Thoughts on the 9th Internet Governance Forum
This year, I had a taste of the IGF as part of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) which we (EngageMedia) is a member of. Upon receiving the invitation to attend the IGF, I had no idea of what to expect. The only thing I had in mind was the Gender Dynamic Coalition session that was going to launch the Feminist Principles of the Internet. But I also did have one big question in mind: Where was the position of the voice of civil society among the high level talks in the forum?
And what is the IGF exactly? Their website states that it is an annual event hosted by the UN for multi-stakeholders to talk about policies on the Internet, an open space for all multi-stakeholders who attend to air their views and exchanges ideas. While that's true to some extent (everyone could voice their opinions freely when they had a chance), to me, the IGF is a lavish event where all the big players talk, mostly from government sectors, professionals or academics who work with governments, and private sectors. This is while civil society and activists try to squeeze in their opinions and criticisms in whatever space becomes available in very brief time opportunities.
I say this because the event was four days long with eight competing sessions, four times a day, with only 1.5 hours or less allocated for each session. With so many resource persons and participants in each session, imagine how deeply a topic could be discussed in such a timeframe. And how much time would be left for questions and answers? In my personal experience, I had to compete with so many raised hands just to ask a question or air my statement in any given session.
Every day, I carefully chose the four sessions I wanted to attend. Those were the sessions that mattered the most for me personally and my work. I'd have to add that while some sessions were very informative, some others were plain boring. For example, in the session on Privacy, Surveillance and the Cloud One Year Later, which I thought would be interesting and provide some heated discussions because it was proposed by Google and the panelists were from Facebook, a tech executive from Africa, and a government-affiliated professor. But I was so wrong.
One session worth noting was the one on Empowering Global Youth Through Digital Citizenship, where the resource persons were around 15 teenagers from all over the world. I came to the session with one question in mind and after a tough hand-raising competition, I got the chance to ask it.
My question was about censorship or filtering of online content made in the name of protecting children and young people. The question received quite a good response from the resource persons, who sharply answered that online censorship or filtering wouldn't work for them, and it would only do more bad than good because young people will always find ways to get around them. They added that censorship or filtering denies their right to information and education because several blocked sites also have good content for young people to learn from. Youth in another session on Child Protection said, "I don't want you to censor things in my name". Listening to the voices of these young people gave me a sense of hope.
For those considering to attend the next IGF, manage your expectations wisely. I'm not saying that the forum is insignificant or that you shouldn't go, because I still think it's important for civil society and activists to show up and let governments and private sectors know that we are watching them. We should be there to voice out when our government violates our internet rights, and to participate in the policy dialogues so that they cannot make decisions without taking into account what we (or they) have said in or outside the forum. The forum also serves as a good space for us to meet an international community of like-minded people to collaborate and build networks.
Everyone who got to attend the forum were surely a lucky bunch, so we have to use such an opportunity to speak up to ensure the protection of our internet rights, which include privacy, freedom of speech, safety, and security.
My next blogpost will be about the Gender Dynamic Coalition and the Feminist Principles of the Internet, so stay tuned!