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Last Updated: Monday, 30 October 2006, 00:01 GMT
Dialogue needed on internet's future
By Nitin Desai
Chair of the Internet Governance Forum organising group

Nitin Desai is one of the IGF organisers
Nitin Desai is one of the IGF organisers
The Internet Governance Forum, set up by the United Nations as a multi-stakeholder space for dialogue, will meet for the first time on 30 October in Athens.

The IGF is not designed to take decisions. It is not an attempt to take over the management of the internet. It is a forum for dialogue and discussion for stimulating voluntary coalitions of the willing rather than laying down the law.

The question then is whether such a deliberative forum with no decision making powers can make a difference for the better.

The limited central management that the internet requires has been provided by a set of institutions set up by the pioneers and by the US Government. The issue is not any complaint about how they have operated.

It is about the future, the net as it will be some years from now and how we can give a voice to all who use it.

The net has outgrown its origins as a network run by and for computer specialists:

  • With a billion plus users world-wide it is no longer the preserve of scientists and technologists.

  • The big expansion now is taking place in the non-English speaking developing world.

  • It is now becoming a central part of public administration, business operations, telecommunications, news dissemination and entertainment.

  • The big developments in the technologies for the use of the Internet are now taking place in the private sector.

  • The users of the net are no longer just receiving information but creating and disseminating it with new Web 2.0 sites, citizen journalism and similar peer-to-peer initiatives.

  • The convergence with telephony, television, films and music is bringing the Internet within the ambit of law and regulatory structures in these areas.
  • That is why a whole lot of stake-holders want to be involved in the processes of internet governance - governments, corporations, development agencies, human rights activists and many others.

    At the same time no one wants to disrupt a system that is clearly working well as the phenomenal growth of net use shows. The IGF must be seen as one part of an effort to respond to this challenge of orderly engagement and change.

    Important dimension

    An important dimension of this effort is to secure a greater engagement of developing country individuals and institutions in internet governance.

    The greatest challenge in making the IGF work is the potential culture clash.
    Nitin Desai

    That is where the number of users is growing. Much of the use there is for public purposes like education, health and public administration.

    This and the low representation of developing country specialists in the present processes of governance is why governments from these countries are so much more insistent on gaining a role in the management of the internet.

    Innovation in the internet takes place at the edges. Someone works out a way of using the protocols to develop an application that opens up new possibilities.

    The world wide web, web-based e-mail systems, search engines, innovations in peer-to-peer file sharing, voice-over-internet protocols are examples.

    Smaller scale

    There are others with a smaller scale of impact. One thing the IGF can do is to raise awareness about such successes and spread the beneficial impacts of the internet.

    Nitin Desai
    It will give voice to the citizens of the global net and help to identify emerging issues which need to be tackled in the formal processes

    The IGF can do more. In certain areas like preventing child-abuse there is a widespread consensus among users and the IGF, by show casing good and successful efforts can help to set a standard of good practice.

    But the IGF has to be more than an exercise in education and awareness. The contact between stakeholders can lead to new partnerships for sharing knowledge and experience and, where relevant, to joint action.

    This will not come from any legislative authority but from the direct contact between practitioners from different parts of the world and from a diversity of sectors.

    The IGF is a bit like a village or town meeting. The preparatory work for the Tunis Summit in the Working Group on Internet Governance revealed the varied perspectives on internet governance, which covers not just what ICANN manages but a whole raft of issues involving security and stability, access, diversity and openness.

    The IGF is intended to give voice to this wide range of views. That is why it is designed as an open-door multi-stakeholder forum.

    Town meeting

    The IGF relates to the established processes of Internet management as a village or town meeting relates to municipal governance.

    It will give voice to the citizens of the global net and help to identify emerging issues which need to be tackled in the formal processes.

    It also provides these processes with a sounding board which connects the internet technical community with a wide class of users and stakeholders.

    The greatest challenge in making the IGF work is the potential culture clash.

    Public authorities with regulatory responsibilities, private corporations concerned about commercial potential, development activists who focus on ease of access and public service applications, media and rights proponents who seek to preserve free expression and internet technicians who want to minimize political interference must talk with one another rather than at one another.

    We need a dialogue in good faith with as much listening as talking.

    The IGF meeting in Athens can be considered a success if a fair proportion of those attending go away with some preconception changed, or, better still, some ideas about how they will work differently in their area of responsibility.

    The measure of success would be a notch higher if some practical partnerships emerge in the interstices of the meetings.

    But the best measure of success is if those who come to Athens choose to come again to the 2007 IGF in Brazil, the 2008 IGF in India and the 2009 IGF in Egypt.

    The Internet Governance Forum, set up by the UN as a multi-stakeholder space for dialogue, will meet for the first time from 30 October to 2 November, 2006 at Athens.

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