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United Nations lauds internet's 'arranged marriage'

Internet Governance Forum ends on high note

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IGF The closing day of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) has ended on a high note with attendees from across the world (from business, government, international organisations and civil society) all expressing their delight at the experimental forum.

When the forum opened its doors in Athens four days ago it was uncertain whether the meeting would work, or would even continue next year, despite its five-year remit. But following a series of changes introduced to its structure while the meeting itself was going on, the final session saw two countries vying to host the event in 2010 - Azerbaijan and Lithunia - and the host for next year, Brazil, announcing the date and location for the meeting.

"We are here, we are ready, and we are ready to participate," said a joyous representative from the Women's Centre, who also announced a "dynamic coalition" of a number of organisations for discussing online gender issues. Jamie Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology, explained that he was searching for words to explain "just that I feel good about this meeting". He settled for: "This is the right thing to do at the right time for the internet."

IGF head honcho Nitin Desai made a joke this time last year when he was asked about the forum's likely success: "Every United Nations meeting is either a success or a great success." We asked him which it was after the end of the closing session. "It was an outstanding success," he smiled.

Warning

That feeling was reiterated by ICANN chief exec Paul Twomey who presented himself as the head of the only other organisation that has tried to build a multi-stakeholder organisation surrounding the internet.

But Twomey also had some advice and a warning. Such organisations "are not easy to put together and to manage at all", he warned. "I'll be a little heretical here. I will particularly challenge business and civil society in the dialogues that many people are talking about as they go between here and Rio. The test I'll put to you is: are you sure that the governments are engaged in the dialogue?"

A number of governments had stood up during the course of the session and all were complimentary, but many also had suggestions for changes. Former Mali minister and the head of the first part of the WSIS process Adama Samassekou said. "I was just wondering as to the actual format of the forum in terms of overall results. After the wonderful discussions we've had, why shouldn't we have something specific come out of it?"

Decision making thorn

This issue of whether the IGF should be decision-making body is a thorny topic. Desai resisted efforts to move the forum to a more legislative basis. "Decision-making means having a legislative capacity and it means you have to have a defined membership. The IGF is an open door. This is a controversial issue but the IGF is not a membership-based model."

The same view was reiterated by the IGF Secretariat head Markus Kummer, who stressed that he wanted to keep the forum's "open doors policy" when asked if he would consider accrediting particular organisations.

Desai warned there was still much to do, however, referring to the three widely different cultures of the governments, non-governmental organisations, and civil society that had sat down in Athens. The first has its protocols, the second has strong views, and the third wants things done now, he explained.

"I think in all three cultures we need a little adjustment. I think governments will have to accept that in a multi-stakeholder forum will be a little more frank than a normal democratic conference would be and that they have to participate in it in that spirit. Equally, I believe civil society has to accept that if the purpose of this exercise is ultimately to lead to joint action, then a certain degree of restraint - they have to approach this in a different way. If you want to work with somebody, you are not going to be able to work with somebody if you start calling that somebody names straight away."

Arranged marriage

And then, in a characteristic flourish, Desai provided an analogy for the IGF and the way forward. "In my country, when people get married, we have arranged marriages, and usually the first meeting between the boy and the girl, they are scoping each other out, so the conversation tends to cover everything. And at the second and the third meeting they start talking about more specific things, what are your tastes in this area or that area? And it is some time before they actually start holding hands. So let's just treat this as a first meeting where people have just gotten to know one another and maybe it will lead to marriage."

Desai was confident the IGF will have the full five-year run originally planned, and Kummer was also optimistic about getting more funding for next year - "now the first meeting is over, we have a great product to sell potential donors".

The next IGF meeting will be held on 12-14 November 2007 in Rio de Janeiro. ®

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