What it is and why it matters: Developing Internet Policy at the IGF 2011 in Nairobi

EDITOR'S NOTE: This post is part of a series of commentaries and guest contributions reflecting on the Internet Governance Forum and the future of global Internet governance.

They Said It Could Never Happen There are many reasons why the Internet Governance Forum that took place last week in Nairobi was completely impossible: A lack of interest from established players who have become weary of the forum and the format, a long stream of stakeholders who couldn't afford to fly to Africa and ongoing United Nations orchestrated debates on the future of the IGF. Even so, thousands of people traveled to the United Nations office in Nairobi to discuss the future of internet policy.

Stakeholder Chemistry Despite the odds and in its own special way the IGF worked and provided a venue for civil society, companies ranging from transnational conglomerates to small regional Internet Service Providers, the internet technical community, academia, governments and international organisations to discuss what they deemed to be relevant internet policy issues. What was particularly noticeable about the IGF were the number of new faces, both from Africa and beyond. There must have been at least several hundred delegates from sub-Saharan Africa who were eager to share their own views. But at least the same amount of non-African IGF novices were milling around, suggesting that the IGF was indeed working.

Why should anyone care? Although there are several reasons why the IGF is important, none of them are particularly obvious. It's still too obvious to dismiss the IGF as a talk-shop, a lobby factory or a house of cards. However all of these metaphors ignore what is actually going on at the IGF: it brings some of the best internet policy people in the world together for a week. Often it gets them to talk to each other and in the best situation they develop projects and initiatives together. Want to do something about ‘the Internet’ because you passionately care about how it is (or isn't) developing? The IGF is a good to meet like-minded people who you can work together with to do something about it.

Getting involved For those people who don't want to fly to next year's IGF in Baku, Azerbaijan, you can either wait until the years after to fly to Indonesia of Brazil, or if you want to get involved right away you can get connected to any of the national or regional IGF's. There are dozens dotted around the globe which will be taking place between now and the IGF 2012 in Baku. Or you can browse the list of Dynamic Coalitions (a bit like parliamentary committees) which work on certain issues and join the discussion on where the IGF 2012 should go. The coalitions are open to anyone with some basic knowledge, the ability to communicate with other people and a passion for the issue which is being debated.

Why it matters I've been working on freedom of expression related issues for quite a while now and am astonished by the extent and speed to which the issue keeps changing on a constant basis. Having gone through a revolution, Tunisia decided to stop censoring anything – then again decided to start censoring some content. The UK discussed plans to filter all pornography in order to protect children while China and Iran keep thinking of more inventive ways to harass and cajole their own populations speech on the Internet. In the face of this pressure, I am shocked that there aren't more people advocating for online freedom of expression and that there is little awareness what this will mean for the communications infrastructure we will one day inherit to our children. Last week in Nairobi, Lee Hibbart from the Council of Europe suggested “erring on the side of freedom.” I wonder if the Chinese Foreign Ministry – who were in the room at the time – were listening.

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