the process, and “design something where, at least in a few limited, well-defined areas where a process has succeeded in narrowing differences, finding consensus, we can come up with something which carries a certain legitimacy because it has come from a broader multistakeholder process.” And, perhaps in attempt to defuse tension over control of CIRs, Desai suggested that any Forum outcome “must be a product which the people who have responsibility for decision take seriously”…and that “those people may well be Internet Service Providers rather than governments.”

IGF 2009: What’s next?

Regarding this last point, intermediary enforcement may become a point of contention at next years Forum. The pressure and burden currently being placed on ISPs by intellectual property rights interests to enforce copyright violations is enormous. And a large number of civil society groups are now pushing the theme of a rights-based approach to Internet governance. CS has consistently argued that there must be a balanced approach to IPR that takes into account fundamental, well-established rights, for instance freedom of expression and privacy. Interestingly, because IPR interests are largely absent from the Forum, a rights-based approach to intermediary enforcement might be an area where common ground could be forged between private sector ISPs, governments and civil society.

So far the Forum has shown itself to be a valuable discussion space, bringing many parties together that would not otherwise interact regularly. However, if the Forum is to remain relevant, it will need to 1) consistently address and openly discuss issues that highlight substantive policy disagreements among the parties, and 2) where sufficient consensus is achieved in discussions, generate some sort of output that can be referenced by parties engaged in the relevant policy-making institutions.