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The Technical Problems of the UN’s Internet Governance Forum Will Not Simply Solve Themselves

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of any organization he is affiliated with, nor are they associated with his role as Councilor for ICANN’s GNSO.

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) has, for several years, experienced technical problems that have nothing to do with the local staff or host countries of the event. In fact, the volunteers who were part of the local staff of its 17th edition, held in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, were constantly overcompensating for issues with a great deal of goodwill. No, the IGF’s problems are of a structural nature, being a direct consequence of the premises of its organization, or rather, to the fact that it is a non-organization. As long as the United Nations preserves the event as an ad-hoc project without effectively committing to its successful execution, this will continue to repeat itself.

From the day before the 2022 event started, the core functions of its website were largely offline. This is not the first time something of the sort has happened in an IGF, but it became particularly exasperating given the community’s commitment to a hybrid format in a year where mass in-person attendance was mostly viable. With the event’s schedule unavailable and remote participation links tied to the schedule’s platform, it happened that even some session organizers missed their own workshops in spite of efforts by the IGF’s understaffed Secretariat. These issues persisted across Day 0 and into Day 1, being fixed to some degree only by the end of Day 1.

Parallel to issues with joining sessions, the local staff and session organizers ran back and forth to fix sound and video issues happening during a significant number of sessions. Every venue has its quirks, and this sort of problem is almost unavoidable, but in events such as the regular in-person meetings promoted by ICANN, a large and specialized IT staff travels to the venue weeks in advance to ensure the optimal function of all equipment and platforms that will be employed. Comparatively, the IGF receives scarce support from the UN’s IT team and structures.

At the time of the writing of this article, five days after the closing of the event, the event’s website is giving intermittent SSL errors, coupled with the system that supports the mandatory session reporting working inconsistently, and on top of that, the recordings of the sessions of the fourth day of the event are nowhere to be seen in its official Youtube channel. Some session organizers are unwittingly not up to date with their dues of providing swift reports to the Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) for no reason other than due to basilar, routine technical issues that should not exist in the first place.

Thinking about these matters from the most objective perspective possible: session organizers spend months researching, writing proposals, bringing panelists together, and coordinating their workshops. The MAG then spends significant effort and many work hours evaluating all proposals in order to assemble an interesting and viable schedule. Participants then take planes from all around the world to congregate in the host city, drive back and forth to the venue, and overall create a not-insignificant carbon footprint. But then, what is supposed to come out of that, is the possibility to discuss serious questions that the Internet Governance community believes will improve technology and lives. When a trivial, perfectly manageable issue, such as a website not being online, stops this from taking place properly, does that equation actually make any sense?

Many people in this community run websites and large-scale technical operations, navigating all sorts of issues associated with that, such as a bad code, bandwidth demand peaks, attacks by malicious actors, and a number of other factors. Yet, the United Nations cannot navigate these same issues? This is rather concerning. How are these day-to-day questions a big problem to the world’s largest and most expansive organization and institution?

The reality is that the IGF is an extra-budgetary item to the UN, which in practice means that it will always have financial (and consequently structural) problems under its current format. Depending almost entirely on external donations to continue to run, banking on the goodwill of States and varied IG actors was never, and will never be a good format. The massive efforts carried out by the Internet Governance Forum Support Association (IGFSA), and the National and Regional Initiatives (NRIs) cannot compensate for the fact that the UN itself does not take the event with the seriousness it deserves.

Between 2019 and 2020, important conversations were being carried out in relation to revamping the IGF, in what was then called the IGF Plus. Public consultations were carried out, and panels were assembled. Community leaders were mobilized. Then… silence. Absolute and complete silence. It is somewhat understandable (although not entirely) that during the pandemic era, it was difficult to move these discussions forward, but this is the second hybrid IGF that has taken place since then, and the project of revamping the IGF seems to have been all but forgotten.

For how much longer will the massive voluntary human effort involved in making these events take place continue to be trivialized? Will the UN ever be accountable for doing their part in ensuring that the event is technically viable, or will the effort of the community continue to be squandered due to the most trivial of matters? It remains to be seen, although nothing seems to indicate any intention of change.

By Mark Datysgeld, GNSO Councilor at ICANN

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Excellent points, and following on why IGF matters... Jaqueline Pigatto  –  Dec 8, 2022 8:46 AM

Despite all the problems, the IGF continues to be the most appropriate space to debate any issue related to public policies and the Internet, in a multistakeholder manner. Many of the concerns we hear in this edition are that the State is taking the lead in several themes and legislative proposals that have a real impact on societies and on our digitized lives, but there are no opportunities for dialogue with civil society, because the State has very low participation at the IGF. The UN continues to raise issues that are being taken to other spaces, such as UNESCO or, even more seriously, to mostly multilateral spaces, with minimal space for civil society participation. In this way, the governance itself becomes increasingly fragmented, and it does not gain a moment of the year of meetings and high-level discussions involving all sectors, as was originally proposed by the IGF.

IGF Challenges Glenn McKnight  –  Dec 10, 2022 9:48 AM

Thanks Mark for illuminating the IGF challenges which clearly is a herculean task to accomplish given the lack of interest by many countries to pick up the ball.  In my impression, we have an ironic situation whereupon the IGF U.N. body devoted to promoting broader and better access to the internet was held in a country that has one of the longest Internet Shutdown in the Tigray region of the country. 
Another observation was the poor attendance to the Live sessions or remotely, the lack of activity at the booths and Virtual booths may also indicate a more serious problem beyond the connectivity issues in the early part of the event

Mark Datysgeld  –  Dec 10, 2022 11:36 AM

Dear Glenn,

You point to something that I forgot to mention, but which was disheartening, which were the booths. Their placement was completely disjointed from the venue, even though there were several ways to position them better. This resulted in very poor attendance rates, which is a shame because not only were there known players around there, but also local initiatives that usually do not get much exposition, if any.

It’s a combination of several smaller things compounding to make my broader point that there is a lot of effort put into these events that seems to end up failing to materialize properly.

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