Postcard from Vilnius

Posted by Chris Disspain on 23 September 2010

Last week, I was in Vilnius, Lithuania.  Some people will try to convince you that travelling is a perk of my job.  It isn’t. Whilst one of the privileges of this job is that I get to visit places I may never have otherwise gone to, it still means being away from home and living out of a suitcase. This is not fun especially when one is suffering from a ‘man-cold’ which, as all men know, is far worse than any other cold ever in the history of colds…ever!

Having said that, Vilnius is a beautiful city, perched between East and West, emerging from a troubled 20th century and looking forward to a brighter future. The food is brilliant (as long as you are not a vegetarian), and the hotel did a great line in house red.

My reason for visiting Vilnius was to attend the 5th annual Internet Governance Forum (or IGF).  The IGF was set up in 2005 by the United Nations, and I’ve been part of its organising committee, the Multi-stakeholder Advisory Group since the start.  The IGF was set up as a “space for multi-stakeholder dialogue” after a bad tempered UN process on the Information Society had nearly been derailed.  People were arguing about how the domain name system was managed, and the relationship between the body that oversees the domain name system, ICANN, and the United States Government.  Who knew that these dry, technical subjects could arouse such passion?

One of my roles last week was to co-moderate, with Dr Jeanette Hofmann, the session on Critical Internet Resources – which includes issues like ICANN, internet naming and addressing, and roll out of IP version 6.  Jeanette and I have run these sessions for the past 3 years.

In the early days of the IGF, simply discussing Critical Internet Resources was like lighting blue touch-paper.  That may seem strange in an environment like Australia, where the issue is really not controversial, but these discussions would provoke fiery denunciations from representatives of China, Russia, Brazil and many Middle Eastern countries, and entrenched defensiveness from the US, and most members of the technical community.

This made moderating the Critical Internet Resources sessions quite exciting, because, literally, anything could happen and sometimes did.

However, over time, a change has occurred.  It’s not that people magically agree now – they don’t -  but at least we understand better why we disagree, and somehow the IGF seems to have reduced the temperature of the discussions.

So, whilst this year’s Critical Internet Resources session was not the most exciting, because no one tried to kill anyone, no one cried, no one shouted, no one stormed out in high dudgeon, for me it felt like it was a real breakthrough. The IGF’s multi-stakeholder dialogue has started to work some magic.  Governments, industry, civil society and the technical community are talking and -  more importantly – listening to each other.

So, whilst peace hasn’t exactly broken out, looking back over the 5 years of the IGF I can see that its odd non-decision making process has made a significant difference to the debate.

Like Vilnius, IGF participants bear the scars of a difficult past, but are emerging with dignity, and perhaps a little bit of mutual understanding, which should equip us better to cope with a challenging future.