"As one door closes, another opens", they say sometimes. This is the first IGF I have attended... and yet if the initial plan is to be kept, it may be the last occurrence of this international gathering. I have to say, if that's how it turns out, it will be a shame.
I say that even as someone who has only had a brief glimpse of the rich, complex and sometimes confusing world of IGF's activities. I'm so grateful to APC and my colleagues from Diplo, for their guidance through the first couple of days and helping me work out what to attend, how to raise questions, and how to engage others in the discussion. Thanks to their help, my first day was an amazing "whirl" through Lit Expo, registration, that the ACP (Africa-Caribbean-Pacific) professionals' training workshop run by the Diplo Foundation. What a wonderful introduction to the multidisciplinary field of IGF.
That said, I have to say that the "Introduction to the IGF for newcomers" on Day One was, frankly, less useful. I'm sure it was well-intentioned, but to be honest, I found it rather too slow, and not focussed on the things I wanted to hear about.
Internet Governance and Human Rights, run by APC and its partners was also one of the pre events I attended. I've been looking forward to this workshop so much, ever since I first saw the agenda, that in a way I was worried in case it didn't live up to my expectations. Luckily I need not have been concerned; the workshop went amazingly well, with great discussion on Freedom of Expression, which was an area I particularly wanted to explore.
The first day I took part in the APC workshop on Sexual Rights, Openness and Regulatory Systems; although this had not been a primary focus of mine in the run-up to IGF, I found the discussion interesting and useful, because the panellists put their messages across well, and didn't get sidetracked. This workshop topic is one which has such varied interpretations depending on where you are in the world, and of course the internet thinks little of international boundaries or cultural differences. In that respect, I think it is not only a key topic for IGF to address, but also that if IGF were not looking at it, there would be no obvious place for the work to progress. That would be a bad thing.
So, does the IGF enterprise have a future? I sincerely hope so. In 2006 the IGF set out to create, under a mandate from the UN's World Summit on the Information Society, a forum for multistakeholder dialogue on internet-related issues of public policy. My impression from this, the fifth conference, is that is has certainly succeeded in creating a forum and engaging with rich, diverse and global sets of stakeholders. The problem is, of course, that starting the dialogue is only the first step. What that does is help identify and describe the issues those stakeholders face. Once that is done, there is still a lot to do.
For one thing, of course, the work done so far has often simply revealed that original problem statements were either too simplistic, too vague, or simply misdirected.
For another, the world which the IGF seeks to address is one which - by definition - changes constantly, rapidly and radically. Applying governance to the Internet is like trying to nail smoke to the wall. Even those problems which were clearly understood four years ago, and addressed successfully in their original form, have often evolved over the intervening years, and now need to be re-appraised and addressed afresh.
And of course, four years is quite enough time for entirely new problems to arise - problems which are still a long way from being clearly defined and addressed, let alone solved. By its original terms of reference, the IGF's work is coming to a close. Judging by the discussions I have been able to participate in, its work is only just beginning.
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