Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/02/20/igf_blog/
IGF: success, great success or useful sideshow?
Making hard decisions, melting hard cheeses
IGF Blog When asked a month prior to this week's meeting in Geneva how it was likely to go, one diplomat closely involved in the talks was unequivocal: "It will be a success."
Really? "Of course," he said. "Every UN meeting is always either a success or a great success."
The United Nations truly does inhabit its own world. And it comes with its own language. If you assume a one-to-ten scale ranging from offensively rude at one end to utterly delightful at the other, every word at the United Nations comes with a +4 handicap.
You'd think this would make the organisation sound stupid when something really wonderful does happen. Theoretically, yes, but then nothing undertaken in all its decades of world negotiation has ever registered above a six, so there's never been the opportunity to experience diplomatic nausea.
Meanwhile, the constant, pervasive level of outward glee has helped prevent us all from entering a Third World War, so if a bunch of people in New York and Geneva want to be disturbingly polite to one another, let's let them be.
There's a lack of decorum...
The talks were about the creation of a new body, the Internet Governance Forum. The IGF will be the first ever global forum for the internet. You could easily argue that it is already five years late, but that's how things work in world politics...slowly.
You could also be forgiven for thinking that despite the delay, the creation of the IGF is a wonderful, glorious thing. After all, hasn't the internet turned the concept of the "global village" from a catchy concept into a real-world experience?
I have bought a Parma ham direct from Italy and a banned booked from the United States. I've played a computer game against a man sitting in Japan, and I've read local newspapers in the Middle East without even leaving my house. I've downloaded files in seconds from servers that it would take me 24 hours in a plane to physically reach.
This is extraordinary, but it has also meant that our systems and mechanisms for aiding, dissuading, and sometimes banning items within our own societies, have been weakened, bypassed and in some cases, undermined.
That it's taken this long to arrive at a global forum where everyone can discuss the impact the internet has, and how to deal with the problems it throws up, is incredible.
What's sadder is that the IGF is only the by-product of a far more unpleasant fight for power. The world's governments met in Geneva in 2003 and then in Tunis last year to discuss what to do with this internet. The US government decided, in its wisdom, to go against previous promises and the will of virtually the entire world and fight tooth-and-nail to keep control of the net hierarchy.
In time, that decision will be seen as a by-product of a shaky period in world politics and a dangerously self-confident US administration. But while governments were fighting over power and control, enough people realised there was a lot to discuss that shouldn't be waylaid by internecine fighting. The Internet Governance Forum was the term finally applied - the name itself testament to the war in which it was born.
Maybe it's the fact the internet-control issue has still yet to be dealt with that saw so many people this week roll their eyes at the "weak" IGF. Until that battle is finally fought, everyone will continue to look for proxies.
It's a sad reality, but the wild dreamers that made the internet possible in the first place have been turned into cynics thanks to governments playing long drawn-out and two-faced games. It's especially ironic that at a time when governments have never been more willing to accept they need others' help, that the very people they seek have called it a day.
But don't worry, they'll come back if the IGF manages to achieve its potential - to act as a global meeting point for those keen to see what this amazing technology can do for us all.
And talking of amazing meeting points, here's a good one: the Cafe du Soleil in Geneva. It was founded over 400 years ago and claims to offer, in a typically Swiss way, "probably the best fondue in Switzerland".
They can't be certain it is the best, of course, these things change all the time, but it is "probably" the best. I can't say that I'm a regular fondue eater, but I can certainly vouch for the quality. And considering the place was rammed to the gills on a Thursday night, it would seem the people have voted with their feet too.
It was while tearing up big chunks of bread and swishing them about in the molten cheese-and-white-wine in the cauldron in front of me that an analogy about this whole WSIS internet process struck.
The fondue cauldron has a small gas heater underneath it that not only keeps the mass above it warm, but it also keeps it fluid. If it were to go out, you would soon end up with no more than a bowl of hard cheese, and fondue eating would be less a pleasure and more an ordeal.
It is the same with these multi-stakeholder discussions over the internet. Take them off the heat, or put out the flame underneath and the whole process would cease up. But the constant controversy surrounding every aspect is actually aiding the process. There is a constant swirl of new ideas, new issues, new problems and new meetings, so no one gets the chance to end up in an impasse.
What is the flame in this scenario? The chairmen. Most notably Nitin Desai, who chaired the WGIG end of things, and Masood Khan who chaired the sub-committee that dealt with governance issues last year.
The cheese-and-wine mix at the IGF this time was particularly stodgy and, with only two days to get everything done, Nitin Desai had to turn up the heat several times. And, if you watched carefully, he also reached around and stirred the fondue when he thought no one was looking.
It is a measure of his and secretariat Markus Kummer's importance - and their concern at their importance - that Desai criticised the fact that all people in the room lavishly praise the job they have done. He told the meeting at the very end on Friday: "The last thing I wish to say is I think it's very important that we place this on a basis which is structurally sound, which does not depend on individuals. I say this because I have heard too often, you know, about Mr Desai, Mr Kummer. You know, Mr Desai and Mr Kummer are mortal men. And one of them at least is looking forward to putting his feet up."
But he is right. While fondue is a lovely meal, you wouldn't want to eat it every day. Soon this process has to cut its reliance on highly skilled diplomats and move to a more stable, simple structure. A steak and chips maybe. Or, if that is too Western for some people's tastes, what about a nice, spicy curry?
The meeting finished around 5pm on the Friday, and most people left immediately. The grand committee room, that was only moments ago buzzing with noise and argument and conjecture, was suddenly eerily quiet.
It was the sense of anti-climax that always comes after lively debate, but this time there wasn't the sense that the job at hand had been done. It hadn't. There remains a huge amount of consensus to build, and structures to agree. The virtual certainty of a second preparation meeting before the full IGF suddenly disappeared at the last minute after several people said they would not, could not attend. The failure of business, private and civil sector to offer any money left a worrying gap over the whole process' viability.
And it became clear that Markus Kummer, secretariat, was the man who would have to ask the questions, gather all the answers and find a method of resolution that would keep everyone on board. And he will have to do it without the helpful aid of a second, big public meeting that lets people rubs the sharp edges off each other.
Mr Kummer sat talking in the empty room for over an hour with a range of people about what this all meant and how he was going to solve these big problems.
By the time we left it was clear he faced a particularly heavy task.®