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What is this IGF?

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is an annual discussion space about the internet. It was set up following the World Summit on the Information Society in 2006. Many readers of this blog will know it or know of it; some will not.

It's multistakeholder and it’s global. It has no decision-making powers. It has a significant place in global thinking on the internet, especially within the UN system of which it is a part:.  It's loved by some but thought irrelevant by others.  

I’m one of few people to have been at every IGF; fourteen to date. I’ve travelled the world in search of knowledge and enlightenment from it, spoken at its plenaries and workshops, sometimes been stimulated, sometimes bored, quite often wondered if it was the best use of my time but still returned next year.

What’s up with the IGF?

This year there’s much talk of its future. We’re half-way through its second mandate (up for renewal or not in 2025). The UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation has suggested a revised version of it (IGF+) might be a way forward for international digital governance (along with other options). And the usual big meeting in a conference centre isn’t possible in COVID times; this year’s has got to go online.

So: this week and next. Some thoughts on what could, should and might happen to the IGF. Can it be made more relevant, more inclusive, more potent – or has the digital environment moved on too far, in the directions that I wrote about last week? What does it need to make improvements and add more value midst the seething mass of internet discourses that is now available? What should we hope for from it as it goes online this year?

Next week, I’ll look directly at the global IGF. This week: some lessons from one of the national IGFs that have sprung up around it.

The national IGFs

There are around a hundred national, regional and other special IGFs, called NRIs, each year. They’re widely seen as IGF success stories: a work in progress, still, but with significant potential to build dialogue about the internet in their host countries.

I’d say they’ve got three functions:

  • to explore issues around the internet, its potential, its impact, its opportunities and the risks it poses, in their specific country;

  • to bring together different stakeholders in that country, with different viewpoints, for discussions that enhance national decision-making, not least by governments;

  • to feed the needs of national contexts into the global IGF and other internet discussion spaces.

As with the global IGF, I’d say they work much better if they’re places where ‘the internet community’ engages in a dialogue with the rest of national society. They’re much less use if talking shops of internet insiders.

The British IGF

I’ve been a member of the organising group for Britain’s for some years. Like those elsewhere it’s been a physical event, held in the capital, asking its participants to spare a day.  

Like others it’s had presentations from key figures in the sector – government ministers, heads of relevant agencies (concerned with regulation, tech development, cybersecurity), and discussions involving business people and those concerned with rights, inclusion and other goals of digi-policy.

It’s not been huge but it’s been growing. It’s not engaged enough outsiders to the internet but the range of insiders engaged in it has been diverse. It’s delivered good content (increasingly as we’ve learnt the best ways to do things), with good speakers (not the ‘usual suspects’ who proliferate on platforms at so many other digital events) and good opportunities for networking (important added value for participants). I’ve enjoyed the UK IGFs and have looked forward to them.

But this year, of course, with COVID, things had to be different. What did we do, what did we find, what did we learn? Three points on each.

What we did

We went online, of course, and decided that we had to so very early. It was obvious to us that we should do more than make the best of a bad job; rather, we should make the online event at least as valuable to participants as the offline event had been. Better, really, to see going online as opportunity not problem.

We split it over several days, with morning and afternoon sessions focused on key themes, each with a keynote and then a discussion built around a panel and the chance for those online to ask questions through the panel chairs or comment in online chat.

Our sessions looked specifically at the themes selected for the global meeting: data, trust, inclusion, environment, the COVID impact. They focused on particular aspects of these rather than meandering in generalities. Panels were diverse in perspective as well as gender, race, stakeholder origin and age. We sought differences of viewpoint rather than like-mindedness. We deliberately included outsider perspectives, as we should: our environment keynote, for instance, came from a climate scientist rather than an internet insider.

What we found

Attendance was up on previous years but also different. Many more people registered than usual, because they could participate without traveling to London (though more again would have been better). There were a good few international participants as well, which livened up debate. Those who participated attended sessions that interested them most. Once in a session, they tended to stay, but they didn’t feel obliged to come to everything.  

The range of speakers we could put together was significantly better. Speakers could participate from anywhere; they didn’t have to give up their day. It was easier to bring in senior figures but also easier to bring in different types of speaker who would otherwise have found it difficult to justify the trip. More diversity of perspective, therefore, leading to more interesting debates, more attention from those listening.

Online discussion formats helped. Instead of selecting questioners at random from the floor, panel chairs could develop a coherent thread throughout discussions, choosing questions and comments that had been submitted online to build a narrative rather than disjointed Q&A. More could be done to bring external questioners online in doing this, but discussion quality was raised by this and more coherent outcomes reached.

What we learnt

Online events work if they’re designed to be online, not as sorry substitutes for offline ones. Discussions can be much more inclusive if they’re so designed, but networking opportunities are lost. I hope we learn from this. I think we should do better than go back next year to a physical meeting with remote participation added on, as has often been the case at IGFs. Rather, I hope we have an online meeting which also has an audience on site. (I’ve seen that work well lately at a literary festival.) That seems to me the way to build a bigger audience, and a more diverse. Networking needs to be worked on, but there are platforms that can help.

Monitoring matters. We know much more now about participation: who registers and who attends; what themes attract them; how long they’re willing to take part; what times of day they find most useful; what sort of questions, comments, views they’re wanting to express. Anonymised (of course), those data sets will help us plan a better programme next year. Online attendance patterns differ, for example; organisers need to understand this and market sessions to particularly interested groups.

You can’t do online meetings like this on the fly. I’ve seen many online meetings fail this year because those who set them up thought that you could. They need serious planning, careful thought, input from likely participants, professional engagement. The UK IGF has always used professional event managers alongside its multistakeholder organising group. The value of that partnership’s been evident before, but never more so than this year.  

Lessons for the global IGF and other fora?

There are big differences between a national IGF and the global annual event. The national event for instance, in Britain and in many other countries, is built around its plenaries; the global one around workshops proposed by different stakeholders. It’s easier to build coherent narratives and gather coherent outcomes from the former.  

I’ll say more about the global IGF next week. But I think there is an opportunity for its organising committee the MAG (Multistakeholder Advisory Group) to learn from the experience of doing things online this year, to compare its (previously most definitely second best) remote participation with the more dynamic online experience the UK and other national IGFs have managed, and to freshen up its style and content for the future.

If the global IGF needs shaking up – and I’m not alone in thinking that it does – this year’s COVID-enforced rejig may help the MAG rethink. Provided it is willing, provided that it monitors how things go this year, provided it takes proper stock. None of that is guaranteed, but it’s essential if it is to move towards the ‘IGF+’ that was mooted by the Secretary-General’s Panel.

The same goes for other internet events as well. It’s ironic that it’s taken COVID for the internet community to experiment with moving big global events – ICANN, the IGF and others – online. The outcome isn’t perfect, but nor are those big meetings which are always likely to be dominated by those (governments and businesses) with the means to pay the flights and hotel bills of bigger delegations.

Let’s hope the IGF learns lessons from this COVID year.

Next week: some thoughts on the direction of the global IGF.  

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.