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Saudi Arabia to Host First-Ever Internet Governance Forum: Paving the Way for Global Digital Dialogue

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) will host the Internet Governance Forum in December. There are four main themes—innovation and risk; the impact of technology on peace and development; using technology to advance human rights; and improving digital governance. Every IGF is a unique and annual opportunity for thousands of people engaged in key issues to come together and engage. KSA is hosting for the first time, and it is an exciting prospect.

The hosting of such an important summit is another staging post in KSA’s journey to becoming a major player in a range of areas that are important to the world, from technology to sport, from diplomacy to innovation. Given KSA’s historic record in some of the areas up for discussion, there will be many people who blanche at the prospect of the IGF being hosted in Riyadh—but that is to miss the point.

KSA’s civic society will benefit as much from the hosting as the IGF itself. The country is rapidly becoming an important centre for technology and innovation. It is a young country, in terms of its population. And it is at the centre of an increasingly important regional global hub. There is no better place to hold this year’s forum.

I attended many IGF conferences when I was the tech minister under UK prime minister David Cameron (2010-16), and it remains a unique forum which still gives the internet many of the characteristics we value and wish to preserve—openness, interoperability, adaptability and independence. The interaction of business, civic society and governments on an equal footing remains relatively unique.

KSA’s hosting is brave and not without risks. But it has every chance of being a significant success. To make it so, KSA should, from now, engage all parts of the Internet Community and demonstrate what KSA has to offer them. This means ensuring that as many voices as possible are represented on the agenda, even those that might make KSA’s leadership uncomfortable or be critical of it. This means that KSA should host mini-summits in the run-up to the IGF, either online or in person, to get significant input into the agenda. It means an imaginative approach to who the keynote speakers should be and thinking outside of the box to attract names and views that are not the usual suspects.

KSA needs to amplify what the Multistakeholder Advisory Group seeks to do, but not so that there is no Saudi flavour to the event at all. After all, KSA is on its own unique journey, presenting an attractive mix of confidence and humility as it gradually establishes its place in the world. There is no reason why, thanks to hosting the IGF, KSA cannot become an important voice in the future of the internet—not just the government, but leading Saudi businesses and voices.

Finally, KSA needs to consider mechanisms that will make the IGF output truly useful helpful, and have a longer shelf-life than just the last day’s summation. The IGF will give KSA a platform to follow up key issues and for the country to be an essential forum for debate and discussion about technology policy in the years ahead.

By Ed Vaizey, Member of U.K, House of Lords and Former U.K. Tech Minister

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