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Internet forum promises democracy to the masses

But the masses aren't convinced

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IGF The inaugural meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was opened in Athens yesterday morning by Greek prime minister Konstantinos Karamanlis amid proud claims that the forum represented a new level of democratic thinking at the top of the internet.

In a webcast opening ceremony, Karamanlis joined other high-profile guests including EC Commissioner Viviane Reding, ITU secretary general Yoshio Utsumi, and "fathers of the internet" Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn in presenting speeches to the packed room, each of which alluded to Greece as the birthplace of democracy.

Greek transport minister and meeting chair Michalis Liapis kicked things off by announcing that the internet was "the most democratic means of communication in the world" and stating that he hoped the forum would "become the place to convert the digital divide into the digital opportunity".

Prime Minister Karamanlis continued the refrain pointing out Greece's proud history arguing for the importance of a "free flow of information" and hoping that the forum would "enhance democracy in the internet itself".

Nitin Desai, the United Nations man in charge of convening the IGF, took the stage to read out a message from Secretary General Kofi Annan who couldn't be there but wished everyone the best in the "challenge" of the meeting, saying he hoped it would result in "procedures and practices for cultivating meaningful co-operation".

Reding again referred to Athens' role as the "cradle of democracy" and tied that, the internet and the forum into a general democratic theme. Although apparently a democracy without direct representation: the IGF wouldn't replace negotiation between governments, she said, but it was "complimentary as a process". There was then brave talk of freedom of expression and bridging the digital divide.

But it was the head of the ITU, Yoshio Utsumi that took the Greece location to its furthest conclusion with a speech about philosopher Socrates "the wisest man in all of Greece", in which he made barely coded allusions to the role that the ITU continues to play an the unpopular powerful uncle to the internet.

"Due to Socrates' then controversial challenges to conventional wisdom and popular beliefs, opinions about him were widely polarised, drawing both very high praise and very severe criticism," Utsumi warned. "Sometimes it's dangerous to be ahead of your times."

There is often open hostility towards the ITU from the internet community - with Vint Cerf taking the opportunity both before, during, and after the meeting to point out that the internet that exists today was built up in competition to an ITU proposal, a fight which he won against the odds.

The ITU still sees itself as the natural heir to the internet, however, and Utsumi's speech - the last outside the ITU before he retires next month after eight years - continued a well-known theme. Calling the current system "weak" and claiming that the world was "tired of hearing 'you just do not understand'" - a further allusion to the United States government and ICANN as the organisations at the top of the internet, also called "self-serving" for good measure.

Instead, Utsumi outlined a system that could "respond to the need of the users" where "any central role should have only a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be handled more effectively at a more immediate or local level". For those not good at allusions, this means the ITU should take over day-to-day running of the internet. The local level, incidentally, means national governments. "Let us welcome open debate in the great spirit of Athenian democracy."

Despite all the high-minded oratory, however, the democratic masses that were supposed to be benefiting were strangely silent in celebration.

Over the course of the opening ceremony, and the three-hour session that followed after lunch, bloggers from across the world marvelled at the high quality of the webcast, but remained deeply sceptical of the content. It was still politicians and business heads on the podium, talking down literally and figuratively to the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, those inside the conference centre complained about the almost total lack of a wireless internet access ("This is supposed to be the Internet Governance Forum," roared one hapless individual), and the fact that with so many people on the panel it was hard to get any real substantive and interactive discussion. "This feels like an audience, I'm not an equal participant," complained internet veteran Vittorio Bertola.

Behind the scenes, however, in pre and post-session meetings both the organisers and participants were rapidly creating new working methods that both governments and civil society were comfortable with, and then just as quickly restructuring them when they weren't felt to have worked well enough. "This is an experiment," Nitin Desai said. "So we shall experiment."

Efforts to involve the people in the room more - instead of forcing them to send requests and then stand in front of a microphone - have now been extended to new email addresses, chatrooms, and possibly even a dedicated mobile phone to receive text message questions.

With the first main meeting of the day on "openness" looking to raise some controversial questions, and with a number of local bloggers intending to turn up to complain about the recent arrest of a Greek blogger for linking to satirical content, the mood of the meeting is likely to shift substantially from yesterday's formality.

Meanwhile, the world continues to wait to see if the shiny item at the bottom of the IGF's panning tray is fool's gold or the real deal. ®

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