Reflections on IGF 2019 in Berlin

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High Level Session on Internet Governance at IGF 2019

I have been quite critical of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) process in the past, arguing that it was created essentially as a talking shop and a palliative to civil society following the original WSIS meetings in 2003 and 2005 (for details see my Reclaiming ICT4D, OUP, 2017), and that it has subsequently achieved rather little of substance.  I still retain the view that there are far too many “global” ICT4D gatherings that overlap and duplicate each other, without making a substantial positive difference to the lives of the poorest and most marginalised.  Likewise, I have been hugely critical of the creation and work of the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation (HLPDC), despite having several good friends who have been involved in trying to manage this process (see the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D’s response to the original call for contributions).  I retain the view that it is poorly conceived, duplicates other initiatives, and will again have little positive impact on the lives of the poorest and most marginalised.

So, it was with much interest that I arrived at the IGF in Berlin on 25th November in response to three invitations: to participate in a session on ICTs for people with disabilities, to support colleagues involved in the EQUALS initiative intended to increase gender digital equality, and also to participate in a side event on Many Worlds.  Many Nets.  Many Visions, for which I had contributed a short piece on our TEQtogether initiative designed to change men’s attitudes and behaviours towards women and technology.  To this end, it is salient to note the largely elderly white male dominance on the key opening plenary panel on the future of Internet governance shown in the picture above – more on that later!  I had many interesting discussions during the week, but want here to share five main reflections and challenges in the hope that they will provoke dialogue and discussion.

IGF (plus?)…

Water stationms

Water Station at IGF 2019

It was rumoured that the German government had put aside some €10 million to cover the costs of this year’s IGF.  Whilst that may well be an exaggeration we were certainly hosted in great luxury, and it would be churlish not to thank the German government for their generous hospitality.  In compliance with increasing concerns over plastic and climate change, there was even a very impressive water station in the exhibition area!  They had also done much to encourage the participation of many quite young people, and to get the gender balance better than at some similar digital technology events in the past.  The IGF 2019 outputs are already available and make interesting reading.

UN SG speaking in IGF 2019 Opening Ceremony

UN SG speaking in IGF 2019 Opening Ceremony

However, I was struck by the relative absence of people from China, India and Russia, as well as from many of the poorer countries of the world who were unable to afford the travel costs or who had difficulties in obtaining visas.  This absence set me thinking of the wider global geopolitical interests involved in the IGF process.  At a time when the ITU is unfortunately being increasingly criticised by North American and European countries for being too heavily in the pocket of Chinese organisations and companies (recent criticism of China’s efforts to influence global standards on facial recognition is but one small example), free-market capitalist governments have turned ever more to the IGF as the main forum for their engagement on Internet issues.

Angela Merkel in IGF 2019 Opening Ceremony

Angela Merkel in IGF 2019 Opening Ceremony

The theme of this year’s IGF One World.  One Net.  One Vision. says it all (and hence why I was so eager to be involved in the innovative and creative Many Worlds. Many Nets.  Many Visions initiative).  The IGF is about maintaining a unitary free open Internet in the face of perceived attempts by countries such as China and Russia to fragment the Internet.  It is no coincidence that next year’s IGF is in another European country, Poland, and that the last two IGFs have been in France and Switzerland.  The messages of the UN Secretary General and the German Chancellor (shown in the images above) were equally forceful about the kind of Internet that they want to see.

Moreover, this hidden war over the future of the Internet is also being played out through the HLPDC process which has suggested that there are three possible architectures for digital cooperation.  The presence of such high-level participants at this year’s IGF very much conveyed the impression that the IGF Plus option is the one that they prefer as the main forum for policy making over the Internet in the future.  This is scarcely surprising: all but two (one Chinese and one Russian) of the 20 members of the HLPDC Panel and Co-chairs are from free-market capitalist-inclined countries; 8 of the 20 are from the USA and Europe.

The sale of .org by ISOC to Ethos Capital

Another major issue that raised its head during this year’s IGF was the very controversial sale by the Internet Society (ISOC) of its non-profit Public Internet Registry (PIR) which had previously managed the top-level domain .org to a for-profit company, Ethos Capital, for the sum of $1.135 bn.

Key elements of the controversy that were widely mentioned during the IGF, and are well summarised by The Registry, include:

  • ISOC’s decision under a new CEO to shift its financial structure from benefitting from the variable profits derived from .org to creating a foundation from which it would then use the interest to fund the activities of its various chapters (the new Internet Society Foundation was created in February 2019);
  • The lifting of the cap announced in May 2019 by ICANN on prices of .org domain names, which would enable the owner of the .org registry to impose unlimited price rises for the 10 million .org domain name owners; and
  • The observation that the former CEO of ICANN had personally registered the domain name used by Ethos Capital only the day after the cap had been lifted (it appears that he and a small number of his close affililates linked to ICANN are the only people involved in Ethos Capital) .

The lack of transparency over this entire process, and the potential for significant profits to be gained by certain individuals from these changes have given rise to huge concerns, especially among civil society organisations that use .org domain names.  As a recent article in The Register concludes, “The deal developed by former ICANN CEO Chehade is worth billions of dollars. With that much money at stake, and with a longstanding non-profit registry turned into a for-profit with unlimited ability to raise prices, the internet community has started demanding answers to who knew what and when”.

Inclusion, accessibility and people with disabilities…

Absence of people in IGF 2019 Main Hall for High Level Session on Inclusion

Absence of people in IGF 2019 Main Hall for High Level Session on Inclusion

It was good to see a considerable number of sessions devoted to inclusion, accessibility and people with disabilities at this year’s IGF.  However, it was sad to see how relatively poorly attended so many of these sessions were.  The exodus from the Main Hall between the High Level Session on the Future of Internet Governance and the High Level Session on Inclusion, for example, was very noticeable.  The content of most of these sessions on disabilities and inclusion was generally interesting, and it is just such a shame that the wider digital community still fails to grasp that digital technologies will increase the marginalisation of those with disabilities unless all such technologies are designed as far as is reasonably possible to be inclusive in the first place.  Assistive technologies can indeed make a very significant difference to the lives of people with disabilities, but such persons should not have to pay more for them to counter the increased marginalisation that they face when many non-inclusive new technologies are introduced.

IGF 2019 Session WS#64 on empowering persons with disabilities

IGF 2019 Session WS#64 on empowering persons with disabilities

I was, though, hugely challenged by my own participation in one of these sessions.  Having been invited by Brian Scarpelli to be the penultimate speaker in a session that he had convened on Internet Accessibility Empowering Persons with Disabilities (WS #64), I just felt that it needed a little livening up by the time it was my turn to speak.  I therefore decided to take a roving microphone, and did my presentation walking around inside the cage of desks around which everyone was seated.  I wanted to engage with the “audience” several of whom did indeed have disabilities, and I tried hard to involve them by, for example, describing myself and the venue for those who were blind.  The audience seemed to welcome this, and I had felt that I had got my messages across reasonably well.  Afterwards, though, someone who is autistic came up to me and in the nicest way berated me for having walked around.  She said that the movement had distressed her, and made it difficult for her to follow what I was saying.  She suggested that in the future I should stay still when doing presentations.

This presented me with a real challenge, since I have been encouraged all my life to deliver presentations as a performance – using my whole body to engage with the audience to try to convince them of my ideas.  So, what should we do when making presentations to an audience of such varied abilities?  Can we cater for them all? Clearly, I don’t want to upset those with one disability.  Should I ask if anyone in an audience minds if I walk around?  But then, someone with autism might well not want to speak out and say that they did actually mind?  Should the preference of one person with a disability over-ride the preferences of the remaining 49 people in a room?  There is no easy answer to these questions, but I would greatly value advice from those more familiar with such challenges than I am.

Exclusion in the midst of diversity: being an elderly, white, grey-haired, European man…

"Many Worlds. Many Nets. Many Visions" gathering held during IGF 2019 at HIIG

“Many Worlds. Many Nets. Many Visions” gathering held during IGF 2019 at HIIG

Far too many international events associated with digital technologies continue to be excessively male dominated, and it was refreshing to see the considerable gender diversity evident at IGF 2019.  Despite this, as noted above, several panels did remain very “male”!  It was therefore very refreshing to participate in the Many Worlds.  Many Nets.  Many Visions side event held at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG), and congratulations should once again be given to Matthias Kettemann and Katharina Mosene for putting this exciting and challenging initiative together.

Reflecting on the various gender-related events held during and around IGF 2019, though, has made me very uneasy.  I was particularly struck by the frequency with which presenters advocating plurality and diversity of ideas, behaviours, and self-identification, nevertheless also seemed to castigate, and even demonise one particular group of people as being, in effect, the “enemy”.  That group is the group that others see me as belonging to: elderly/middle-aged, white, grey-haired, European (and let’s add north American and Oceanian as well), men!  Perhaps it was just in the sessions that I attended, but over and over again this group was seen as being oppressive, the main cause of gender digital inequality, and those who are to be fought against.  The language reminded me very much of some of the feminist meetings that I attended back in the 1970s.

I was surprised, though, how sad this made me feel.  Some elderly, white, grey-haired, European (etc.) men have indeed worked over many decades to help change social attitudes and behaviours at the interface between women and technology.  This group is not uniform!  Some have written at length about these issues; some have helped implement programmes to try to make a real difference on the ground.  To be sure, we need to continue to do much more to change men’s attitudes and behaviours;  TEQtogether has been set up to do just this.  What upset me most, though, is that these efforts were rarely recognised by those who were so critical of  this particular “uniform” group.  Too often, all elderly, white, grey-haired, European (etc.) men seemed to be lumped together in a single group by those very people who were calling for recognition of the importance of diversity and multiple identities. There is a sad irony here.  Perhaps it is time for me just to grow old gracefully…

EQUALSIt was therefore amazingly humbling that, almost at the end of the EQUALS in Tech awards, a young woman who I had never met before, came up to me and simply said thank you.  Someone had told her what one elderly, white, grey-haired, European (etc.) man had tried to do over the last 40 years or so…  I wonder if she has any idea of just how much those few words meant to me.

Novelty and learning from the past

Poster about sexual exploitation of children, Ethiopia, 2002

Poster about sexual exploitation of children, Ethiopia, 2002

Finally, the 2019 IGF re-emphasised my concerns over the claims of novelty by people discovering the complexity of the inter-relationships between technology and society.  All too often speakers were claiming things that had actually been said and done twenty or more years ago as being new  ideas of their own.  This was typified by a fascinating session on Sex Work, Drug Use, Harm Reduction, and the Internet (WS 389).  Whilst this is indeed a very important topic, and one that should be addressed in considerably more detail, few of the presenters made any reference to past work on the subject, or appeared to have made much attempt to learn from previous research and practice in the field.  Back in the early 2000s, for example, the Imfundo initiative had spent time identifying how “bar girls” in Ethiopia might have been able to use digital technologies that were novel then to help transform their lives and gain new and better jobs.  I wonder how many people attending Session WS 389 were at all aware of the complex ethical questions and difficulties surrounding the conduct of research and practice on this topic that the Imfundo team had explored all those years ago.  There were important lessons to be learnt, and yet instead the wheel seems to be being reinvented over and over again.

This example was not isolated, and a recurrent feature of the field of ICT for Development is that people so rarely seem to learn from mistakes of the past, and everyone wants to claim novelty for ideas that have already been thoroughly explored elsewhere.  I  must write at length some time about the reasons why this seems to happen so often…


Finally, the artists who created this image of Berlin from tape during IGF 2019 deserve to be congratulated on their amazing work!

Artwork of Berlin made in tape, 25th November

Artwork of Berlin made in tape, 25th November

Artwork of Berlin made in tape, 29th November

Artwork of Berlin made in tape, 29th November

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Filed under Accessibility, Disability, Gender, ICT4D, ICT4D conferences, Internet

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