Internet Governance Forum (IGF) 2009

November 2009 in Sharm el Sheikh marked the 5th annual meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) – a meeting convened under the auspices of the United Nations with the purpose of bringing together a wide range of groups to discuss matters of internet governance.

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tVPN Summary

The IGF is meeting of governments, companies and organizations convened under the United Nations. The meeting is a forum where inter-governmental and organizational politics around control of the internet are played out. The topics included (and excluded) are a barometer for the state of internet policy debates around the world and an indicator of the directions of future regulation and law. This year’s meeting saw discussions over the balance of rights such as free speech, privacy and child safety, with no one issue. Cyber-crime also featured though Cyber-war was notable as an issue absent from workshops.
While virtual Worlds and avatars have begun to enter the policy vocabulary the main focus on new technologies at the IGF centres on Social Networking Sites and mobile – thus computer games, ARG’s and Augmented Reality were almost entirely absent from debates.
What this seems to suggest for the VW and Games Industries is that any policy debate and laws that flow from the IGF which impact them will largely do so as bi-product of broader issues or through a focus on the specifics of Social Networking Sites which happen to overlap with VWs. However the sporadic mention of virtual worlds means that this state will probably not last for long especially as groups such as the Council of Europe and DiploFoundation are beginning to raise Virtual Worlds / online games as a topic for debate. What’s single panels on virtual worlds were accepted at both the 2008 and 2009 meetings of the IGF thus it is likely that will start to gain more attention at this level.
The Virtual Policy Network has proposed that a Dynamic Coalition is formed to bring a focus to virtual worlds – this is supported, in principle, by the UK government and will be established with the UN over the coming weeks.

Ren Reynolds – Founder tVPN


IGF 2009 – Highlights for Virtual Worlds
Until this year there has not been a IGF session dedicated to Virtual Worlds or computer games, however the issues under discussion at the IGF and the policies, regulations and laws that eventually flow from them will impact these industries.

Key themes of the 2009 IGF (in approximate order of number of sessions) were:

  • Human Rights, free speech, privacy
  • Child Safety
  • Security and cyber crime
  • Sustainability / green IT
  • Accessibility
  • Critical internet resources i.e. ICANN, DNS, IPv6, ccTLDs
  • Mobile
  • Governance

What is important for the VW and Games industries is an understanding of how these themes are expressed at forums such as the IGF and how the intersect with the industry. For details see the individual Topic strands on the tVPN site.

It is also worth nothing that Virtual Words are gradually gaining prominence in inter-governmental policy discourse. They have now featured twice on the IGF meeting schedule, they have been discussed at a dedicated session at the OECD and the Council of Europe has issued guidelines relating to Human Rights and online games.

UK Gov / tVPN & Virtual World Workshop
2009 saw the first IGF workshop dedicated to Virtual Worlds. Submitted by the UK Government’s BIS (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) and produced by tVPN. The workshop explored a range of public applications of virtual worlds and other digital technology.

Titled “Virtual Worlds and public diplomacy in the Digital Age” the workshop included the topics:

  • Public consultation
  • Training
  • Medical
  • Developing world awareness and fund raising
  • Virtual Diplomacy
  • Use of VW’s by persons with severe disabilities

The panel was drawn from South Africa, Egypt, Malta and the UK, and the workshop was attended by a mixed audience including a number of UK parliamentarians. Details of he workshop can be found on the tVPN site here.

While 2009 is the first year that a workshop dedicated to Virtual Worlds has been held at the IGF, a similar workshop was scheduled for the 2008 meeting (but did not take place due to logistics issues created by the terrorist events in India prior to the IGF). Details of the proposed 2008  and the 2009 workshops can be found here:

As noted above – the fact that the UK Government proposed and the IGF Secretariat accepted workshop on virtual worlds in two consecutive years combined is a firm indication that they are slowly moving up the policy agenda.

Social Networking Sites
There were four sessions at the 2009 that focused specially on aspects of Social Network Sites (SNS) and a number of others that encompassed SNS related themes such as user generated content.

In the discussion the themes of freedom of speech, privacy, child protection and copyright predominated.

At the session titled “Privacy, Openness, Online Advertising and Online Behavioral Targeting” (263) the panel was asked about advertising in ‘virtual worlds target at children’ and the nature of the advertising in these spaces. A US FTC representative noted that ‘[children have difficult in telling] the difference between reality and advertising’ and should this remain a concern the questioner should write to the FTC about the matter. While the audience member was actually from New Zeeland this comment seemed to suggest a willingness of the FTC to at least in principle look into this area.

Council of Europe and Online Games
The Council of Europe held a number of rights based sessions at the IGF and distributed a small pack of materials. This pack included a summary of the recent ‘Guidelines for Internet Service Providers and Online Games Provides’.

VW related give always
Two other give always at the IGF were: ‘An Introduction to Internet Governance’ by Dr J Kurbalija (a speaker on the tVPN-BIS panel) – which includes a number of references to virtual worlds as a site of emerging governance issues; and, Digital Ego (Social and Legal Aspects of Virtual Identity) by J Kokswijk.

IGF 2009 – Other themes

Future of the IGF
The IGF was established with 5 year mandate. Thus there was a great deal of debate at this year’s meeting about the continuation of the IGF. A number of actors have suggested that the IGF should not continue – most prominent among these is the Chinese Government. During the formal review session however most actors voiced general or strong support of the IGF. Supporters included the EU, the US Department of Sate and many other world governments. It thus seems that the IGF’s future may be secured though it’s remit or format may be modified slightly.

One of the schisms that came to light during the IGF meeting was that between ICANN and the ITU. Some have seen this as emblematic of the clash between traditional UN culture (a largely government-to-government formal process) and Internet culture (where a range of actors meet as peers).

Human Rights benchmarking
Rebecca McKinnon presented an initiative by a multi-stakeholder group called the Global Network Initiative (GNI) that seeks to help companies maintain human rights standards including how to react when request from host countries are in conflict with international human rights standards. GNI is supported by Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! among others.

Clouds and privacy
One technology that gained some focus at this years IGF was cloud computing. This is of particular interest to many online game and VW providers as platforms are increasingly looking to Cloud as a provision option.

There was general uncertainty about current cloud services and whether their terms and conditions and transparency of technology were sufficient to maintain rights such as access to data and privacy. The Council of Europe raised the issues of Cloud as a potential site for cyber-crime.

The OECD also contributed to the debate referencing it’s recent meeting and briefing papers:

  • BRIEFING PAPER FOR THE ICCP TECHNOLOGY FORESIGHT FORUM – Cloud Computing and Public Policy 29-Sep-2009 (^DSTI/ICCP(2009)17)

Cyber-Crime but not Cyber-war
Cyber-crime in the broad sense of everything from hacking to online bullying was a topic that entered a number of discussions. Much of this is lead by the Council of Europe through its long standing work on a the convention against cyber-crime.

While notions of IP and identity ‘theft’ are recognized by IGF delegates concepts such as virtual currency and virtual objects (other than, say, mp3’s) did not enter discussions. It seems likely that virtual worlds will start to come under the spotlight because of the increased recognition of virtual currency and the rise in reporting of so called phising emails (seeking obtain subscription information from users of virtual worlds).

Cyber-war, that is aggressive actions against information systems by (or instigated by) state actors, was mainly noted in terms of its absence from public debate. But again virtual worlds are likely to come under attention in this area due to the increased official use of them by state actors.

Infamous Incidents
A number if incidents at the 2009 IGF are now gaining infamy on the internet. Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of any one of these incidences the impression that their wide debate on the internet and at the confidence gives is twofold:

  1. that the IGF is a place where tensions between parties get aired in public – for better or worse.
  2. that a number of groups feel that ‘difficult’ issues such as critics of the conduct of state actors  e.g. cyber-war, censorship; cannot be fully and publicly debated at the IGF.

During one of the IGF Rod Beckstrom (ICANN CEO) was reported to have ‘interrupted’ and  ‘almost shouted down Dr. Sures Ramadass’  who wrote a report for the ITU suggesting that ICANN and the ITU compete in the distribution of IP addresses (see: IGP blog and Information policy for details).

UN / China vs The OpenNet Initiative (ONI)
There was a dispute between the UN and the OpenNet Initiative about publicity materials relating to the ONI’s new book Access Denied. On the ground reports state that UN Security personally removed a poster and flyers for the book (and related film) due to reference to Chinese policy. The IGF later ‘clarified’ this suggesting that the issue was one of publicity materials in general though many suggest this official positions is both contradictory and inconsistent.

MacKinnon vs China and the UN
In a related incident Rebecca MacKinnon reported that she and other panel members were instructed that “[they] can’t mention specific U.N. member countries, and we’re discouraged from “naming and shaming” any other kinds of specific entities as well.” Details on   ^Ms. MacKinnon’s site.

Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs
In an uncharacteristic display of irritation Sha Zukang, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, showed his displeasure at IGF delegates.

Commentators suggest that this incident is indicative of at least three things:

  1. the reference to the IGF being ‘unique’ is seen as a commentary on the delegates support for the IGF as being a ‘unique’ institution in the Internet Governance galaxy, and in particular widespread opposition to China’s view that the IGF should not continue.
  2. the insistence that people take their seats is seen as indicative of the tension between the form UN Culture (the IGF is a UN meeting) and the informal ‘internet culture’.
  3. other reference in the speech are said to indicate that Mr Zukang had difficulty re-entering the building after escorting the First Lady of Egypt out. Something that many delegates would sympathise with this, having experienced the some what severe and un-bending local security on that day (all rest rooms were locked during the morning, delegates were told to leave their mobile phones outside the building where, initially, there were no facilities and the option was to leave them on the ground).
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2 responses to “Internet Governance Forum (IGF) 2009”

  1. Tweets that mention Internet Governance Forum (IGF) 2009: the Virtual Policy Network --

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