Though Africa played a significant role in the formation of the Internet Governance Forum, the continent was never its venue for years. Finally, the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, hosted the 17th annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in 2022. The Forum actually originated in the continent when world leaders, meeting in 2005 during the second leg of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis, Tunisia, decided to end the Summit. This was because it was deadlocked over the definition of internet governance. Thereafter, a series of dialogues led to the formation of the IGF as a means to move toward a collective, shared consensus on what internet governance should mean, both in definition and in its substantive content. Since then, this annual event has become one of the high-profile reunions of internet stakeholders. Significantly, it is is held late November/early December, reinforcing the impression that it is actually a closing event of the year.
The IGF, with its commitment to multistakeholder principles and processes, is a place where there is – in theory – no hierarchy or power ranking in its deliberation. It admits an equality of all actors, even as access to resources determines which actors dominate. In reality, this is not the case as there are leaders and movers and shakers, as well as closed sessions where only privileged participants are admitted. Because it is a non-hierarchical, it also does not take binding decisions and its resolutions are merely advisory. Hence its beauty is also its weakness as any interested stakeholder can exercise some push and pull through advocacy and lobbying. In this sense, the Forum has all trappings of a talk shop. Because of the power asymmetry, many of its resolutions are often left to hang by governments that are opposed to specific resolutions but are too diplomatic to be seen as politically incorrect on the floor of this space.
Because everyone likes to appear nice, flaws in the IGF are conveniently overlooked and hardly ever raised. Here are some of the undercurrents that never made it to the official YouTube recording of the event that is showcased to the world of the success that the Forum has always been.
One thing that struck me the most was the absence of books. Yes, books. Hitherto, books used to figure as part of enhancing the public’s understanding of what the stakeholders do: about their understanding of issues, commitments and priorities, what they would like to see, or have been associated with. Each IGF devotes a huge space for the exhibition and in the past many organisations would come with loads of books for free distribution. As a bibliophile, this was one aspects that I loved the most. In 2019 at Berlin, Germany, the organising committee had commissioned the publication of two important books, which it distributed to all participants of the 15th edition of the Forum.
I had gone to Addis Ababa with a large bag to selfishly collect as many free books as possible. (By the way, I had also taken copies of our own books meant to be given out free there.) To my shock, of the over 50 or so exhibitors this time, only two had books to boast of. These were the UNECA (United Nations Economic Commission for Africa) which had only display copies of its books. (As an Addis-based organisation and landlord of the IGF 2022 venue, I thought that it had no luggage-related challenges in bringing copies of its publications for participants, however it did not.) The other organisation was the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), which had books by CITAD (Centre for Information, Technology and Development) again only for display, not for distribution.
The questions that came to my mind were: have we reached the end of books as we know them and that all publications are now only available online or in electronic formats? Or have major organisations also caught the bug of de-reading culture and they are no longer publishing? I did not interrogate any point person to find out what could be the reason.
Tuesday morning was the opening day of the Forum, which commenced on Monday as Day Zero. At the inaugural ceremony we were told to drop our handsets (those indisputable symbols of digital technology) and laptops at the security post. Then, we were not allowed into the hall of the main event that was meant to advocate and promote digital technology for the common good. I was curious to know why this decision was taken and implemented: were our leaders so fearful of the internet they did not trust delegates to enter with their handsets? Were the leaders of both the country and the Forum engaged in the usual do-as-I-tell-you-but-not-as-I-behave? That is, while advocating for the mainstreaming of digital technology in everything we do, did they not trust it being used in a "big-people" meeting?
Lost in translation
At all the IGFs I had attended previously, all the meeting rooms were properly equipped with translation devices. However, to my surprise here, many of the rooms did not have adequate equipment and facilities to translate proceedings into various languages and so all speakers had to switch to English. What has become of our advocacy for cultural and linguistic inclusion? Has digital inclusion now been demoted to merely having access to content in English only? This lack of adequate translation facilities was all the more surprising given that the Forum was being held at the UNECA conference centre, for which we had to pass a parade of African national flags en route to the venue. No doubt these flags are there to underscore the reality of the multiplicity of African languages and cultures. Yet this spirit was missing in the halls of the IGF.
Digital inclusion entails a wide spectrum of markers that needs to be taken into consideration. This includes language and cultural experiences. Digital campaigners and policymakers alike at the IGF agree on the need of linguistic inclusion to ensure that all people have access to information in a language that they understand as well as preserve their cultural and linguistic experience. Yet, for some reason, translation facilities were generally not sensitive to linguistic competences of participants. English was the default working language and limited translation was available in other UN-empanelled languages; but most of the panel rooms did not have adequate translation facilities.
Missing in action
There were a few glitches in the programme too. On Day Zero in the afternoon, Session 33 was listed and over 50 people gathered in the designated room. After 15 minutes or so of waiting, someone online asked when the session was going to commence and since there was no one at the high table, no one could give an answer. Time went by and neither the organisers of the panel nor the moderators and panellists showed up and after waiting for a full hour, the room had to be vacated for another session. Despite the poor coordination, no apology or explanation was forthcoming. Similarly, on Day One, following the opening ceremony, “Digital Self-Determination: a Pillar of Digital Democracy” was listed in Room CR 5. Those of us who showed up ended up listening to the background jazz music with no speakers or moderators showing up.
I enjoy irony. I was a panellist at the session “Internet and Environment: Beyond Access”, and during the question-and-answer segment, someone observed that if we are to be successful advocates, we must practise what we’re advocating, to which everybody agreed. But when he pointed out that since we were concerned with carbon footprint and that animals are a major producer of carbon emissions, we should stop eating meat at the IGF and hence should ask the hosts to stop serving meat at lunch, there was general laughter and reluctance to accept the logical conclusion of this proposition.
But while stopping eating meat may seem funny and hard to sell, what was well received were the concepts of internet fasting and internet holiday in order to reduce carbon emission as a result of internet usage. In fact, the significant rise in carbon emission registered during the COVID lockdown was due to the increased use of internet as people were forced to switch to online and remote working modes. The movement promoting an "internet fast" is growing and it is not only about reducing carbon footprint. It is also about protecting humanity from mental health disorders as people are getting afflicted with digital dementia. The loss of memory retention due to our succumbing to the seductive power of technology is becoming an issue that cannot be glossed over. Equally important is the less visible phenomenon of loss of analytical skills as we increasingly rely on digital devices to compose our thoughts and articulations.
Yet, as I argued in one of the sessions, while carbon emission resulting from internet use may be a big problem in the developed world, in developing countries like Nigeria, it is the lack of digital access that is a key challenge, and we should be careful not to apply the same solution to entirely different problems across the board. In developing countries, we need our people to have access to digital systems and digital opportunities; and while it is true the few included might have reached the point of internet addiction, in developing countries the great majority of the people are still digitally excluded, and our core challenge is how to digitally include people rather than start applying quota of carbon emission for countries that are experiencing digital deficit.
Ultimately, the challenge that digital technology poses to human beings has to be addressed in a more nuanced manner. We should not accept the same problematisation of issues or same prescriptions for all manner of problems. We most also avoid the trap of developmental linearity in which developing countries most necessarily go through the same experience as the current developed countries. Instead, we must let each country and continent take into account its own specificities and trajectory and decide what is of more pressing concern for its citizens than transplanting the concerns of developed countries perceived as necessarily the same as for developing countries.
Perhaps one of the biggest ironies of IGF 2022 was the hosting of the event itself in Ethiopia. Digital rights have always occupied a central place in this space. The multi-stakeholder model of the IGF allows for an inclusive dialogue around digital rights as a critical currency on the cyberspace. Which is why the selection of host should also be sensitive to the digital rights profile of the host country. Giving the hosting right to a country that abuses these rights would make nonsense of all the fine points about digital rights. While Ethiopia is not the worst example of digital rights abuse, it is certainly one where which these rights are frequently abused. In the end, therefore, the impression created was that we occupy our high ground of discourse over global rights but do not interrogate what various actors in the discourse do outside the Forum room.
… and feasting
Not everything appeared gloomy. The Ethiopians did entertain participants to a lively dinner with good food and music against the background of the excellent water works at the beautiful Friendship Park, all hosted by the mayor of Addis Ababa, an amiable lady who speaks of progress about gender justice and equity in her country. There were two other cultural events as well. But one thing that delegates kept mentioning was that there was way too much food at the venue. I overheard several participants saying that there was more of eating than deliberations at the sessions. That surely is an exaggeration, but the host kept hunger out the minds of participants throughout the duration of the event. Maybe I too added some weight as a result, who knows? But against the background of millions of hungry Ethiopians, this may seem hypocritical and lacking accountability. Will the Japanese do better as IGF 2023 beckons them?
Cover image: Daniel Getachew/The UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA)