The first meeting of the United Nations' Internet Governance Forum, or IGF, began yesterday in Athens and is promoting a very worthy agenda. Some of the critical issues to be discussed include: Who has access to the Internet? Who has control? What are the best ways to combat spam, phishing, and child pornography? How can we protect freedom of speech online--especially in countries with repressive regimes?
The biggest issue, of course, is whether the forum can move past the "town meeting" format, as Chairman Nitin Desai has called it, to one that will actually result in action.(You can watch the Webcast live--translated into English in real time--by going to the IGF's main Web site and clicking on the prominently displayed link there.)
The motivation for the forum is an urgent one. The Internet is now so socially, politically, and commercially important that it long ago outgrew its origins as a network run by and for computer specialists. It's now the very center of government administration, business operations, telecommunications, news distribution, and broadcasting of private opinion. The logical conclusion, according to the organizers of the IGF: We can no longer trust scientists, technologists, and government organizations to manage it.
Thus the ongoing debate on whether ICANN can be trusted to continue with its oversight of the Internet is likely to be in the spotlight this week. In particular, one recent hot button is whether ICANN is dragging its feet on allowing non-Latin characters in domain names. The IGF is expected to spawn impassioned debate on this and other culturally and politically explosive issues.
So there will be a lot of talking. Will anyone actually be listening?
That's a valid question. For starters, there are so many conflicting interests to appease. There are governments anxious about legal and regulatory issues. Private corporations determined to protect their commercial interests. Consumer groups advocating safeguards against corporate greed. Political activists urging protection of free speech. And, yes, there are still the all-important technologists and computer scientists concerned about security, protocols, and performance issues.
As Bill Thompson points out in his blog for the BBC, the language in the IGF's mandate is anything but action-oriented. There are all sorts of squishy terms such as "facilitate discourse," "promote and assess," and "help to find solutions." In short, the IGF has no teeth and knows it.
Then there was the very ironical--and much blogged about--incident last week, in which the Greek cybercrime authorities, apparently unaware that a global forum on Internet rights was about to convene in their backyard, arrested the Webmaster of a blog aggregation Web site simply because he had linked to a satirical blog.
What do you think? Have you been following the debate over the efficacy of the IGF? Do you believe the Internet is too America-centric? Does the United Nations have a prayer of wresting influence away from big business and politicians? Let me know what you think by responding below.