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Govs and net users prepare for Geneva showdown

No less than the future of the internet up for grabs

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IGF A showdown between governments and the rest of society over the future of the internet will start this morning in Geneva.

For the next two days, in the grand surroundings of the Palais des Nations, a United Nations meeting will decide the formation of a new Internet Governance Forum (IGF).

The meeting gathers together the most powerful, important and knowledgeable people in the world concerning the internet and push them toward a single consensus on vital issues such as spam, freedom of speech, multilingualism, fraud, and countless others. Its recommendations will be adopted globally.

At least, that is the hope, because the IGF at the moment comprises no more than 30 or so ambiguous paragraphs agreed to by governments at the World Summit in November.

At stake is not only the formation of the forum, but the future of the internet itself.

The internet is currently at a crossroads where governments and individual companies are openly considering building their own self-contained internets. China already has a vast intranet with carefully controlled border crossings to the wider internet, and is being aided by many Western countries - most recently Google - in creating its own version of the net.

Meanwhile, large ISPs are pushing for law changes that will enable them to contain customers within their own self-created internets. The business case is compelling - companies will pay to be allowed to be viewed by millions of potential customers.

But it is, and was, the internet’s very ability to connect people across the world instantly and without complication that has made the net what it is. The problem is that the change has come so swiftly that societies across the globe feel threatened.

The IGF is the formulation of those fears into a positive body. With it go the hopes that an interconnected internet can work, that all the disadvantages - pornography, spam, fraud, crime, libel - can be sufficiently dealt with. If the forum doesn’t find a way of building global consensus, the reality of a single worldwide web could crumble even faster that it grew.

So how should the IGF work and what should it look like?

A number of papers have been submitted prior to today’s meeting, all available online, which provide a number of perspectives from academia, business, government and the technical community.

It seems there is already a broad consensus brewing. But at the same time, the faultlines are developing. It would be wise to point out as well that no one at all has spoken about where the money to run the forum will come from.

The date for the first meeting of the IGF is already planned for October 24-26 in Athens. It now seems inevitable that the forum will possess the following attributes:

  • It will hold one annual physical meeting
  • It will tackle one main topic each year, with other sub-topics
  • It will have an open participation process in which any interested member will be entitled to attend

But whether the forum is a success or a failure will depend on the following three issues:

  • Will all participants have equal status, or will governments award themselves greater influence?
  • Will there be extensive online collaboration that will serve as the main process in the forum coming to a consensus?
  • What model of governance will the forum follow?

Most parties have broadly the same perspective: it should be open, everyone should be an equal partner, online tools should be a fundamental part of the process, and a loose internet-style decision-making model should be adopted.

The problem is that so far no one is certain what the world’s governments think. Will they be persuaded that by not taking the lead role in the forum they will ultimately benefit more? Can governments really allow online tools to be used to reach agreements when it is completely alien to their culture? And will governments accept that a loose confederation rather than a strong hierarchy is the best way forward?

This will be the battleground in Geneva, and if everyone isn’t happy with the result, the IGF risks being stillborn.®

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