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The 16th annual meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) will take place from 6 to 10 December 2021. In contrast to the last edition, organisers have decided to make this year’s meeting a hybrid event, including both in-person and virtual sessions, to be hosted by the Government of Poland in Katowice.
The pandemic has multiplied inequalities in access and participation in policy processes, especially global and regional ones where travel is required. We fear that the adoption of a hybrid model, while mobility constraints imposed by the pandemic have not yet been fully lifted, could contribute to exacerbating those inequalities and limit opportunities for meaningful participation and engagement with key international processes that shape the future of internet governance and digital rights, such as the IGF.
We want to acknowledge the challenges of organising the annual meeting in an environment of uncertainty created by the health crisis. Although we recognise the IGF organisers’ efforts to allow as much participation as possible through this model, the organisations signing this statement consider that abandoning the remote modality adopted last year – which resulted in significant participation – is still premature in view of the continued health crisis still impacting the lives of millions across the globe. We consider that compared to the hybrid format, the fully remote event option taken last year was conducive to a balanced participation of diverse actors despite the specific conditions of the pandemic in their respective geographies.
We, the undersigned organisations, hope that the virtual modality component of the hybrid model will be the primary parameter for the design of the IGF 2021 to be able to capture and build on last year’s increased participation. We consider that the IGF organisers should continue to privilege the remote modality until the pandemic is under control in all parts of the world, and clear and inclusive rules and practices are adopted concerning vaccination and travel restrictions.
We are concerned about how adopting a hybrid model at this moment could imply a disproportionate risk to the health of those who will be taking long trips to participate in-person in Poland. Also, current visa and vaccination protocols may impede participation of those coming from countries facing restrictions and where vaccines are not yet broadly accepted by different health authorities and consular offices.
These imbalances will affect not only the participation of civil society, but also the representation of government officials, particularly from the global South. This may directly reflect on the outcomes of the event, including its high-level track.
We respectfully urge the organisers to ensure that the decision of adopting a hybrid model is accompanied by relevant measures to ensure a truly inclusive meeting as the IGF community has been seeking to build for so many years. Both multilateralism and multistakeholderism are central characteristics of the IGF that should be preserved and promoted incrementally – a hybrid IGF may impact both.
We remain fully committed to the IGF and to making the 16th annual meeting a success story. This is why we call on organisers to carefully shape the hybrid event to address our concerns and ensure a successful, inclusive and balanced meeting.
In particular, we recommend that mechanisms are put in place to tackle the issue of time zones and connectivity costs. Adopting the Polish time as the single standard would significantly limit participation of those based in incompatible time zones. Also, participants should have access to a data support scheme, in addition to the travel support already announced, to ensure participation is affordable to all, especially those coming from countries where broadband connectivity is not the default and data packages are expensive.
The signatories of this statement express their willingness to participate in the discussion and implementation of ideas, structures, methodologies and technologies to ensure meaningful remote participation during all phases of the annual event. The key challenge of ensuring meaningful remote participation in the IGF as valued and impactful as in-person participation cannot be overstated or taken for granted. This is an essential part in the present and future of making the IGF a more open, inclusive and globally relevant process.