This year’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF) that concluded Friday in Istanbul, Turkey was the place to be and not just because of the beautiful location. More than 3,400 people gathered for the event. While numbers themselves don’t indicate quality or success, I was curious if this really was the largest of the nine IGFs since their inception in 2006. The answer, based on quick crunching of numbers from the IGF website, is yes. The only other IGF that drew as close to the numbers as Istanbul was Rio de Janerio in 2007 (my first IGF). In one conversation I had last week, a colleague characterized the IGF as having “grown up”, and I think she’s right about that. The level and quality of participation was exceptional. The discussions were rich, dynamic and deep. I could have easily spent a few more days soaking in content and meeting new people. You may be asking yourself what will come of this fantastic event and that is precisely the point. For those of us that follow IGF and related governance developments, each IGF generally has a theme – last year in Bali it was surveillance and the announcement of the NetMundial meeting. This year’s theme was the IGF itself, it’s purpose and it’s future.
There have been calls from various stakeholders of the IGF for the event to produce “outcomes”. Some groups desire some documented view or consensus in order to derive value from and therefore support the continuation of the IGF whose mandate from the UN General Assembly expires next year. In response to such calls, there has been much debate, but also much response. The Multi-stakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) – the group responsible for organizing the IGF – is constantly evolving the program. This year the IGF included best practices forums with the idea that they could focus on areas for capacity building and more easily capture outputs and consensus. Additionally, a grassroots effort has produced a letter to the UN General Assembly, that is open for signature until November 1st by any and all IGF participants (and presumably beyond), calling for an extension of the IGF and more stable financial support and plans.
As part of growing up, it is reasonable for the community to expect the IGF to both evolve with the environment and issues and to respond to concerns from different stakeholder groups. I think the IGF – through the MAG and the broader community – is doing both. But we should be careful not to start down a slippery slope toward a meeting that has an end state long before it ever begins, regardless of whether the end state is binding (ITU Plenipotentiary) or not (NetMundial principles). Calls for formal intercessional work beyond the work of the MAG and the regional and national IGF meetings of which there are more than 30, are very concerning. There is a wealth of opportunity to get behind closed doors and negotiate carefully worded statements of one kind or another. Those meetings are very different experiences than any of the nine IGFs that have been held since the conclusion of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). Lets evolve the IGF to keep growing up with the community it serves. Lets give the IGF a stable charter and financing so we are not so frequently distracted by concerns regarding about it’s sustainability. Lets get back to soaking up content, meeting new people and fostering the dialogue between the many necessary stakeholders of the Internet’s future.