The gossip issue
Stuff the net, let's get to the scandal
IGF blog I got some good advice once. It was: "Make sure you never take yourself too seriously." That has stuck with me despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it was delivered by an old French drunk sitting on a Paris bench facing a lit-up Notre Dame over the Seine at 2am.
It is with that wisdom in mind that this blog post will stop harping on about with what has worked and hasn't worked with the IGF model, and get down to the good stuff - dirty conference gossip, and frivolous, almost libelous, material.
Governments love to paint themselves as great respecters of other cultures and sensibilities, but the fact is that given half a chance they'd all be in a punch-up within 20 minutes if enough alcohol was involved.
The German contingent made a massive faux-pas - no, not faux-pas, a fat cock-up - by throwing a bash for their respective candidate for the ITU Secretary-General job (which will be decided in the next few weeks at the ITU Plenipotentiary (read: big four-year meeting)). Not only did they throw it at the same time as the Greek hosts were throwing their party, but they also told everyone that only government officials were allowed to attend.
Das ist nein gut
Considering the entire point of the IGF is to foster better relations between government, civil society, business, and street cleaners this was, well, bloody stupid. It didn't take too long for this to become clear, so the Germans very quickly expanded the invitation to include lesser beings. It doesn't matter how many flashy brochures with their man adopting dodgy European-crooner poses the Germans print up, this was idiot behaviour.
The ITU is sure to choose him. Anyone able to irritate so quickly and blindly is a shoo-in.
That wasn't all. The head of the UK delegation - a man not known for waivering under pressure - had his own battle when a government delegate, who shall remain nameless until he recovers from his hangover, decided to take greater exception to the UK's stance at the other, official, Greek bash.
It got so heated that Janis Karklins - ICANN chairman heir-apparent, ageing 80s pop-icon, and Jill to Paul Twomey's Jack - felt the need to intervene and calm things down. That's what happens when you allow in these subversive civil society influences - government officials have suddenly found tremendous release in actually saying what they think. The order for a boxing ring for the IGF 2007 meeting in Rio has already been put in by the Brazilians.
Speaking of Paul Twomey, ICANN chieftain, I have it on excellent authority that he was spotted very late last night leaving a hotel room in the Divani Apollon with an enormous tray of empty beer bottles. It would be unfair to say he stumbled into oncoming guests, striking a wall in the process and crumbling to the ground in a giggling stupour because I have just made that up for my own amusement, but the tray of beers part is true.
But the mystery deepened when Vint Cerf popped out the door moments later. Taking in the situation in an instant, the grandfather of the internet - as the Greek transport minister chose to call him - planted the perfect line. "You just missed the girls." Whatever you say about Mr Cerf, you can't deny he's quick on his feet.
The Greek government has a few problems. It's an interesting phenomena watching how responsibility for the internet moves through various government departments over time. At the start, it is always dumped on one department, and then gradually, as the net becomes more important, struggles begin over its ownership because it means power and, most importantly, junkets to interesting and pretty cities across the world.
The Greeks are fighting among themselves - particularly because so many important people are in town. I can't recall exactly which department is actually in charge and which one wants the internet portfolio (some Greek did explain it to me over an Ouzo), but it has caused ructions.
The department in charge has been playing its own game at the Apollon, but the other department today hosted a conference in the Hyatt up the road, pinching some of the best guests from the IGF. One department gave a bash at the fancy Astir Palace complex on Tuesday night. The other did the same the next night. The failure of the Greek Empire is replaying itself over and over again in history. It's just that in 2006, no one really gives a shit.
My God, the Iranians are angry. Moderator Kenn Cukier made one goof on the opening day of the IGF and it was to effectively dismiss a question from the Iranian contingent over, basically, ICANN and the US government. To be fair to Kenn, he had a near-impossible job and it wasn't his intention to dismiss the comment, it was just that everyone had in the forefront of their minds - and him especially as the lead-man - that the IGF should not be allowed to descend into the name-calling that characterises discussions over DNS control. Mr Cukier then called on Vint Cerf - and gave him a hard time - but even this was seen by the Iranians as a provocation.
It was with this background - and with the diplomats finely tuned to the fact that the Iranians should not and could not be annoyed again - that their representative stood up today in the Access session and went off on a rambling, frankly rather ridiculous, statement, pulling in huge chunks of text from the Tunis Agenda, for literally five minutes without make a single point or raising a single question.
The French moderator was wise to it and stayed quiet, but the Iranian representative was determined to provoke a reaction. He paused, just long enough to allow the French moderator to ask a sarcastic "and do you have a question?". "I haven't finished," the Iranian jumped in, before continuing to ramble on. It was pure, calculated provocation but the moderator has clearly seen some action because he didn't bite.
This is precisely how things get out of hand. An assumed slight, leading to purposeful provocation, leading to a row, and so on. The really big issue - and one that a lot of diplomats are discussing at the moment is how to calm the Iranians down. The core reality is this: all the Iranians are new to the internet process and all the careful learning carried out during the WSIS process has been lost because the change in government has seen new officials step up - officials that see the net as a small mirror of global politics. I hate to say it, but here is yet another reason why the US government has to hand over its role as soon as possible. The last thing any of us need is the internet being torn apart because of a few clashing personalities in government circles.
Enough of that serious nonsense: I brought down the United Nations server today. My IGF2006.info site - which the organisers had very kindly let me stick on their server after my own hosting deal couldn't deal with the traffic - grew so popular that it killed the UN server as well. It happened right at the end of the meeting (thank God) as the hosting company shifted servers, and one of the IGF Secretariat joked they would send me the bill, but I was amazed at how calmly everyone took it.
I can't decide whether this is because UN staff haven't grasped the importance of an online presence, whether they are dealing with real politik and I am wrong, or whether it was ignored through excitement from the fact that the main sessions were over and disaster had not only been averted, but most people were talking about how the IGF had been a really useful experience. I suspect it is a combination of all three.
I have to say, my respect for those that built this forum - both the official secretariat and the numerous volunteers that all have proper jobs but have gone out their way to get the forum working as far as they can - really hit home today. I may not agree with the individuals involved on countless issues, but I also know that they disagree with me equally, and yet all that is set aside in the interests of a common goal. I'm not going to stop criticising, but I'd be deluding myself if I didn't say I have a hell of a lot more respect for them.
More than anything I have loved being at the end of groundless, baseless criticism. There was some crazed note on the IGF2006.info site from someone raving they had been banned from entering a chatroom on the DNS discussion. One, there was no chatroom on the DNS discussion, and the person concerned hadn't bothered to set one up either. Two, they hadn't been banned, in fact this was just before the whole site fell over because of demand in other chatrooms and other parts of the site. And three, the IGF2006.info site has nothing to do with the DNS session. I know I stuck a piece of paper under Milton Mueller's nose about the collaborative and entirely open site I had built to free up discussion, and while here I will also note that academics have actually been the very worst people for signing up to this open, information-sharing site. Worse than government representatives. I'm serious. This multi-stakeholder business needs to cut both ways, it seems.
I also loved the fact that the mobiles phones I spent an entire day procuring and promoting so that people could text questions in if they wanted, was dismissed as the UN "just trying to give the pretence of openness". There's something surreal about being accused of being in a conspiracy when you had in fact gone to a hell of a lot of trouble because you think it might just be a good idea. I find it hilarious but I can see how your humour would very quickly fail if it happened regularly.
I've guffed on enough. But I would just like to state that I was unfair to my hotel when I said in an earlier blog post that my room was so dilapidated that even brute force and a steel knife wasn't enough to open the balcony doors.
In actual fact, I had overlooked the most basic solution: carefully pick up the more sturdy of the room's two chairs by two of its opposite legs. Then, with the back careful planted into your shoulder, ram the lock three times. You will hear something go click. Then simply pull back the door and you have free and unfettered access to the outside. I don't know what all the fuss was about. ®
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