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Understanding the Long-Term Value of the IGF

This year’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Istanbul comes at a critical moment in the Internet’s history and is the latest in a series of pivotal meetings that will have far-reaching consequences for its future.

One of those central questions posed recently was how the IGF, founded nine years ago in Tunis as part of the two founding phases of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), could be improved to increase its relevance and inclusiveness in meeting the new challenges facing our open Internet.

One of the major improvements that has been raised by a number of stakeholders, and discussed at the IGF, was the need to better capture the learning that occurs at the forum and make it portable, applicable and suitable to further progress work at future meetings. It was also recognized that one of the IGF’s most unique aspects was the ability to engage in conversations across stakeholders that were not limited by the inevitable defensive positioning that is created when a text is being negotiated.

Firstly, to use the metaphor of a laboratory, the IGF is home to exploration and to diverse experiments that result in a powerful knowledge-exchange—unshackled from the task of producing a negotiated text. Providing an open, inclusive forum to exchange different viewpoints on contentious issues provides a means of progressing those issues and we mustn’t misunderstand or diminish the value of this. What’s clear to me from this year’s discussions is that while the IGF formula for constructive debate is effective, there is scope to do more to energize and strengthen the IGF going forward. The capacity-building and knowledge-transfer made possible by the IGF and its national and regional initiatives must be actionable, practical, portable and applicable. We need to be better at capturing our learnings and making them accessible and applicable to a wider group of people.

Secondly, one of the main beneficial outputs of the IGF is the ability to help bridge the divide or otherwise narrow a gulf of misunderstanding between parties. Indeed this year’s setting in Istanbul and the recurring symbolism in IGF posters and banners of the bridge over the Bosphorus joining Europe and Asia could hardly be more appropriate. Main sessions and workshops that contained frank discussions of Net neutrality, were a first step on such a path. Topics were identified for further research, stakeholders were able to better understand issues of definition and positioning; and while the issues were by no means resolved, incremental progress was made which can be built upon at the next IGF. In almost every session, there was an affirmation of IGF’s value in tackling some difficult issues and in bringing a diverse range of participants together to discuss them.

The recent IGF reinforced the need for diverse views from all stakeholders in order to generate meaningful discussions to improve understanding that will facilitate Internet policy decision-making across other fora. It’s crucial that the debate about Internet governance be transparent and open to all to protect and preserve the economic and social opportunity made possible by investment in the Internet.

All governments seek to enhance their economic potential and the ability to provide greater societal benefits to their citizens. While we should maintain our vigilance related to assuring the promotion of human rights as part of the IGF we should work to ensure that the conversation goes beyond this to include promoting the considerable societal benefit that can result from enhanced economic opportunity. To do that we must engage with a broader cross section of business as well as engage in more discussions related to those opportunites and to the removal of potential barriers to those opportunities. Case studies, best practices and capacity building, on gaining the benefits of the digital opportunity, especially geared to developing countries, should also be prioritized in coming IGFs.

Our free, open Internet is an unparalleled force for social and economic progress across the world. But such an Internet is only as powerful as the policy that supports it. Openness and diversity is the best, and the only, way to achieve a culture of informed policy choices which will help foster and protect the transformative power of the Internet across developed and developing economies alike.

By Joe Alhadeff, Chair, ICC Digital Economy Commission/ICC BASIS

As Chair, Mr. Alhadeff helps the ICC Commission on the Digital Economy provide a forum for members to share insights on timely developments in the ICT field. More on ICC BASIS.

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