Moderation, frustration, and making people uncomfortable
An internet conference with no internet
IGF blog You reach a certain level of frustration and then, suddenly, you relax. The struggle becomes impossible and then you realise that, ultimately, it's not that important. You're still breathing air, you still have legs, this will come to an end.
What on earth am I talking about? The mild insanity of hosting a global, revolutionary internet conference and then failing to allow anyone to actually access it - the internet, that is. The wireless access, despite endless complaints yesterday, is still not working at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). This is a mild irritation for most people, but as the mug who is supposed to be officially reporting on what is being discussed online, but who is unable to be in the room and online at the same time, it is mind-meltingly annoying.
It isn't helped by the fact that the Greek hosts have assured me - and others far more senior than me - that providing me with a wired connection is "impossible". That is except for the enormous Ethernet junction at the back of the room, monopolised by Greek TV. If it isn't sorted out very soon, I am going to tear out a router out from the wired PCs in another room in the hotel and I am installing a connection myself - and God help anyone that gets in my way.
That rant aside, how is it going today at the IGF? Well, unfortunately we still have the same platform, the same desks, the same rectangular talk-down by those up on the stage (I am told the Greek hosts said it was "impossible" for the platform to be removed - even though I was here two days ago when it was put in place). Now there are vague claims that there are UN regulations that dictate how the room is set up. This is, to use a classic British expression, bollocks.
The real reason is that governments are not comfortable with being touchy feely - they live and so they shall die by desks and authority. Personally, I think if you killed the platform and desks, you'd take a huge jump in multi-stakeholder discussions. For that to happen though, civil society would also have to meet governments halfway and be more diplomatic and less aggressive in their criticism.
And the way the Chinese government was hounded in the Openness session is a case in point. One of the biggest lessons that civil society has to learn is the line to draw when addressing governments - because they are hoping that the government will listen to what they have to say. It will always be stronger language than the careful diplomatic language governments are used to, but it's self-defeating to round on a government official. Gentle prodding, careful rebukes - if people want the multi-stakeholder model to work, and it is in everyone's interests to do so - this is the compromise you have to make.
Everything in moderation
Nik Gowing - a BBC World presenter - was the Openness meeting moderator and was taking no nonsense. As a result he livened up the room. He consistently told the people wandering around the room with microphones to hurry up, and to turn the mics on before they gave them to people. Again and again, there was 30 seconds of silence while a microphone was slowly handed over. Gowing was absolutely right to chivvy things along, it added a touch of pace, and I think it has helped create a different ambience.
The problem in the Security session after lunch is that without this active hounding and pushing, the session has slowed right down again. I think what this needs is two moderators. It's simply too big a job to put on one person's shoulders - the room is too big, the people are too numerous, and the cultures are so different.
There was some interesting stuff in the Openness meeting. It was high-level stuff - intelligent people, talking broadly and knowledgeably. But there is still a sense that the ball is being dropped. The Greek minister, acting as chairman, was less than happy about the Greek blogger arrest being brought up, and I'm pleased to say I am completely to blame for it.
The wireless connection finally arrived in the very last 15 minutes of a three-hour session (I had been downstairs, scribbling notes on pads and saving on Word documents and then coming back into the room - the most unbelievably hopeless and tiring effort).
And the fact is that the bloggers were talking about the Greek aggregator's arrest. Nik Gowing pushed it, and I pushed it further. Am I contradicting what I said earlier about not hounding governments? Yes and no. It was pressure on the host government - and this a Western government where ministers are used to this approach plus Greece - and so it sits in a special box when it chooses to host such an event - as was found out by Tunisia when it hosted the World Summit last November.
And more criticisms
The workshops - at least the ones I've stuck my head in - are NOT following the new-style model that the IGF tried to introduce. They have lapsed into conference mode - people rehashing the same Powerpoint presentation they gave last year, but with a few updates. There is not enough interaction.
The IGF is supposed to be more open, inclusive, moving. I think it was Vittorio Bertola who complained earlier that he doesn't want to step back to the same non-specific, semi-educational, boring yarns. He knows this, he's heard it 100 times before. He wants to move forward - get to the specifics. If others in the room have to learn fast, so be it - this is the Internet Governance Forum not the web kindergarten. I agree with him.
And if you don't believe me - I have been asking everyone I meet whether they are happy with the way things are going. The only people that are happy? Governments. They like it. It's free research and they still feel comfortable. If government officials aren't stretched - made slightly uncomfortable but in a energetic and productive way - by the end of the IGF, this forum is in trouble.
The question is: with so much of the process ending up in the hands of the moderators, do we have the personality here in Athens that can pull it off? We have a Japanese and a French moderator tomorrow. The Japanese man will be polite - maybe that will work. I have yet to meet the Frenchman.
The future of the IGF may well rest in their hands. ®