UN Internet Governance Forum 2019

29 November 2019

I was invited to attend the 14th UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF). This was held in Berlin from 25-29 November 2019, the week following the IETF 106 meeting in Singapore, and I was looking forward to learning about different perspectives on the future of the Internet.

That this was a different type of event to the IETF became rapidly apparent during the opening ceremony. Not only is the IGF a much larger event, with over 4,000 participants compared to around 1,500 at an IETF meeting, it's also an event that attracts political interest in a way the IETF doesn't. Opening remarks by António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, set the scene, and were followed by a speech by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. High level panel discussions continued, with participation from such luminaries as Vint Cerf, Tim Berners-Lee, Göran Marby (ICANN President), Houlin Zhao (ITU Secretary-General), and others.

Most of the meeting was smaller scale, if wide ranging. In the remainder of the first day alone, I watched panel discussions, and participated in breakouts, on the subject of tech nationalism, sovereignty, infrastructure ownership, and operation; on development of the DNS, policy, and control; and on disinformation and freedom of expression in social networks and other online fora. Overall, the programme was focussed on broadly-defined themes of data governance; digital inclusion; and security, safety, stability and resilience. There was considerable discussion of human rights, child protection, data management, artificial intelligence, the impact of block chain technologies, disinformation, and cross-border regulation and law enforcement, and more.

Overall, there were some very different views and perspectives than those I usually hear at the IETF and networking research conferences. Participation was, in many ways, a lot broader, with much greater representation from policy, legal, and civil society organisations, but much less input from the technical community. This changes the emphasis and exposes concerns and trade-offs that organisations like IETF don't consider, or address from only a very limited viewpoint. But, equally, it sometimes means that proposals with little technical merit but effective marketing are taken more seriously than deserved. This lack of dialogue between the technical, policy, and civil society organisations is clearly problematic, and we should encourage people to work across the divide where possible. In the IRTF, the Human Rights Protocol Considerations research group is a small step in the direction of raising awareness, but there is much dialogue and interaction that's not yet happening—from all sides.

The IGF wasn't an easy event to attend as someone with technical expertise but little background in policy concerns. Like every other organisation, it takes time to learn the language, to learn how it works and how to effectively participate, and this is harder when the topic is further from your core expertise. Despite that, it was generally a useful experience; if nothing else, I now have a better understanding of what I don't understand and should try to learn.