Recently I participated remotely in my first Internet Governance Forum — IGF 2017 — which was held at the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland from 18 to 21 December.
From the comfort of our offices and homes, I (along with 1,660 other remote participants) was able to listen to and participate in a range of multistakeholder discussions surrounding emerging technologies and Internet governance-related issues on the theme of Shape Your Digital Future!
Below are some of my key takeaways from the forum:
Gaps between technical communities and policy makers
Dialogue is an important component of the multistakeholder model — multiple parties come together to contextualize a problem and resolve it through information exchange. That said, it is difficult for different groups to let go of preconceptions.
In some sessions, there were participants that were solely of the opinion that policy is the first priority, and that technical problems can’t be stated in the policy or explained to people.
These people need to think widely; they also need to have the ability to translate what people want in policies and adjust them accordingly. That said, it is difficult to translate opinions from technical communities to policy makers, which only strengthens the need for clear communication and dialogue.
Gaps between developed and developing economies
The Internet has become a commonplace utility for many. In my home, Taiwan, Internet penetration is among the highest and most affordable in the world. However, for many people the Internet is still a luxury.
I found from participating at the IGF that this gap, between developed and developing economies, brings with it varying priorities:
- Developed economies talked about trust, cybersecurity, governance and policies, surveillance, ethical issues, and emerging technologies such as the Internet of Things and Blockchain.
- Developing economies talked about infrastructure, rights to access the Internet, affordable Internet, quality education, as well as human rights and safety issues.
Needless to say, the discussion about the Internet has evolved from the haves and have-nots, which is why such multistakeholder mechanisms like the IGF are important for planning for the future development of the Internet. Different stakeholders sit together to discuss and find the solution, and people can learn from each other and consider other people’s perspectives, needs and experiences.
Language may be the largest barrier
More than 2,000 participants from 142 economies, representing all stakeholder groups and regions, attended IGF 2017 in person.
The IGF provides translation services to allow attendees — in person and remotely — to understand speakers so long as they speak in any of the six UN official languages: English, Chinese, French, Arabic, Spanish and Russian — most sessions were in English.
Although this allows a large majority of people to easily share and understand each other’s views, it does impact the experience of those whom such language is a second or third language, particularly those from Asia Pacific economies. Some topics are difficult enough to explain in your own language let alone trying to interpret their meaning for another language.
Obviously, it would be great to get more people adding to the dialogue in their native language, but how can we make it more convenient?
Besides inclusion of language, respect for religion, culture and customs is also important to encourage people to share their opinions.
I learned how to work on the Internet
IGF 2017 wasn’t all about listening to discussions. I was able to participate in working groups, including the NRIs working group. It was a great experience to collaborate with people (whom I’ve never met in different economies and time zones) on working documents, and discuss issues on mailing lists and in online meetings.
A highlight was being able to share our IGF community’s views during the GIS Watch 2017 Special Issue – Internet governance from the edges: National and regional IGFs in their own words.
Wish for more people to join IGF
It is difficult for young people in Asian economies, particularly students, to sit with government officials and talk about Internet or government policies — it can be overwhelming and they may feel they do not have enough experience to share.
At the closing plenary, Jianne Soriano said, “Being young is not a disadvantage, it is a strength.” It’s great that the IGF understands the need to include the opinions and ideas of younger people in discussions that are ultimately shaping their future.
This message is something that I’m looking forward to taking back to and implementing at the Taiwan IGF, and to hopefully encourage more younger participants to IGF 2018.
Ying-Chu Chen is an Assistant Research Fellow at the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research.
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