The 17th Annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) held in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Although it was the first time that the IGF was holding in Africa, even though the IGF actually originated from the continent when world leaders meeting at the second leg to the WSIS in Tunis, Tunisia decided to end the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) which deadlocked on the definition of Internet Governance by establishing the IGF as a means to move toward a collective, shared consensus on what Internet Governance should mean both in definition and in its substantive content. Since then, the IGF has held annually and has become one of the high point re-unions of internet stakeholders, when they wound down the year. Significantly, it is always held in the end of November/early December, reinforcing the impression that it is actually a close-up event of the year.
The IGF with its commitment to multi stakeholder principles and process is a place where there is, in theory, no hierarchy or power ranking in its deliberation. It admits an equality of all actors, even as access to resources determines which actors dominate. In reality, this is not true since there are leaders and process movers and as well as close sessions in which only privilege participants are admitted. But its beauty is also its weakness. Because it is a non- hierarchical, it also does not take binding decisions and its resolutions are merely advisory to any stakeholder interested in them as well as for other to push them through advocacy and lobby. in this sense, the IGF has all trappings of talkshop.
Because of power asymmetry, often many of its resolutions are left there by governments that are opposed to specific resolutions but are too diplomatic to be seen as politically incorrect on the floor of the IGF,
Because everyone likes to appear nice, flows in the IGF are hardly raised openly and they are conveniently overlooked. Here are some of the under-currents that never made it to the official YouTube recording of the event that is showcased to the world of the success that the IGF has always been.
One thing that struck me most graphically at this year’s IGF was the absence of books. Yes, I mean books and I do not mean books as a debate but as part of the enhancing public understanding of what these organizations do: about their understanding of issues, commitments and priorities, what they would like to see, or they have been associated with. Each IGF devotes a huge space for exhibition and in the past many organizations came with loads of books that they gave out freely.
As a bookphile, this was one aspect of the IGF that I loved. In 2019 at Belin, Germany, the IGF Organizing committee had commissioned the publications of two important books which it distributed to all participants of the 15th IGF.
I had gone to Addis with a large bag, to selfishly collect as many free books as possible (by the way I had also taken copies of our own books meant to be given out freely there). To my shock, of the over 50 or so exhibitors, only two had books in their shade. These were UNECA which had only displayed copies of its books (as an Addis based organization and landlord of the venue of the IGF, I thought that it had no luggage challenge in bringing copies of its publications for the participants, however it did not). The other organization was the Association for Progressive Communication which had books by CITAD (again only for display, not for giving out).
Questions that came to my mind were: have we reached the end of books as we know them and that all publications are now only available online or in electronic formats? Or is that the bug of de-reading culture has finally caught up with major organizations as well that they are no longer publishing. I did not interrogate any organization to find out what could be the reason.
Tuesday morning was the opening day of the IGF which commenced on Monday as the Day zero. At the opening ceremony we were told to drop out handsets (those indisputable symbols of digital technology) and laptops at the security post before entering the hall. We were not allowed into the hall of the major event that was meant to advocate for and promote digital technology for the common good. I was curious to know why this decision was taken and implemented: were our leaders still fearful of the internet that they did not trust delegates to enter with their handsets? Were the leaders of both the country and the IGF engaged in the usual do as I told you but not as I behave? That is, while advocating for the mainstreaming of digital technology in everything we do, they do not trust to see it being used in a big-people meeting?
In all the IGFs I had attended previously, all the meeting rooms were properly equipped with translation gadgets. However, to my surprise here, many of the rooms did not have adequate equipment and facilities to translate proceedings into various languages and all speakers had to speak in English. What has become of our advocacy for cultural and linguistic inclusion? Has digital inclusion now been demoted to merely having access to content in English only? This lack of adequate translation facilities was most surprising given that the IGF was holding a UNECA conference center, for which we had to pass a parade of African national flags before entering the venue. No doubt these flags are there to underscore the reality of multiplicity of Africa languages and cultures. Yet this was missing in the halls of the IGF.
There were a few glitches in the programme. On day zero in the afternoon, session 33 was listed to hold. Over 50 gathered in the designated room, and after about 15 minutes of waiting someone online asked when the session was going to commence and since there was no one at the high table, no one could give the person an answer. In the end neither the organizers of the panel nor the moderators as well as the panelists showed up and after waiting for a full hour, the room had to give place to another session. But the poor coordination was that there was neither an apology nor explanation to the people who had shown up to take part in the session. Similarly on day one following the opening ceremony, “Digital Self-Determination: a Pillar of Digital Democracy“ was listed to be held in Room CR 5. Those of us who showed up ended up listening to the background jazz music with no speakers or moderators showing up.
Digital inclusion involves a wide spectrum of markers that need to be included. These include language and cultural experiences. Digital campaigners and policy makers alike at the IGF agree on the need of linguistic inclusion to ensure that all people have access to information in language that they understand as well as perverse their cultural and linguistic experience. Yet, for some reason, translation of facilities were generally not sensitive to linguistic competences of participants. English was the default working language and limited translation was available in other UN languages but most of the panel rooms did not have adequate translation.
Catching irony was one thing I enjoyed, I was a panelist at the Session on Internet and Environment: Beyond Access. During the question and answer segment of our panel, someone raised on important observation that if we are to be successful advocates, we must practice what we’re advocating, to which everybody agreed but when he pointed out that since we were concerned with carbon footprint, and that animals are a major producer of carbon emission, we should stop eating meat at the IGFs and hence we should ask the hosts to stop serving meat in our lunch, there was laughter rather and a diffident attitude not to accept the logical conclusion of this proposition.
But while stopping eating meat may seem funny and hard to sell, the concepts of internet fasting and internet holiday in order to reduce carbon emission as a result of the use of the internet which has become so significant, were well received. In fact, the significant increase in carbon emission registered during the COVIC lockdown was due to the more intensive use of the internet as people were forced to switch to online and remote working modes. The movement urging people to internet-fast is growing and it is not only about reducing carbon footprint. It is also about protecting humanity from insanity as people are getting afflicted with digital dementia. The loss of memory due to our succumbing to the seductive power of technology is becoming an issue that cannot be glossed over. There is the equally important and less visible phenomenon of the loss of analytical skills as we come to rely on digital devices to compose our thoughts and write for us.
Yet, as I argued in one of the sessions, while carbon emission resulting from internet use may be a big problem in the developed world, in developing countries, like Nigeria, it is the lack of digital access that is a key challenge, and we should be careful not to apply the same solution to entirely different problems across the board. In developing countries, we need our people to have access to digital systems and digital opportunities and while it is true, the few included might reached the point of addiction to internet, in developing countries, the great majority of the people are still digitally excluded, and our core challenge is how to digitally include people rather than to start applying quota of carbon emission for countries that are experiencing digital-deficit.
In the end there, the challenge that digital technology is posing to human beings has to be addressed in a more nuanced manner. We should not accept the same problematization of issues or the same prescriptions for all manner of problems. We must also avoid the trap of developmental linearity in which developing countries most necessarily go through the same experience as the current developed countries. Instead, we must let each country and continent take into account its own specificities and trajectory and decide what is of more pressing concern for its citizens than transplanting the concerns of developed countries to be taken as necessarily the same for developing countries.
Perhaps, one of the biggest ironies of IGF22 was the hosting of the event itself in Ethiopia. Digital rights have always occupied a central place in the IGFs. The multi-stakeholderism of the IGF allows for an inclusive dialogue around digital rights as a critical currency in cyberspace. Which is why the selection of hosts should also be sensitive to the digital rights profile of the host country. Giving the hosting right to a country that abuses these rights would make nonsense of all the fine points about digital rights. While Ethiopia is not the worst example of digital rights abuse, it is certainly one in which these rights are frequently abused. In the end therefore, the impression created was that we occupy our high grounds of global discourse of global rights but not interrogating what different actors in the discourse do outside the IGF room.
Oh, not all things appeared gloomy. The Ethiopians did entertain participants to a lively dinner with good food and music against the background of an excellent water works at the beautiful Friendship Park, hosted by the Mayor of the City of Addis Ababa, an amiable lady that speaks of progress about gender justice and equity in that country. There were two other cultural events. But one thing that delegates kept mentioning was that there was too much food at the venue. I overheard several participants saying that there was more to eating than deliberation at the sessions. That is an exaggeration, but the host kept hunger out of the minds of participants throughout the duration of the IGF. Maybe I added some weight as a result, who knows? But against the background of the millions of hungry Ethiopia this may seem hypocritical and an act of lack of accountability. Will the Japanese do better as IGF 23 beckons at them?