The tenth annual meeting of the Internet Governance Forum was held from 10th to 13th of November 2015 in João Pessoa in Brazil. Human and civil rights were high on the agenda. One participant described the experience.
Teambuilding in Brazil: Internet experts from Kenya, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda, Ethiopia, Ghana and South Africa
I was recently privileged to attend the 10th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Brazil, supported by DW Akademie and iRights.Lab, among others. Being part of this program was an invaluable experience, especially since everyone was given the opportunity to participate in some useful pre-IGF events; these were designed to help us appreciate some key IG issues in a relaxed, slower-paced, easy to follow yet high-energy atmosphere.
The majority of us had limited experience or were new to the issues of Internet governance, and this program would be central in providing the necessary knowledge and confidence needed to understand and effectively participate in subsequent Internet governance developments.
I say that this was a privileged experience because I had previously heard of how hectic a space the IGF can get, and had read articles such as these that basically gave me to understand that it is possible to leave such a venue without much, simply because of the overwhelming amount of knowledge to take on board.
Spoiled for Choice
Unsurprisingly I generally tend to get massive FOMO (fear of missing out) attacks whenever I attend conferences that have parallel sessions. It helped a great deal to have the DW Akademie team help us sort through the complex IGF program, and suggest possible sessions to attend.
As a first time global IGFer, it also helped to have unfettered access to some key speakers and resource people before the hectivity that was to be a Forum characteristic.
In one session, APC Director Anriette Esterhuysen took us through Internet Governance 101 and gave us a rundown of the key issues on which to focus.
One of my favorite sessions was the conversation between continents on the subject of freedom of expression. It was especially refreshing because it had no power-point presentation, but was just an engaging discussion looking at the threats and opportunities for freedom of expression in our different contexts.
We had a closed and inspiring group session with Rebecca McKinnon, who directly addressed us and explained at length the great work her organization has done on ranking digital rights - evaluating the world's most powerful internet and communications companies on their commitments, policies and practices, and how they affect users' freedom of expression and privacy.
My colleagues and I high-fived when we reflected on what ranking digital rights in Africa could look like and figured that the model could be used to evaluate our own local service providers, with or without their cooperation!
I fell in love with Helani Galpaya for her stubborn and fierce defense of zero rating as a practice and found myself parroting the same question: aren't we in danger of killing the goose before knowing if its eggs are golden? I came out of her session with the conviction that on my continent, some access was better than none. After the IGF, I later firmed up this position with an addendum: zero rating on a case-by-case basis.
Networking with a Capital 'N'
We did not once throw our jargon balls at any of our special guests, although there was a certain temptation to tease the UN’s first ever Special Rapporteur for Privacy, Mr Joe Cannataci, for his sharp dress-sense as he entertained us with tales from his Kenyan expeditions.
It was amazing to discover how such spaces allowed one to hob-nob with high-ranking officials one would otherwise generally not have easy access to. There were no discernible VIP dining areas, so you could easily find yourself queuing for tea behind the Principal Director of your country's ICT Ministry. The event had that effect of creating equals.
It felt great being part of a group, because you always had people with whom to hang out over lunch, share some observations and smile about the 'no toilet paper in the toilet' rules.
At the end of each day we had some great debriefs where we each gave feedback and some important observations made in the different sessions that we attended.
Some of my favorite feedback was how we all seemed to agree that the majority of the panels in the different sessions were so ridiculously bloated that by the time all the speakers were done talking, it was nearly always session end and we had hardly any time left for audience input.
I never came across one myself, but my colleagues spoke of how they sometimes found themselves in sessions where the panelists were more numerous than the audience!
Perspective for Africa
Our final group session at the end of the IGF was an invaluable experience as we undertook an involved mapping exercise to identify what we felt were key Internet governance issues of priority from an African perspective. We wondered if such an exercise would not have been better placed in advance of the IGF…
Nevertheless, our outstanding priorities for the continent among others included: issues of universal access, freedom of expression, capacity building, and privacy and cyber security.
Before we went to bid the Paraiba beach and Caipirinhas a farewell, we noted that there would be value in engaging in our own local Internet governance process and discussing how to possibly influence some coordinated processes on the continent.
Natasha Msonza currently manages operations within Her Zimbabwe, a non-profit women's rights organization that uses alternative media to bring important commentary to women’s issues, and that facilitates women's activism using ICTs and digital tools. She has a background in communications and information management that spans over eight years. In her other life, Natasha is a human rights activist and volunteer digital security trainer, working with a small network of privacy advocates that provides training and technical support to activists and human rights defenders in Zimbabwe. She was one of nine African Internet governance advocates sponsored by DW to participate in the UN IGF 2015.