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IGF: success, great success or useful sideshow?

Making hard decisions, melting hard cheeses

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IGF Blog When asked a month prior to this week's meeting in Geneva 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?

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've 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 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 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. 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, enough people realised there was a lot to discuss 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 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 they need others' help, that the very people they seek have called it a day.

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