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IGF Nairobi - Success of the Multi-stakeholder Model

A funny thing happened in Nairobi last week… I showed up for an Internet Governance Forum (IGF) panel discussion on the use of the Internet during times of political and social unrest, and a truly multi-stakeholder dialogue broke out. It turned out to be my favorite session during an incredible IGF week that, thanks to our Kenyan hosts, exceeded every expectation.

The session, formerly known as “The Internet in the Post-Revolution Phase—Challenges of Political Engagement and the Safety of Citizens” was cancelled for reasons unknown. Perhaps it was a conflict of schedules, or maybe the topic was deemed by the organizers or certain governments to be too sensitive for the official agenda. Fortunately, for whatever reason, only the panelists and moderator were told the session was no longer on the updated daily schedule, because more than 60 interested participants from a wide range of backgrounds showed up, eager to listen, learn, contribute, and participate in an emotional and timely exchange.

The full meeting room had a good vibe about it, but after ten minutes of waiting for the moderator or panelists to arrive, it became apparent a change or mistake had been made. Was it a swap of room location (of which there were many), or timing, or something else? Whatever the reason, after fifteen minutes, we realized we were on our own.

The gathering was at a minor crossroads… would it break up before it got started, leaving disappointed attendees, or would we somehow make the best of the situation? To his credit, Robert Guerra from Freedom House spoke up and suggested we take advantage of the time and obvious interest in the room. As our de-facto and benevolent moderator, Robert kicked things off. The rich and rewarding dialogue that ensued re-affirmed the real value of the multi-stakeholder model and demonstrated how much we benefit from a free-flowing dialogue among those truly interested in a secure, stable and universally available Internet.

Individual IGF attendees from Egypt, Tunisia, and Cote d’Ivoire described their own first-hand, personal experiences of how the Internet and social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, were incredibly positive tools for good, enabling communication and freedom of expression among like-minded people. They talked about the Internet as a tool and platform for free coordination and open dialogue during times when authorities attempted to repress those basic rights. It was riveting and heart-warming stuff.

Also discussed were the very real concerns about the use of social media by those same regimes to target and retaliate against those engaged in activities deemed inappropriate or unacceptable. Representatives from Facebook, Freedom House and other groups engaged in a free-flowing dialogue on concerns about authoritarian control of critical Internet resources during times of political upheaval.

We heard from individuals from Haiti and Japan about how the Internet and social media had helped coordinate responses to devastating natural disasters, and how much more users of social media might do and must do to mobilize further reconstruction efforts.

Several government officials encouragingly discussed the critical issue of human rights and the value of the Internet as a medium to ensure the free flow of information and expression, and the need to ensure the Internet remains available to all.

The session ended up being the most vibrant and positive exchange of views I experienced at IGF Nairobi. It was a remarkable example of multi-stakeholderism; we had representatives from business, government, civil society, academia, and yes, even actual Internet users. We had participants from dozens of countries, from both industrialized nations and the developing world, and from countries experiencing exciting changes and significant challenges. Women and men engaged on equal and respectful footing, and we had excellent participation from Kenyans, our wonderful hosts.

As the meeting wrapped up, I felt compelled to speak for the first time—to sincerely thank the participants for sharing their personal, profound, and sometime painful experiences, and to recognize that an amazing event had in fact taken place, without a panel, and with an effective and respectful volunteer moderator. I said I believed that future IGF meetings should introduce more opportunities for free-flowing dialogue among participants, without always relying on the traditional structure of paneled presentations.

For me, in that single session, the IGF proved its worth as the best model for Internet governance. I can’t imagine that incredible, dynamic, multi-stakeholder session taking place in any other international arena. Had any such meeting been cancelled in other governmental structures or institutions, it probably wouldn’t have taken place at all, and what a missed opportunity that would have been. Thanks to all who contributed that day… let’s keep it going!

By Keith Drazek, Vice President of Public Policy and Government Relations at Verisign

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