Up until June of this year, I had never heard of Internet governance. Being one of 2 billion Internet users, I am familiar with the term 'Internet'. I am also familiar with the term 'governance'. I had just never put the two together. Then I got involved in producing the revised, updated, 4th edition of Jovan Kurbalija's book - An Introduction to Internet Governance - and a whole new world opened up...a world fed on an alphabet soup of abbreviations and acronyms. Initially (excuse the pun) I found it hard to keep track of it all. As happens each time I stumble into a new 'field', I found myself marvelling at the double-sided coin that is jargon. On the one hand it creates an ingroup of those who understand the lingo, those who know the story. For these it facilitates communication; it saves time. No need to trip yourself up trying to say 'transmission control protocol' if you can use TCP. You can shave valuable seconds from your five-minute presentation by using the acronym ICANN instead of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and the abbreviation ITU instead of the International Telecommunication Union. But for those who have just walked through the door of Internet governance, jargon simply adds to the confusion (which is why An Introduction to Internet Governance includes a list of commonly used abbreviations on the back flap).
As an IGF newbie (and a virtual virgin when it comes to Internet governance) I was in the enviable position of being able to observe without obligation. I didn't have sessions to run, panels to participate in, or workshops to organise. I wasn't speaking from the podium, intervening from the floor, or participating remotely. My ‘brief’ was to look and learn. And I did a lot of both.
I can't, hand on heart, say that every single aspect of Internet governance fascinates me. It doesn't. And in this, apparently, I'm not alone. Workshops seemed to follow specific lines of interest suggesting that people attending the IGF are specialists; or perhaps generalists with an interest in a particular area such as privacy, or cloud computing, or net neutrality. It was interesting, too, to see how the sectors were represented: government, NGOs, civil society, business.
(DIGRESSION: And interwoven through these sector classifcations were two subclassifcations: the floaters and the striders. The former ambled from room to room, their progress somewhat impeded by the weight of their conference ‘goodie’ bags. Having visited all the stands in turn and picked up all the information they needed, they floated happily from session to session, open to being stopped and engaged in meaningful conversation. Time was on their side. There was no sense of urgency, of focus. At the other end of the spectrum, the striders rushed from room to room, oozing self-importance. Time was of the essence. They had places to go, people to see, and decisions to make. Every minute counted. They were masters of the quick hello, the neatly executed handshake, and the perfect pirouette: with an almost invisible turn to the side, they could extricate themselves from conversation and move onwards…and upwards. I was enthralled. By the way, I also have a theory that it is possible to classify according to sector if you simply look at an IGF participant's shoes. But that's another post entirely.)
And of these, the most organised seemed to be the business sector. They had regular morning briefings, presumably to present a united front, a common message. Although I can't compare IGF 2010 to previous forums, my overwhelming impression is that it was orchestrated by the business sector. I'm still trying to fathom whether this is a good or a bad thing, or perhaps of no matter at all. Somehow, though, I had expected it to be more weighted towards civil society....the other 1,999,999,999 million Internet users out there who should be concerned about how their virtual space is being governed.
I'm a practising Toastmaster and I'm Irish. Put the two together and you have someone who loves to speak in public. I'm waging a one-woman battle with the church and its abuse of the opportunity once a week to speak effectively to a captive audience and to deliver a message that matters; one that is relevant. I went to the IGF expecting to hear some world class delivery - it is, after all, an international forum with key players from around the world. Vint Cert didn't fail me. But unfortunately, he was in a minority. I was very disappointed both in the quality of speeches and in their delivery. Time limits were blatantly ignored. Key points were clothed in obscure thoughts; rambling sentences cried out for punctuation. At times it was nigh on impossible to figure out what the speaker's intent was... and don't be under any illusions here... I'm talking about native-English speakers. On more than one occasion, I found myself silently questioning how Speaker X got to where they are today. It's a little ironic when I think about it: - the Internet is very much a platform for communication and yet at the IGF, communication so often failed ME... the novice, the newbie. Perhaps if I had a background in the subject and could contextualise the content, I might have fared better. What little I did understand left me wondering if anything new was being said: interventions and panellists alike seemed to say the same things but in different ways. But perhaps that's the intent: a forum for people to get together to affirm that everyone is, indeed, on the same page. If the IGF wants to communicate its message to others like me, though, then it has some work to do with regard to simple, clear, effective communication.
So abbreviations and less-than-optimal delivery aside, the one thing that was really amazing to witness was the existence of the strong networks underpinning the IGF. Not two minutes went by without someone meeting someone from somewhere. Hugs, kisses, handshakes, slaps on the back... all visible signs of something working. India meets Germany; Ireland meets Guyana; Iceland meets Gambia. People seemed genuinely interested in what was going on. As a forum for reconnecting with old friends and partners, making new contacts, sharing initiatives, fostering new cooperation it seemed ideal. And once again, I am left wondering if the formal aspect of such international meetings is really just a backdrop to the real work: decisions made in corridors, over a buffet lunch, or outside while having a cigarette. A business card here, a quick word there, and a new world tomorrow.