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Expert perspective : Troy Etulain about the 2012 Internet Governance Forum

20 November 2012

What is actually the IGF, why is it important ?

The IGF is the annual event that brings together governments, the private sector, civil society and the media for a diverse discussion on the full range of issues related to the growth and use of the Internet. The event was created at the 2005 World Summit of Information Societies (WSIS) in Tunis as an inclusive forum facilitating dialogue amongst every type of individual or organization with a stake in global Internet governance. The IGF is by design a forum for discussion where no decisions are to be made, but it is a place where relationships and positions on Internet are advanced. Arguably it is not as important as other meetings or institutions making up the multi-stakeholder process, but I still find it useful to attend.

Governments and businesses attending the IGF usually use the occasion to hold one-on-one meetings where they add another coat of paint to their already known positions. One important fact to understand about the IGF is that host countries take on the responsibility of funding the annual event itself. The UN only pays a small amount to keep the secretariat going. Many raised questions about Azerbaijan’s hosting the IGF given its controversial track record on free speech. But, they were the only ones to offer to pay for it last year, so they were this year’s hosts. Next year, by the way, thanks the IGF is supposed to be in Bali, Indonesia!

Mostly, though, there was a strong sense that the IGF was a warm-up round for the upcoming World Conference on International Communications (WCIT), which will be held December 3-14 in Dubai. The event has been the subject of significant negative press in the West (particularly in the US), with alarm bells being raised over the possibility of the ITU taking control of the Internet. The WCIT preparatory process has also been criticized for a lack of transparency. Earlier in 2012 one group displeased with an inability to access draft proposals to the ITRs launched the website specifically to expose countries’ proposals. This, combined with the press coverage appears to have played a role in the ITU’s decision to begin soliciting public comment on the ITRs here:

What are the various scenarios about global Internet regulation ?

Usually people frame this question in terms of whether the ITU will or will not “take over control” of the Internet. And, on this question of the ITU’s potentially changed authority, ITU General Secretary Hamadoun Toure tried to debunk these rumors in his opening remarks at this year’s IGF: “You will have seen misleading stories about ITU and the United Nations taking over the internet. This is of course ridiculous. ITU continues to play its role in the reality of the internet and, as we have done since the internet’s inception, for example, through ITU broker and ITU approved global standards for the critical transport layers of the internet and internet access technologies.  But this does not mean that ITU want to take over the internet or control the internet.  Indeed, I don’t even know what that might or would really mean in practical terms.”

I also think it would be useful for your readers to compare statements made by, respectively, by the representatives of the US and Russian delegations.
In his opening event speech, Lawrence Strickling, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information and Administrator, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) at the US Department of Commerce (he overseas the USG contract with IANA, the body that oversees ICANN) stated his support the status quo and criticized the WCIT: “The multi stakeholder model has enabled the internet to flourish.  It has promoted freedom of expression online.  It continues to provide an environment for economic growth and the creation of wealth in the developing world.  The strength and power of the multi stakeholder process arises from the engagement of all interested parties, including industry, civil society, technical and academic experts in governments….A treaty conference in which only member states have a vote is most definitely not the right venue for such discussions.  No one should mistake such a conference for an open multi stakeholder process.  Certainly, much could be done to improve the transparency of treaty conferences such as the WCIT and a number of important suggestions to that end were made yesterday by civil society groups attending this forum.
With an opposing normative view on Internet governance, Denis Sverdlov, Deputy Minister, Telecom and Mass Communications of the Russian Federation, said, “We see that different countries of the world have adopted different measures to ensuring security but we need to recognize underlying all of these measures the state is playing a leading role in promoting security working with other stakeholders with the business sector with Civil Society and with the community of experts….because of the trans border nature of internet it is extremely important for us to find way of working together in order to see that the crimes recognized as crimes in the courts of particular countries should be accepted as crimes in other States too.”

You can see here two starkly different visions on Internet governance.

Why did you attend ?

I attended to catch up with colleagues from around the world, meet new ones, catch up on the latest developments and to learn as much as I could about the technical aspects of Internet governance. I tried to attend the most technically-advanced breakout sessions that I could, solely for professional enrichment. And this allowed me to learn some important things. Professionally, I do a lot of ICT for development consulting. So, for example, at this year’s IGF,I attended a panel on technology for development which included Huawei’s representative to the IGF. In the Q&A period I asked him to comment on recent reports of Huawei’s plans to either develop either its own mobile OS or a highly modified fork of Android for its handsets. During the session, and when I met him afterwards, he declined to comment. Though, I heard from other sources that a new OS is likely. The main source for this discussion was an article by Reuters, which quoted the Huawei CEO being pessimistic about future collaboration with Reuters: “We’re also devoting resources into coming up with a phone operating system based on our current platform in case other companies won’t let us use their system one day.” This is important because a new OS from Huawei could present serious implications for efforts to use mobile phones for social and economic development. (See:

Who are the stakeholders of this process ? Does civil society have a say and how ?

Essentially everyone in the world is a stakeholder, though you typically have organizations represented at the IGF itself. You can find out more info here:—which includes a .pdf of many participants and speakers.

Anyone can propose and hold panel discussions at the IGF, and many civil society organizations did. And the IGF typically live streams the sessions, so remote participation is possible.
Unfortunately, to be honest, these panels are usually attended and watched by people who agree with civil society organizations’ positions on an open, free, private and secure Internet. This year, though, the Azerbaijan government and its IGF organizational staff were also criticized by human rights organizations both for their record on online freedoms and for the refusal to allow these organizations to distribute printed materials at the IGF. One Azeri published a widely-read article on the subject: 

By the way, after the WCIT this December, the next big event civil society might think about attending would be the 2013 WSIS, which will be held 14-16 May, also in Geneva, at the same time as the WTPF World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum.

Internet governance seems to be a difficult and multifaceted subject, yet with very concrete consequences on peoples’ lives worldwide. How can media support NGOs play a positive role to empower people around Internet government issues ?

There is a huge need for media to help the public understand the formal Internet governance process. It would be a good start if they could name the various institutions and specific responsibilities for these institutions that were decided at WSIS 2005. These include the IGF, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C); the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF); Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA); the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN); and it’s Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC); the United Nations´ Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) under the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and of course the ITU and its various committees. Really there are more organizations involved. And both media and civil society are at a disadvantage because it takes a lot of time, money and coordination to keep informed about their activities and decisions.

There’s also something called “enhanced cooperation”, which was apparently thrown in as a deal sweetener at the last minute in WSIS 2005. It has come to mean different things to different actors. For some it is more coordination between the various pieces and entities involved in Internet governance. For others, such as Russia, China, Brazil, India and South Africa, it has meant a dialogue aiming for a new international body with widespread decision-making authority. Interestingly, though, Brazil’s governmental representative this time publicly stated his country’s openness to fixing the multi-stakeholder process rather than replacing it with a new international body. The Internet Society (ISOC) has a good article explaining what enhanced cooperation is generally thought:

These groups are meeting all the time, and there is little to no comprehensive and expert reporting on their activities and decisions. It is hard, almost humanly impossible to follow all of the debates. For example, next week there is a W3C meeting to discuss various proposals for Do-Not-Track systems, or the technical approach for ensuring that website operators ensure for people’s privacy. (See: Meanwhile the EU is considering Right-to-be-Forgotten legislation, which is in many ways related. The ideas put forward by these two bodies affect Internet users everywhere, but how much does the average person know about or understand them?

Troy Etulain currently works as an ICT and Social Innovation expert at the World Bank, and consults worldwide on how most effectively to utilize technology for development. He served as a Senior Advisor for Media Development for USAID’s Office of Democracy and Governance from July 2007-2012. His regional expertise includes the Former Soviet Union (FSU), Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. While at USAID, Troy has focused on post-conflict programming environments, including Afghanistan, Somalia, Burma, Sudan, Rwanda and others. He also designed numerous technology-for-development programs and USAID’s global Internet freedom program. Prior to joining USAID, Troy covered Georgia and Armenia for Bloomberg News. He also spent more than two years as Internews Network’s Country Director to Tajikistan, on projects ranging from founding community radio stations to training and equipping private TV stations.