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Internet future lies in Athens

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The inaugural meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) will be opened today at 10am by the Greek prime minister in Athens, starting the gun on four days of discussion that many hope will provide answers to some of the internet's biggest problems.

With even the speakers and moderators only agreed upon at the last minute, the IGF is a daring experiment in "multi-stakeholder" discussion, where governments will sit alongside business, international organisations and academics to thrash out ideas for dealing with problems as diverse as spam, cybercrime, freedom of speech, privacy, multi-lingualism and the availability of net access across the planet.

The meeting has already started suffering from its own success, with organisers forced to produce an ad hoc last minute system to allocate seats for the opening ceremony after it became clear that only 800 of the estimated 1,500 attendees would be able to fit in the room.

"There may be hiccups and people may be angry, but the fact that there's been such great interest augurs well," IGF Secretariat head Markus Kummer said.

In fact, in less than a year a small team of United Nations staff and volunteers have designed the IGF from the ground up and potentially redesigned the model for international global policy making. It all depends on what happens between now and Friday.

"Six months ago, we were at a loose end over how we were going to run this meeting," explained Nitin Desai, the man chosen by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to oversee the whole process. Because the IGF by definition is not going to be a decision-making body i.e. making binding decisions on govermments, "there was confusion as to how to run it", Desai explains.

But that is now over. "We have opted for something which is more like a town meeting or a village meeting - an open space where we give lots of opportunities for people to talk about things that concern them."

The meeting has been broadly split into four themes - access, diversity, openness and security - with each theme dealt with in a three-hour session with its own moderator (high-profile journalists from the UK, France and Japan) and panellists where they will discuss problems and try to involve both the audience and the wider online community in discussions.

At the same time, no less than 36 "workshops" will cover different aspects of the internet, with each session having a panel drawn from government, business and so on.

"The unique selling point of the IGF is that it provides a space that brings together people that usually meet separately," explained Desai. "There is a growing recognition that the Internet is becoming too much a core part of the economy, of politics, of culture, of education, to be handled in different silos. And there has to be some way of getting the conversation going."

Critics have dismissed the IGF as little more than a "talking shop", but both Kummer and Desai dismiss the label. "The IGF is not here to negotiate," Kummer agrees, "but by being here if people learn something, gain a different perspective - if some dynamic coalitions come out of it, all the better."

Desai feels that not having the IGF make decisions is actually an advantage: "As soon as you are negotiating resolutions, the convention itself can become stilted. One advantage here is that no one has to stake out a position."

Opinion is uncertain to say the least. But Kummer points to the fact that a large number of people that have not attended previous internet conferences - including a large number of European officials and MPs from governments across the globe, not to mention sections of business that tend to stick to their own conferences - is a demonstration that the IGF is catering for a real need in sorting out internet problems.

Professor Milton Mueller, a leading academic over the internet, is in two minds on the eve of the conference. "We've said for some months now that the really interesting things will be the workshops, especially if they can become the nexus around which people are mobilised on a particular issue. But as for the main session - we can't figure out what they are going to do. A panel of 16 people, and the people in the audience can't speak - what will come from that?"

French government official Bernard Benhamou is similarly uncertain: "As they say, all these meetings are a success or a big success. The difference to us in making it a big success will be in proving this kind of meeting can have lasting influence on the internet community - that's the challenge."

Asked about the ongoing controversy over the US government role at the head of the internet - something which is bound to raise its head again at the IGF despite people's avowed intention to keep the stalemate argument clear of more practical discussions - Benhamou is circumspect: "The lease is longer, but the cord has not been severed."

Meanwhile, Australian lawyer Jeremy Malcolm, who is writing a PhD paper on the IGF, is more positive. "Everyone has realised that they need to talk to others when deciding how to deal with the internet. The IGF could well become the answer."

Although even he is unsure that the first year of the IGF will produce anything of real value, he wants to see some changes to its structure so the IGF can at least make recommendations to the wider world.

"In what way will the internet become better off thanks to the IGF?," Desai asks. "One: I hope people will go away with a better understanding of the concerns of others such as privacy and the concerns of security. Two, it is possible that among the people involved in practical work, some valuable partnerships will emerge. Not out of legislation but through seeking help. And third, there will be a greater sense of voice and a greater willingness to participate in governance of the internet."

With many of the world's leading authorities descending on Athens to discuss the best ways to solve issues like spam and cybercrime, and with a wide number of discussions based around what the internet user - rather than national government - wants to see sorted out online, the IGF holds significant promise for the future.

A large number of people have turned out to see if this is what happens, although what many don't realise is that its success is predicated on them becoming participants rather than observers.

If you are interested in knowing more about the IGF and following events online over the next four days, visit http://igf2006.info. Reg reporter Kieren McCarthy will be filing updates from Athens throughout the week. ®

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