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The UN launches the Internet Governance Forum, in Athens

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Last in Athens, the UN hosted it's first "Internet Governance Forum," or IGF for short. It is a model for global governance. It is also a work in process.

The differences between the IGF and previous UN bodies are significant and several. I will focus on the few that seem most important.

The IGF is formally a "multi-stakeholder" body. That means the actors include not only government officials, but also businesses, NGOs of various types, academics, journalists and individuals. This appears to be pretty fundamental to the way the IGF operates, including equal participation and access to panels, workshops and social events.

Formally, the IGF was organized under the UN by Kofi Annan. The small Geneva based secretariat is run by Markus Kummer, a career diplomat from Switzerland. There is also a "multi-stakeholder" advisory board, which serves one year terms, now headed by Nitin Desai, an Indian national who is the United Nations Secretary-General's Special Adviser for Internet Governance. So far the rules for the IGF are very minimalist.

In a typical UN body, much of the focus on the events are to shape high-level declarations, statements, resolutions and other decisions, that are approved either by consensus or through more formal voting. People coming to Athens were surprised or in some cases disappointed to see very little emphasis on this type of activity, at least in this first meeting. Instead, the IGF has created a space for governments, interest groups and individuals to work together in much more bottom-up and unsupervised way.

The primary opportunity for norm setting at the IGF appeared to be through the formation of something called "dynamic coalitions" -- a term that was unfamiliar to everyone I talked to. Apparently IGF deliberately avoided the term "working groups," because that would imply that the groups were speaking for the entire IGF. These dynamic coalitions, on the other hand, do not claim to represent the views of everyone - only their own membership, or the parties that endorse specific proposals.

The IGF secretariat decided to allow these dynamic coalitions to self organize in Athens, around topics that were relevant to the various panels and workshops. In Athens, several were formed, each with a different mission and style.

The IGF approach was not an accident. The IGF was created by a much more conventional UN effort, the "World Summit on the Information Society," WSIS, that was concluded in Tunis in 2005. There were deep divisions at the WSIS on several topics, including those related to free expression, censorship, human rights, intellectual property rights, free software, funding for needed capacity building and infrastructure development in the poorest countries, and many other issues, including perhaps the most contentious issue - the debate over who should control the Internet root servers and other key technical standards and resources.

The WSIS could not reach consensus on many of these topics, but there was recognition that the topics were important. The IGF was created to continue the conversations, but with the understanding it would not have broad powers to set "hard" global norms.

What the IGF could do has been the subject of discussion and debate, much of it below the radar screen of the press and the wider public.

The United States government, which now controls the Internet root server/domain name system, is anxious to prevent the IGF from having too much power. So too are many large companies, fearing the IGF could introduce new regulations of Internet activities, including those relating to consumer protection, privacy and regulation of content.

Many developing countries, such as Brazil, have pushed for a continued debate over how the Internet root will be controlled, and many national governments, academics, corporate entities and NGOs are pushing to raise other issues that are directly or indirectly related to the Internet.

The IGF was created with a mandate to explore these issues, but it starts without much top down authority. What it does provide, however, is space where like-minded parties can work together to create "soft" norms, or agreements between each other to take action. These efforts, through the so-called IGF "dynamic coalitions," are very open and bottom up. Because the IGF itself is not ready to begin making global policy, from the top, it has created a structure that does not block conversations and norm setting - from the bottom.

The consequences of this may be profound. At other global trade fora, such the UN's World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) or the World Trade Organization (WTO), decisions and agendas are fairly tightly controlled, and it is very difficult to move a proposal, because it requires either a super majority or a consensus of governments. At the IGF, on the other hand, the bottom up norm setting can get started whenever there is even a small conspiracy to do something.

We have participated in the creation of two such dynamic coalitions - one on open standards for software and information technologies, and the other on Access to Knowledge (A2K) and free expression. Dynamic coalitions have been formed on the control of Internet root servers, privacy, and other issues.

The memberships of the dynamic coalitions created in Athens are diverse - including governments, businesses, academics and NGOs. The French government will be hosting a meeting of the Privacy coalition in Paris. The coalitions on open standards hope to have face to face meetings in three cities, and develop best practices models for government procurement of software, between now and next year's IGF meeting, which will be held in Rio.

It is quite early to see how these efforts play out, but it is interesting. Can we think of global governance as a process that is open, even to NGO and individuals, and not coercive at the global level? For the Internet, this is perhaps the right way to start.

Faces of Internet Governance in Athens

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Chengetai Masango from the IGF Secretariat
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Georg Greve of the Free Software Foundation Europe
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Manon Ress, CPTech
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Michael Gallagher, former Bush Administration offical who wants to restrict IGF norm setting activities
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Susy Struble from Sun
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Milton Mueller, co-organizer of dynamic coalition looking at control of root servers
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Nitin Desai, represents Kofi Annan on Internet Governance
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Robin Gross from IP Justice, pushed NGO agendas on access to knowledge and free expression
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Thiru Balasubramaniam of CPTech helped organize dynamic coalition on open standards
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Andrew McLaughlin of Google joined the dynamic coalition on Access to Knowledge (A2K)