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Last Updated: Friday, 27 October 2006, 12:26 GMT 13:26 UK
Everyone talks, but no-one listens
The net's great and the good are meeting in Athens, but Bill Thompson doubts that they will achieve much.

The Parthenon, AFP/Getty
Athens is playing host to the Internet Governance Forum
It would be nice to think that next week's first meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) will mark the transition between today's Western-dominated internet and a true global network, but I'm not expecting too much.

The IGF, a "forum for multi-stakeholder policy dialogue", was set up after the second session of the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia last year. It will hold its inaugural meeting in Athens, the cradle of western democracy.

It is supposed to provide a space where the public policy issues around internet governance can be discussed, and its mandate is full of warm, fuzzy phrases like "facilitate discourse", "promote and assess", "help to find solutions" and even "interface with appropriate inter-governmental organisations".

Talking shop

In theory it should help to give governments and agencies like the United Nations a truly global perspective on the internet and its continuing development, getting away from the idea that the net is just another high technology export that needs to be managed and controlled by the world's largest economies in their own interests.

One of the preliminary discussion papers puts it well, calling for the net to be treated as "a public infrastructure with a strong public goods perspective" instead of allowing it to be captured by politicians or business.

Sadly, this seems unlikely to be achieved, largely because the IGF is only a talking shop and has no power of its own. It was the sop thrown to the online community by national governments who were unwilling to give up any real power over the network during the debate in Tunisia, and no-one with any real authority is obliged to listen to what it says.

This is a real shame, because despite its unpromising beginnings the organisers have come up with a programme and a set of policies that make sense.
Bill Thompson
There will be fine words spoken and important commitments are bound to be entered into, but behind the self-congratulation and sense of achievement the impact is likely to be minimal

There is an overarching concern with capacity building, emphasising the dull reality that the governance of the internet matters little to those who have no access or prospect of access.

There is a general UN-style appreciation of the importance of openness and a belief that the principles of the UN Charter of Human Rights must apply online as well as off.

And there is a structure, with annual meetings and a continuing secretariat, that will ensure that the IGF becomes a recognised body speaking out on these issues.

Pressure point

Just because the forum has no real power doesn't mean it is not being taken seriously in some quarters. Non-governmental organisations are good at taking any opportunity they can find to influence public opinion, so they will be there in large numbers.

Amnesty International, whose campaign has been running since May, is making a big push to get the IGF to speak out for imprisoned bloggers and provide solid support for freedom of expression.

But whatever the public relations successes, the political reality is that in the end the forum will be as useful as national governments want to make it.

There is no indication that rulers of China, Tunisia or Iran will take any notice of what is said in Athens, and no real hope that the Western governments will step back from their own campaigns to control, regulate and censor the net.

Chinese net cafe, AP
China, like many nations, monitors net use and users
Just this week we have the European G6 group, lead by the UK's Home Secretary John Reid, promising to work together to make the internet a "more hostile" place for terrorists, a laudable aim but one that usually implies more control, more surveillance and added restrictions on freedom of online expression for all of us.

The IGF is not about immediate results, of course. We can't expect all the imprisoned bloggers to be released next Friday, and nobody is looking for the dismantling of the Great Firewall of China in the near future.

But there is a real danger that its deliberations will actually block real change, acting as a conservative force.

The forum could easily end up taking up energy available for debate, argument and activism that could be better spent elsewhere, so that in the end it will make it easier for national governments to continue to regulate and control the network, limiting our online freedoms in the claimed interests of security and stability.

I won't be in Athens for the meetings, but this is one event that will have a big online presence and I'll be following the webcasts and audio transmissions of speeches, reading the official communiques and private blogs, and waiting for e-mails and reports from my friends who are going.

There will be fine words spoken and important commitments are bound to be entered into, but behind the self-congratulation and sense of achievement the impact is likely to be minimal.

Until we start holding politicians in more open, democratic societies to account for the decisions they make regarding the internet there will never be any real pressure to make things better, and next week's IGF meeting is not going to do that.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet

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