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IGF: success, great success or useful sideshow?

Category : Internet governance · by Feb 19th, 2006

When asked a month prior to the meeting in Geneva this week how it was likely to go, one diplomat closely involved in the talks was unequivocal: “It will be a success.”

Really? “Of course,” he said. “Every UN meeting is always either a success or a great success.”

The United Nations truly does inhabit its own world. And it comes with its own language. If you assume a one-to-ten scale ranging from offensively rude at one end to utterly delightful at the other, every word at the United Nations comes with a +4 handicap.

You'd think this would make the organisation sound stupid when something really wonderful does happen. Theoretically yes, but then nothing undertaken in all its decades of world negotiation has ever registered above a six, so there's never been the opportunity to experience diplomatic nausea.

Meanwhile, the constant, pervasive level of outward glee has helped prevent us all from entering a Third World War, so if a bunch of people in New York and Geneva want to be disturbingly polite to one another, let's let them be.

There's a lack of decorum…

The talks were about the creation of a new body, the Internet Governance Forum. The IGF will be the first-ever global forum for the Internet. You could easily argue that it is already five years late, but that's how things work in world politics. Slowly.

You could also be forgiven for thinking that despite the delay, the creation of the IGF is a wonderful, glorious thing. After all, hasn't the Internet turned the concept of the “global village” from a catchy concept into a real-world experience that it only takes a laptop and a Net connection to experience first hand?

I have bought a Parma ham direct from Italy and a banned booked from the United States. I've played a computer game against a man sitting in Japan, and I've read local newspapers in the Middle East without even leaving my house. I have downloaded files in seconds from servers that it would take me 24 hours in a plane to physically reach.  

This is extraordinary, but it has also meant that all our systems and mechanisms for aiding, dissuading, and sometimes banning items within our own societies, have been weakened, bypassed and in some cases, undermined.

That it's taken this long to arrive at a global Forum where everyone can discuss the impact that the Internet has, and how to deal with the problems it throws up, is incredible.

What's sadder is that the IGF is only the by-product of a far more unpleasant fight for power. The world's governments met in Geneva in 2003 and then in Tunis last year to discuss what to do with this Internet. And the big show was dragging control away from the US government. The US government decided, in its wisdom, to go against previous promises and the will of virtually the entire world and fight tooth-and-nail to keep control of the Net hierarchy.

In time, that decision will be seen as a by-product of a shaky period in world politics and a dangerously self-confident US administration. But while governments were fighting over power and control, there were enough people smart enough to realise there was alot to discuss and alot to sort out that shouldn't be waylaid by internecine fighting. The Internet Governance Forum was the term finally applied – the name itself testament to the war in which it was born.

Maybe it's the fact that the Internet-control issue has still yet to be dealt with that saw so many people this week roll their eyes at the “weak” IGF. Until that battle is finally fought, everyone will continue to look for proxies.

It's a sad reality but the wild dreamers that made the Internet possible in the first place have been turned into cynics thanks to governments playing long drawn-out and two-faced games. It's especially ironic that at a time when governments have never been more willing to accept that they need others' help, that the very people they seek have called it a day.

Fondue?

But don't worry, they'll come back if the IGF manages to achieve its potential – to act as a global meeting point for those keen to see what this amazing technology can do for us all.

And talking of amazing meeting points, here's a good one: the Cafe du Soleil in Geneva. It was founded over 400 years ago and claims to offer, in a typically Swiss way, “probably the best fondue in Switzerland”.

They can't be certain it is the best, of course, these things change all the time, but it is *probably* the best. I can't say that I'm a regular fondue eater, but I can certainly vouch for the quality. And considering that the place was rammed to the gills on a Thursday night, it would seem that the people have voted with their feet too.

It was while tearing up big chunks of bread and swishing them about in the molten cheese-and-white-wine in the cauldron in front of me that an analogy about this whole WSIS Internet process struck.

The fondue cauldron has a small gas heater underneath it that not only keeps the mass above it warm, but it also keeps it fluid. If it were to go out, you would soon end up with no more than a bowl of hard cheese, and fondue eating would be less a pleasure and more an ordeal.

It is the same with these multi-stakeholder discussions over the Internet. Take them off the heat, or put out the flame underneath and the whole process would cease up. But the constant controversy surrounding every aspect is actually aiding the process. There is a constant swirl of new ideas and new issues and new problems and new meetings, and so no one gets the chance to end up in an impasse.

What is the flame in this scenario? The chairmen. Most notably Nitin Desai – who chaired the WGIG end of things, and Masood Khan who chaired the sub-committee that dealt with governance issues last year.

The cheese-and-wine mix at the IGF this time was particularly stodgy and with only two days to get everything done, Nitin Desai had to turn up the heat several times. And, if you watched carefully, he also reached around and stirred the fondue when he thought no-one was looking.

It is a measure of his and secretariat Markus Kummer's importance – and their concern at their importance – that Desai criticised the fact that all people in the room lavishly praise the job they have done. He told the meeting at the very end on Friday: “The last thing I wish to say is I think it's very important that we place this on a basis which is structurally sound, which does not depend on individuals. I say this because I have heard too often, you know, about Mr Desai, Mr Kummer. You know, Mr Desai and Mr Kummer are mortal men. And one of them at least is looking forward to putting his feet up.”

Mr Desai in fact retired several years ago but was asked back by Kofi Annan personally. Mr Desai told me while strolling around the Palais des Nations earlier that technology and the Internet had always fascinated him to the extent that he was frequently FTPing information before the Net as we know it existed and that he set up an unofficial UN website long before the United Nations discovered its full potential.

But he is right. While fondue is a lovely meal, you wouldn't want to eat it every day. Soon this process has to cut its reliance on highly skilled diplomats and move to a more stable, simple structure. A steak and chips maybe. Or, if that is too Western for some people's tastes, what about a nice, spicy curry?

Lost in your own world

I've now spent more time in the Palais des Nations than I have
in almost any other building, and yet it continues to throw up bizarre secrets. Some of them are useful: such as the non-descript door that leads down the stairs to the corridor that leads to the main cafeteria in the whole complex.

I had heard about this cafeteria many times and gradually come to realise that it simply couldn't be the small-scale ones dotted about every three miles that I had been frequenting.

And it was packed. No wonder since it is one of the only places in Geneva where you have a meal for under £15. Nonetheless, the place is such a maze, it's no wonder I've never found it. You have to be shown it, like some weird right [sic] of passage.

Similarly I knew there had to be a press area somewhere in the building. After all there is a permanent press presence here from publications all over the world. But its actual location had somehow eluded me.

It was only when, sat in the meeting, that Nitin Desai disappeared and it was announced that he had gone to a press conference (what press conference?) that a local hack from the Washington Post revealed an entirely new part of the Palais. One which helpfully also has a bar.

It's bizarre to effectively live in a building while being hopelessly unaware of what is going on around you. But then, I suppose, it is a palace.

Flights of fancy

When the newly formed United Nations was given the Palais des Nations and the land and parks surrounding it to act as their headquarters after the Second World War, there was a strange clause attached.

That clause was that peacocks should be allowed to roam the entire complex freely. The park has always been a home for peacocks, and it was decided to give them unquestionable protection. And they still have it to this day.

In the afternoon session on the first day of talks, one delegate who should really know better, came up to me excitedly waving a huge multi-coloured feather. “The peacocks!,” he exclaimed. “Have you seen them?”

Peacocks have always caused an odd, child-like fascination in humans. The birds are so improbable. They're not particularly effective at anything, except making a lot of noise when you'd rather they didn't. And while we have all seen pictures of the spectacular display they are capable off, the reality is that most of the time, the tail feathers are down, and only the shimmering blue chest gives any indication of what extravagant beauty is held in the drooped and over-weight back.

The meeting finished at around 5pm on the Friday, and most people left immediately to jump on planes to get back from where they had come in time for the weekend. The grand committee room that was only moments ago buzzing with noise and argument and conjecture suddenly felt oddly lonely. And eerily quiet.

It was the sense of anti-climax that always comes after lively debate but this time, there wasn't the sense that the job at hand had been done. It hadn't. There remains a huge amount of consensus to build, and structures to agree. The virtual certainty of a second preparation meeting before the full IGF suddenly disappeared at the last minute after several people said they would not, could not attend. The failure of business, private and civil sector to offer any money left a worrying gap over the whole process' viability.

And it became clear that Markus Kummer, secretariat, was the man who would have to ask the questions, gather all the answers and find a method of resolution that would keep everyone on board. And he will have to do it without the helpful aid of a second, big public meeting that lets people rub the sharp edges off each other.

Mr Kummer sat talking in the empty room for over an hour with a range of people about what this all meant and how he was going to solve these big problems.

By the time we left – he to his office, us to the world outside the UN compound – it was clear he faced a particularly heavy task. Outside it was dark. There was almost no one left in the Palais on a Friday night and the car park was all but empty.

But as I strolled out the door, out of the unforgivable ugly concrete building at the back of the Palais, and into tarmac no-man's-land, I saw my first ever Palais peacock.

It was strolling along, sticking out like a sore thumb but completely unfazed. I had my camera with me and went to get a snap, at which point it became clear we weren't the only ones. Standing by the side of the building, in between the wall and the revolving doors were another two peacocks. Just patiently standing there. Silent. All with their tails down.

Peacocks know what it's like to carry the weight of constant expectation. People watching and waiting for you to produce something wonderful from seemingly nothing. At the end of an exhausting two-day conference, and with still so much to do in such a short period of time, perhaps they felt a touch of solidarity was in order.

They may have had a long wait. The man inside still had alot of emails he had to send.

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