The Internet Governance Forum comes to Nairobi: Some Reflections

The 6th Internet Governance Forum made its way to Nairobi, Kenya this year. Kenya is the first country in Africa to launch an open data portal, and an industry leader in mobile banking. The forum was abuzz with young Kenyans, who took the opportunity to attend, eager to learn about Internet governance and ICT policy. They were current and future leaders intent on finding ways in which they could connect. Connect to influence and make an impact on their lives, their communities, their countries, their region but also the world.

The theme for this year’s IGF was 'Internet as a catalyst for change: access, development, freedoms and innovation'. For me however, most telling were discussions on how the mobile Internet will be developed and governed in the future. Mobile Internet is becoming mainstream technology today. The 2011 Measuring the Information Society Report by the ITU found that “wireless-broadband Internet access is the strongest growth sector, with prepaid mobile broadband mushrooming in many developing countries and Internet users shifting from fixed to wireless connections and devices.” As mobile use rises in Africa, Kenya was well placed to host and contribute to discussions on current and impending mobile Internet issues. Infrastructure is improving in developing countries (with developments in submarine cable systems and investments in terrestrial fiber networks). High levels of innovation can be witnessed where assess increases.

In Nairobi whichever way you turn there are advertisements for Safaricom and its related service M-PESA (the Kenyan mobile banking platform). While we face the possibility of a spectrum crisis, it is clearly evident that if we are to bring access to all, the mobile Internet will be key. Without it the digital divide that we as nonprofits have been struggling to bridge may be widened. However, as the ITU report points out “not only access must be addressed but price; bandwidth; speed and quality of service; skills; content and language.”

The IGF brought up these and other emerging issues. Ways in which ICT policies and governance of the Internet can address problematic issues regarding access and diversity were recurring themes. These discussions were balanced by the privacy and security concerns voiced as access issues are increasingly overcome. No doubt many discussions and initiatives spawned at the IGF will continue in other forums, in other cities and with other stakeholders. Care needs to be taken that civil society organisations are included wherever related discussions on Internet governance and policy are held. We must also use the Internet to involve the public in these discussions. The remote participation at the IGF, which has become a model for other inter-governmental organisations continues to be encouraging.

Though the Internet is a way to generate income, it has also become a vital public resource. Many practical examples illustrated just how important the Internet is for human rights, diversity and socio-economic development.  Perspectives from people not only of different professional backgrounds, but of different cultures, who spoke different languages, were also highlighted. Representatives from all states had an opportunity to take part and voice views which can otherwise be left unheard. This included Niuē the world’s smallest self-governing state (in free association with New Zealand) and first "WiFi nation" (Population: 1,354) but also China, (Population: 1,336,718,015).

Despite obstacles facing ICT development in Africa and the developing world, I left Nairobi very optimistic. Not just hoping, but believing that the IGF as it stands could have ignited sparks. Believing that it propelled initiatives already set in motion by regional attendees to ensure change for the better.  Ideas spark from being challenged by diverse and multicultural settings, like a spontaneous conga line dance to a Kenyan beat at an international gala dinner. They can be sparked by an engaging speaker or a hallway discussion. Sometimes it’s that spark that leads to citizen led development. The Internet as it stands today is evidence of this. It accelerates the speed at which an idea or collaboration with a likely or unlikely ally is translated into action.

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