The four-day United Nations-sponsored Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was heavy on talk, light on action -- in line with its mandate to give interested parties a global stage to express their views on the future of the Internet.
The forum, which ended Thursday in Athens, touched on a number of issues, such as Internet oversight and multilingualism, with government officials, Internet experts and many others taking the stage to voice their opinions -- which often clashed.
Take the debate about the multilingual Internet and the use of internationalized domain names (IDNs). Viviane Reding, European Union Commissioner for Information Society and Media, said IDNs were often "wrongly seen as a technical issue," pointing to the need to recognize the value of cultural diversity within the global Internet village.
Vint Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google and one of the founders of the Internet, begged to disagree. He called IDNs "a huge technical challenge" and warned that a misstep in introducing them could permanently break the Internet into non-interoperable components.
On Wednesday, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the U.S.-led group that manages crucial Internet infrastructure such as domain names, root servers and IP (Internet Protocol) addresses, announced a road map for introducing IDNs. The organization is currently conducting laboratory tests to determine the readiness of the root zone file, or the master file of all identifiers, and its associated root servers and resolvers to house or work with IDNs. It expects to complete testing and discussions by the end of 2007.
Oversight of the Internet was another topic that drew conflicting views. While Reding praised last month's announcement by the U.S. Department of Commerce to consider ending its control of ICANN after three years, Robert Shaw, Internet strategy and policy advisor at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), interpreted the news as making "little or no change."
"Opinions still differ on what ICANN is supposed to be, even between the neighboring countries Canada and the U.S.," Shaw said. "While the U.S. says ICANN has a narrow technical function, Canada sees it as a quasi-judicial body."
The U.S. government has drawn criticism for occasionally using its unique ICANN relationship to its advantage. In one example, the administration of U.S. President George Bush objected to the .xxx adult domain that eventually led the Internet organization to reverse an earlier decision and reject the domain suffix.
Because the IGF lacks decision-making power, it's difficult to assess any tangible results, Shaw said. "Some of the talks were very superficial because it's really difficult to discuss issues like cybercrime in a three-hour slot," he said. "But the forum, in general, was a good networking opportunity. It was intended to be a meeting where interested parties could share views and that's exactly what it was."
Shaw saw little possibility of IGF evolving into a body to oversee the Internet, an idea supported by some IGF participants. He pointed to a remark made in Athens by ITU Secretary-General Yoshio Utsumi who noted that the future of Internet governance is not global but local, with governments deciding for themselves what is appropriate.
"For better or worse, societies have their own complete views of what is appropriate," Shaw said. "Take online gambling. In the U.K., it's perfectly fine but the U.S. has banned it. The Internet needs to adapt itself to this tapestry of different views, and it is."
A summary of the forum is available at: IGF summary.