Event Report: Internet Governance Forum USA Annual Meeting

If anything is taken for granted, it is the Internet. The nation with the smallest GDP in 2013, Tuvaluhas its own top-level domain name. China, the world’s largest nation by population, has its own sophisticated mechanisms for controlling the Internet. According to a McKinsey report from 2011, $8 Trillion is processed in e-commerce annually via the Internet and of 13 nations accounting for 70% of world GDP, 3.4% of their overall GDP is solely from the Internet. Yet, these staggering numbers account for a system that is not governed by a government authority, a UN agency, or any single stakeholder for that matter. 

            The Internet Governance Forum-USA is a forum for any kind of Internet stakeholder to discuss issues facing the future of the Internet. Although these stakeholders come from many disparate backgrounds, including industry, government, various nations, privacy groups, and academics, all of them care deeply about the future of the Internet. Further illustrating the stakes involved is the list of sponsors of this year’s event, which included Microsoft, AT&T, ARIN, Fox, Comcast, Verizon, Walt Disney, and others; these entities certainly do not take the Internet for granted. The 9th annual IGF meeting will be in Istanbul this year. The USA version of the IGF annual meeting was at The George Washington University on July 16, 2014. Many of the ideas shared at this meeting began at NETmundial in Brazil, earlier in 2014. Key words heard over-and-over again were Net NeutralityGovernancePrivacyInternet of ThingsBig DataMultistakeholderism. For reference, the 2011 meeting (the most recent IGF-USA meeting website I was able to find), does not list Net Neutrality or Big Data anywhere in its program. Internet of Things was apparently an issue back then, too.

            The first thing that strikes me when attending Internet-related meetings is the superficial makeup of attendees. The most obvious thing that I noticed is that this meeting was packed; hundreds of attendees were in attendance. In fact, at the conference steering committee meeting on July 11, 2014, organizers disclosed that the conference was practically sold out and they were expecting overflows. In a town where conferences are frequent, livestreaming is available (thanks to Paul Brigner and yours truly), and Internet governance is loosely defined, filling up an auditorium for an entire day may prove to be a challenge. The second thing I noticed is that this was unlike the previous Computer, Privacy, and Freedom conference that I reviewed, DEFCON, IETF, or other Internet-related conferences in that this was a business-dress affair; geeks are invited, but not hacking here.

            Major keynote speakers in attendance included Larry Strickling, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information and Administrator, National Telecommunications and Information Administration; Danny Sepulveda, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy in the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs; Nuala O’Connor, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology and the first Chief Privacy Officer of the Department of Homeland Security; Greg Walden(R-OR 2nd District), Chairman, House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology; Jonathan Sallet, General Counsel of the Federal Communications Commission. I noticed attendees from ICANNGoogleGeorgetown University, and even the United States Department of DefenseNational Defense University, and the Intelligence Community.

            The perennial question at any IGF-USA meeting is, “How should the Internet be governed?” A common refrain from the forum was that “a forum is not governance.” Nevertheless, either the attendees were major Internet governors or stakeholders themselves, or the attendees wanted to learn how to become more involved. In one instance, an audience member who is also an active technical member of the Internet Engineering Task Force suggested that IGF adopt a more Democratic approach, as IETF does. For instance, sometimes IETF working groups rely on “humming” to come to a rough consensus about a contentious topic. Some meeting attendees were interested in how warm IETF meetings are to newcomers; the answer is that anyone can join an IETF Working Group’s mailing list. Additionally, Marilyn Cade, Chief Catalyst for the Internet Governance Forum and a moderator at the event, remarked how the attendee badges at IGF-USA meetings no longer show the affiliation of attendees to emphasize equality and democracy among attendees. Multistakeholderism was also discussed in these sessions, and what it means to be represented equally in Internet governance. Last, the ICANN accountability session had standing room only crowds.

            Net Neutrality was also a hot topic at IGF-USA, highlighted by Jonathan Sallet’s keynote speech. Sallet noted that as of the day of the IGF-USA meeting, the FCC had received more than 900,000 comments about Proceeding Number 14-28, Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet, and actually expects more from replies. Sallet lamented that twice before including January 2014, the FCC failed to enforce Net Neutrality principles. The FCC believes that to ensure the growth of small and mass media businesses all content must be treated equally and consumers must be able to verify that. Sallet presented FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler’s policy: if the commercial conducts hurts anyInternet users, then the conduct should be forbidden. However, if the action helps users without harming others, then it should be permitted. This may manifest itself in medical or security applications. Wheeler feels that the correct approach is to outline the most worrisome conduct and guide the broadband providers to avoid such conduct, instead of a flat-out ban on preferring certain content over others (my understanding…listen to 12:50).

            Last, Big Data and the Internet of Things were hot topics. Internet users seem to be sharing more information than ever and more devices are being connected to the Internet. Security and privacy questions are numerous. The exact extent at which Big Data is being used to make inferences and draw conclusions is unknown. Two intelligence agents from the United States Department of Defense and the National Defense University were present; one asked the panel about how the right to be forgotten can be implemented if databases are stored redundantly all over the world, and the other asked how de-identification of data can be done (38:45). In other words, Big Data means big business for commerce, social relationships, and even national security. Panelists believed that while the technical mechanisms were unclear, the real hurdles to these issues are political, not technical.

            IGF-USA is a great forum for those looking for general discussion about major Internet issues. Top Internet thinkers were in attendance, especially lobbyists and those who work with top government officials. It was not a meeting for hackers, systems administrators, and computer programmers to share techniques, though. Despite its focus, it did touch on topics that are of relevance to all Internet stakeholders, no matter what their level of expertise is or where their expertise lies. Additionally, it is a perfect stepping stone for those looking to become more involved in Internet governance, or more accurately, the Internet governance discussion.

Jonathan Berliner is a research fellow at CSPRI. He has studied at Columbia University and The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He is interested in the policy and technical aspects of cryptography, cyber security, and surveillance.