Web accessibility does not mean a site needs to be plain.

As a Web developer, part of my job is to understand what a Web site says to its visitors. Does the design attract the target audience; that kind of thing. I’ve just been browsing through the Internet Governance Forum’s Web site for the first time, and was presented with an impression that the site was there purely because there needed to be a site that made such information available, but didn’t really want to attract attention. Given the subject matter, I suspect this is not supposed to be the impression drawn from the site. If the IGF were serious about a setting up a framework where anyone can contribute, it needs to have a site – which is likely the first point of contact for a lot of people – that tells visitors they are serious about what they’re doing, not just with words, and also create a design that attracts people to want to come back – and not just people who have to be there for whatever reason. A bland white/grey/black site that looks like it was designed by someone with minimal HTML knowledge is not the way. For goodness sake, at least have a consistent menu on each page! I think it’s great that they have an accessibility note at the bottom of the home page that states:

“This Web site aims to promote the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). It tries to meet the highest standards set by the W3C. Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can use the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web.”

However, this accessibility does not mean the design needs to resort to the lowest common denominator. If I thought my input would actually be listened to, I might first suggest that the site needs more colour. As Kieran points out on the IGF’s discussion forum, “I can’t go on enough about how much more people interact with websites if they are colourful.” Even what could be considered a very basic design such as the one on this IGF Watch site would attract more visitors than what currently exists. As was also pointed out to me, the “NEW” news posts on the home page are not published in any particular order. One standard that is often adopted when posting news or updates on a Web site is that it is published in reverse chronological order. This is to enable visitors to scroll down the page only as far as the last entry they read, and to know what is most current. I would also like to see in the menu a link to the discussion forum. One advantage to a consistent menu (such as having an external php file that spits out the same menu on each page) is that you only need to change one file, not multiple, when a new menu item is required.

Get your free porn now at… the IGF Web site?!

The IGF has just added four new topics at its discussion forum, covering the four main themes of openness, security, diversity and access. Unfortunately the only posting so far is by a poster called “Big tiits”, which contains inline pornographic images, including an explicit photograph of intercourse (just a warning).

Appropriately enough, this posting has been to the “security” topic (though on the other hand perhaps a better topic may have been “openness”, since that’s the theme under which content regulation will be discussed?).

As usual, the new topics have been added without any announcement (just as the cancellation of the Forum has yet to be formally announced on the IGF Web site). In fact, is it just me, or is the IGF Secretariat a little uncommunicative generally regarding their activities?

I have just reported the abusive post to them, but from previous experience the IGF Secretariat is not always quick to reply or act on email. Looking back, I see that most of my communications with the Secretariat have gone unanswered:

Date Topic Outcome
13 February 2006 Sending questionnaire response for ISOC-AU Posted
22 February 2006 Reporting problem with Web site No response but fixed
27 February 2006 Sending submission for ISOC-AU No response but posted
29 March 2006 Nomination for Advisory Group No response or action
31 March 2006 Sending submission for ISOC-AU No response but posted
2 August 2006 Sending private submission No response but posted
14 August 2006 Asking questions re IGF Meeting format Response on 3 September
3 September 2006 Asking questions re blogosphere report No response
18 September 2006 Sending related activities link No response or action
27 September 2006 Sending offer for use of collaboration software No response or action

Perhaps they are a little overwhelmed? Perhaps they should open up a little more to allow volunteers from the community to give them a hand?

“The Sovereign Right of States”: Why Multi-Stakeholder Policy Development is Possible and Necessary

I have applied to speak at the inaugural annual conference of GigaNet, a new network of Internet governance scholars. Here’s what I intend to talk about:

The Tunis Agenda states in paragraph 35(a) that “Policy authority for Internet-related public policy issues is the sovereign right of States”. It is therefore taken that governments are to lead the development of Internet-related public policy within the Internet Governance Forum, and that the appropriate roles of the other stakeholders in this endeavour – that is, the roles of the private sector, civil society and intergovernmental organisations – are merely consultative (see paragraph 68). However there is a tension here between the traditional conception of public policy governance, as a process led by governments in which public input is received through written submissions and public hearings, and the increasingly prevalent understanding that states are no longer sovereign over public policy issues that transcend their borders, and must admit other stakeholders as full co-decision makers if their governance is to be perceived as legitimate. Is it still therefore accurate to say, as the Tunis Agenda does, that the development of transnational public policy is the sole responsibility of governments? If not, was it ever accurate to say so, and if it was, how and when did this change? I propose to speak about these issues by contending that governments alone can no longer legitimately claim sole authority over the development of public policy for the Internet, due to the diffusion of their sovereignty in respect of transnational issues upward, downward and outward to other actors, who whilst not endowed with (legal) authority, are better placed to address them. On this basis it can be understood that the traditional international order of Westphalian states now shares the mantle of transnational governance with regimes in which private sector or civil society stakeholders dominate – that of ICANN, to give one obvious example. Whilst the other stakeholders can add legitimacy to the governance process – for example, the private sector that of the efficiency of markets, and civil society the moral force of the substantive values it represents – they are no more legitimate in their own right than governments are. Rather, it is as a network, in which all stakeholders collaborate, that transnational public policy can be developed most legitimately (and incidentally most effectively). The IGF is, at least potentially, such a network. To suggest that the IGF could develop public policy for the Internet, when it is neither representative nor has yet had the opportunity to develop the perception of legitimacy within either the Internet community or the international order at large, perhaps seems outlandish. And so it is – at the moment. But the potential for the IGF to develop into a legitimate and effective governance network, that is perceived as such, exists now and should not be squandered. What is required in order for this lofty objective to be realised, and to save the IGF from becoming simply another irrelevant “talk shop”? Its multi-stakeholder composition, laudable and important as it is, is not sufficient. The IGF must not only be constituted appropriately, but its structure and procedures must also support its inclusive and collaborative ideals if it is to truly become a multi-stakeholder governance network. In determining what these procedures can be, much can be learned from observing the processes of other bodies already involved in Internet governance, such as the IETF, that successfully make decisions by consensus, and from the theory of deliberative democracy which values opinion formation as much as decision-making, and which is particularly well-suited to bodies such as the IGF in which stakeholders from radically different backgrounds are involved.

Managing expectations?

I was a little frustrated to read this summary of an Oxford Internet Institute seminar on the IGF, apparently with the somewhat patronising title of Managing Expectations:

A common meta-theme was the problem of how to “manage the expectations” of participants given the Forum’s novelty and its ambiguous status as a governance institution. Participants agreed that Forum attendees, especially developing countries, should return from Athens feeling that something useful occurred, but opinions varied on what counted as worthwhile. Forum “doves” claimed that they would be happy if the participants benefited from the networking that takes place, acquired new knowledge of best practices, and formed new networks and communities of interest. Forum “hawks” tended to characterize the Forum as a way to achieve visibility for new, pressing issues that are not receiving enough attention in international circles, and urged it to embrace rather than avoid the unfinished business of WSIS and serve as a place for critical assessment of international institutions involved in ICT governance.

Call me a hawk, then. I know, of course, that this is the prevalent view, but what exactly is the point of another talk-shop when there are in fact real issues for which the governance of an international multi-stakeholder body is needed? To twist a phrase, if the IGF did not exist, it would be necessary for us to invent it.

Delegates at the first IGF meeting

A list of those who have registered to attend the first IGF meeting and consented to the public release of their names, is available on the IGF’s Web site. It is interesting reading. There are 339 delegates listed in total, divided between the stakeholder groups as follows:

  • Government: 79
  • Intergovernmental organisations: 18
  • Private sector: 27
  • Civil society: 215

Whilst these figures are a little rubbery (for example, my allocation of certain bodies to the class of either civil society or private sector could be debated), there is no question that civil society will be very robustly represented at the meeting, at least in sheer numbers. This is heartening news. Here are some other interesting facts:

  • Of the governmental representatives, fewer than half are from highly developed countries.
  • The civil society representatives include twelve from universities and eight from ISOC and its official chapters.
  • There will be three Australian representatives including myself.

Welcome to IGFWatch

You are reading the first “official” entry of the new community discussion site for civil society stakeholders in the activities of the Internet Governance Forum. All of the entries below this one have been transferred from my personal blog, but from now on any journal entry I write relating to the IGF will appear here.

Why the new site? Two main reasons. First, although there are number of community discussion sites and blogs devoted to ICANN, there are none devoted to the IGF, which is potentially of broader interest and importance. Since the IGF has foreshadowed that it will be monitoring and reporting from the blogosphere at its first meeting, this is a hole that I believed should be filled.

Second, there is little information, and still less discussion, about preparations for the IGF’s first meeting. This site is for others like me who are interested in expressing and exchanging their views about the IGF in the lead-up to its first meeting in Athens this October and November.

Although there seems to be something of a tone of forboding to the posts so far, I remain optimistic about the potential for the IGF to live up to its ideals of multi-stakeholder engagement and transparency. However, this depends in part on you helping to hold the IGF to these ideals and prevent it from slipping into familiar intergovernmental ruts.

Welcome again, and I hope to hear from you all over the coming months. 

The IGF’s new discussion forum

The IGF has just launched a Web forum for discussion of IGF-related issues, to which I’m the first substantive contributor, on the issue of remote participation. I’m glad of this development, because so far all planning for the IGF’s first meeting has taken place behind closed doors, and reported only very infrequently to the IGF’s Web site. For example, it has only just been announced that the Advisory Group met again in Geneva earlier this month, with the vague promise that the results of its deliberations will be made available “in due course” (and I can almost hear Sir Humphrey add “at the appropriate juncture, in the fullness of time”). So now that we have a forum on which to do so, I intend to publicly repeat the enquiries that I have made privately to the IGF Secretariat, on basic issues such as how blogs are to be nominated for inclusion in the IGF’s blogosphere report, and how and when the promised five-minute video presentations are to be recorded. Oh, wait – I can’t. The forum is configured so that only administrators can start new topics.

Exhibiting at the IGF

The expressed aim of the Internet Governance Forum’s Plaza, an exhibition to be held at the venue of its first meeting, is that of “bringing participants together, facilitating the exchange of experience and the sharing of best practices”. Well, at least between rich participants. Because the costs of exhibiting there have just been released. They range from CHF5800 to CHF8400, which is almost AUD$6200 and AUD$9000 respectively. I had been toying with the idea of putting together an exhibition with information about my research and a register where people could sign up to participate in it. Clearly, that idea is out the window.

Preparing for the Internet Governance Forum

For a while this journal will take a turn away from personal matters to focus on the subject of my thesis; the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), since the Secretariat has declared that the blogosphere will be monitored for discussion on the IGF and summary reports presented to its first meeting which I will be attending in Athens. I intend this journal to be one of the blogs monitored. The thesis will examine critically the extent to which the IGF lives up to its ideals of transparency and inclusiveness. Early signs are mixed, but I remain positive. The IGF’s Secretariat was appointed by the Secretary-General of the UN on 2 March 2006, comprised of UN staffers led by Swiss WGIG coordinator, Marcus Kummer. Not exactly a multi-stakeholder core, but the Secretariat is not a policy-making unit. Or is it? It was the Secretariat that determined the composition of the IGF Advisory Group, following a call for nominations put out on 16 March 2006, closing on 18 April. However, the selection process was neither open nor transparent, and my own nomination made on 29 March was not acknowledged. The group eventually selected, and chaired by Nitin Desai, another WGIG alumnus, was announced on 17 May. Its composition is heavy with diplomats, lawyers and executives. The Advisory Group, in turn, determined the basic agenda and programme for the first meeting, and is continuing to do so in selecting the successful applicants for self-funded workshops to be held concurrently with the plenary sessions of the meeting. They have also decided that there should be a Plaza at the meeting venue to showcase institutions and projects. There is no information on the costs associated with exhibiting in the Plaza, but watch this space.