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The IGF Success Story

Web Foundation · May 11, 2009

The World Summit on Information Society, or WSIS for short, was a multi-year initiative of the UN that culminated on Nov 16-19th 2005 in Tunis, Africa, with close to twenty thousands people from all over the world gathered to discuss various societal and policy-making aspects of the Internet and the Web.

A noticeable follow-up to this WSISUN summit is called the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). IGF is hosted in Geneva, and after 4 years of activities, is very likely to be renewed for a few more years given the praises it has received.

To understand the importance of a UN World Summit, one has to remember that they are held rarely; only when there is an issue of large societal impacts, such as women’s rights in 1945, or global climate changes more recently. These summits typically involve themes that are well known and accepted by some, but not by all, and themes that have become ripe for all governements to take action together. The Internet is, today, such an issue.
With the IGF, two things are happening in parallel that are interesting:

  • The Internet and the Web, the Internet’s most successful application, have spread everywhere, in all countries. Governments are not in control of the Internet, nor is any other single group of stakeholders.
  • The UN is looking at opening its participation model (historically reserved to official representatives) to adapt to the new multi-stakeholder dialog model that has made the Internet and the Web what they are.

I remember well the first face-to-face meeting between Markus Kummer (now UN Executive Coordinator for IGF, then in charge of the WSIS negotiations on Internet Governance), and Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director, Steve Bratt, W3C CEO, Danny Weitzner (then head of the Technology and Society domain at W3C), it was on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of W3C Europe in Sophia-Antipolis, France, in June 2005.
The discussions, as they turned out, were half about the Internet and the Web as such, and half about understanding how W3C worked, in practice, day-to-day, eg, how to use the technology itself, the Web, mailing list, irc, of our ways of running remote and face-to-face meetings, or getting consensus across diverse communities.

The key word was “inclusiveness” of course, based on a very simple but dramatic reasoning:

  • We don’t know the answers to all the questions we are faced with on the Web
  • There are many, many more (order of a million times more) people outside than inside, so a much higher probablity that the answers we’re looking for are not going to come from an insider.
  • Therefore we need to open up to find the answers.

This is true for W3C and IGF, or ICANN or any public administration for that matter, and relevant whether we’re talking about just the staff that run the organizations (ie, paid for doing this job) or the first few inner circles of participants (at most a few thousands compared to the billions outside).

This is now called participatory governance by some, or inclusive society, and even though this principle is not new, its implementation is now greatly facilitated by the Internet tools used for working in groups, for communicating across nations and geographical boundaries.

Today the IGF is renewing its MAG (Multi-stakeholder Advisory Group, in charge of setting the agenda of the plenary, that is, which issues to discuss in more details) and has to face its own future as an organization pushed by strong winds of administration reforms. The original issues at stake are of course still with us: digital divide, access for all, freedom of expression, critical resources (eg, the DNS root), capacity building (in infrastructure as well as policy development), and new organizational challenges (ie, the Dynamic Coalition process) are raising.

W3C and the Web Foundation strongly share the vision of an Information Society in which everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge — in particular, knowledge about the system itself. This is the main reason justifying my participation in this forum (I’m on the MAG since the beginning), both as W3C and WF representative, bringing the perspective of open Web standards development that have led us to where we are today.

IGF had to go the way it went: opening, listening, discussing, questioning, in one word: facilitating dialog. This was the obvious course, because IGF had to interface with people who already worked like that. My hope is that it sets a good example for the rest of the UN agencies and for government agencies in general, and that IGF starts producing soft recommendations.

As we “collectively enter a new era of enormous potential“, to quote the last article of the Tunis declaration, we are convinced that our mission of “Leading the Web to its full potential” and “Humanity Connected” align with those of the IGF to build this new knowledge society.

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