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IGF 2007: Rio here we come

What if we threw a party for the internet and it didn't turn up?

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The first UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF), held in Athens in November last year, was widely hailed as a success. It was an undeniably huge achievement to get the Chinese government in the same room as Amnesty International, and then to get them talking.

The IGF is unique in the UN's history, designed to grant governments, NGOs, and commerce an equal seat at the table.

But last time round, less than a sixth of attendees came from the private sector, however. You know the private internet - Cisco, Google, Microsoft - that actually runs the show.

We spoke to the man in charge of the IGF, executive director Markus Kummer, in London last week. He said: "It basically reflects the fact that they were rather reluctant partners. They did not go into this adventure with great enthusiasm, it was more 'ok, let's go for a damage limitation agenda', but they came out of it more enthusiastically."

The headline concrete achievement last year was the establishment of the "dynamic coalitions", ad-hoc groups of interested parties who are mandated on an array of issues around the IGF's four themes: openness, access, diversity, and security.

Kummer said: "Google is not part of the dynamic coalition on privacy, it could be encouraged - 'why don't you join?' - but Microsoft is another significant actor. Microsoft is also big as an organisation, I don't know whether Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer know what Jerry Fishenden [Redmond's UK National technology Officer] does in this privacy coalition, but nevertheless there is somebody engaged."

The dynamic coalition on privacy also includes Privacy International, the body which has engaged Google in a war of words over the search giant's record on personal data over the last couple of days.

You could forgive the privacy coalition a twinge of schadenfreude over the acres of high-profile coverage Privacy International's damning assessment of Google has garnered. "Why don't you join?" indeed.

Kummer has spent much of the last six months trying to win more funding. At a meeting at Parliament last week, hosted by Nominet, the not-for-profit which operates the .uk registry, the Department of Trade and Industry announced it had found £23,000 down the back of its sofas (the Swiss government has donated $500,000).

He said: "It is not that easy, but I think things are looking a little bit brighter. The European Commission is working on a contribution and I've had one concrete pledge from the private sector [beyond the names already listed on the IGF website]."

The biggest UK contribution has come from Nominet, the registry for .uk addresses, which hosted the UN officials at last week's event.

Together, the two bodies have cooked up a scheme to get more companies involved with the IGF when it rolls into Rio De Janeiro for its second meeting this November.

The "Best Practice Challenge" encourages firms to compete for Nominet to showcase their work on openness, access, diversity, and security.

Nominet's legal and policy director Emily Taylor said: "The people from the private sector who showed up in Athens contributed very positively...the concept of the Best Practice Challenge is to make it easy for business to get involved with out having the outlay or time involved in going themselves. They will have to frame some of their business decisions in different ways because the boardroom sales pitch doesn't always work in that multi-stakeholder environment."

The question of how to involve industry in connecting the second billion internet users is at the heart of the IGF's mission. Kummer said: "We may revist the same old issues, but hopefully at a better quality of dialogue and you actually may come up with practical solutions. Developing countries feel a bit excluded in the existing internet structures due to their complexity."

Convincing industry that their interests will be served by getting involved with the IGF development aims will be key to any further success it has over the remainder of its five year mandate. Taylor offered a glimpse of the future: "At IGF industry can get exposure to different markets and networking with people who have tangible needs...the growth in the internet in the next five years is not going to come in the UK, it's going to come in developing countries."

Info on the Best Practice Challenge is here. The IGF's spectacularly uninspiring official site is here. ®

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