This week, Nairobi hosted more than 1,000 delegates to the United Nations Internet Governance Forum. For the five days, the UN complex in Gigiri had acquired a new language, with words like cyber security, privacy, internet freedom, critical internet resources, cloud computing, multi-stakeholder approach and last mile access reigning supreme.

For those new to IGF, it is the forum where governments, private and private sectors, civil society and individuals get to talk to each other and demand or convince each other to change.

In its sixth year, the IGF was born out of the World Summit on Information society meeting in Tunis in 2005. At that point, it was clear that there were issues that needed a special body to articulate, and the IGF became a perfect fit.

It was befitting that Kenya hosted the IGF, because it chaired the controversial internet governance taskforce during WSIS. Acting CCK Director General Francis Wangusi was instrumental in the taskforce, which ended up pitting the US and the rest of the world in internet matters.

It was at the internet governance taskforce that issues on management of critical internet infrastructure such as root servers, domain name system, damain name security and internet protocol address system were debated. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) manages these critical resources and by 2005, few governments outside North America and Europe were involved. ICANN is a non profit organization that operates under a memorandum of understanding from the US department of commerce and most recently under the Affirmation of Commitment from the US government.

Countries like Brazil, Iran and China felt that the US had big control of the internet resources and could spy on other governments. Other countries felt that it was better if the resources were managed under an inter governmental body under the auspices of the UN. Having invested  heavily, the US was not open to the idea and the private sector, that is highly represented at ICANN felt that the model was very efficient and successful, and putting such resources under a UN body would affect the performance.

In 2005, countries took sides, on whether the management of critical resources should be left to the private sector or should be under the UN. It was agreed that the IGF would be a forum to continue the debate and find lasting solutions.

In the first years of IGF, the debate over whether ICANN should cede control of the internet was there but has now died, the debate is on how to make ICANN more inclusive to geovernments, tackle cybersecurity, privacy issues, spectrum allocation, broadband policies and improvement of local content generation.

“Dialogue on managing critical Internet resources centre on policy issues affecting global development, and, in particular, on examining the issues of deploying new resources; I hope the debate here will continue to refine our understanding of the appropriate local and international institutional arrangements,” said Sha Zukang, UN under secretary general for economic and and social affairs.


Cybersecurity and child protection

From the speeches and discussions, the threat of cyber security and ways to tackle it appears to be a common problem for developed and developing countries. With many children getting online, governments are looking for ways to punish and apprehend criminals. The UN through UNICEF works with governments to protect children online and civil society bodies work to ensure implementation.

Cybersecurity is a challenge for governments in terms of enforcing the law. For instance, if someone is hosting malicious and criminal content on US servers, can Kenya disable the servers? No, Kenya can only do so if the content is hosted locally.

“Cybersecurity is a multi-stakeholder issue which requires collaboration and coordination between governments, regional and international organizations, industry, technical community and civil society,” said Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka.

Besides, different governments have different definitions on freedom of speech whether online or offline, so it becomes hard for one government to comply but if it was under the UN, it might be easier to compel members to comply with a request from another government, whether they like it or not.

“International Telecommunications Union’s concrete response – back in 2007 – was to launch the Global Cybersecurity Agenda, a global framework for international cooperation aimed at enhancing global public confidence and security in the use of ICTs, and is now in its operational phase,” said Hamadoun Toure, ITU Secretary General.

The ITU is also supporting establishment of Computer Incident Response Team (CIRT), which allows countries to maintain vigilance to defend critical national infrastructure and assets against cyberattacks. Ideally, Kenya’s CIRT should define what techies and hackers should do if they find a vulnerability within a network. For instance, if a security expert discovers a vulnerability that can be exploited within the Mpesa platform, what should they do? Expose it online so that malicious hackers can exploit the vulnerability and steal the money? Tell Safaricom and hope that they will fix the problem?


Spectrum and broadband policies

This is probably the topic that attracts telecom companies to the IGF, in the sessions, companies are able to address their frustrations with the spectrum allocation policies or lack of. Civil society organizations take the opportunity to lobby for policies that encourage investment in rural areas where economic returns are considered lower than urban areas.

In many countries, there is scarcity of spectrum to allow more companies to launch broadband products and value added services. In cases like Kenya, there was no allocation policy so individuals and companies that did not qualify for policies were allocated. Today, companies like Safaricom have had to buy companies only because of the allocated spectrum.

The government is attempting to change the policy by entering into public-private partnership like in the case of rolling out 4G where one company rolls out the network and other companies and individuals buy from it.

“In the last five years the number of new internet users in Kenya was recorded as more than 12 million, however, even as mobile data and internet access  increases, the pace of broadband growth is still slow,” said Wangusi.

During the ministerial meeting on Monday, speakers took turns to emphasize on the importance of spectrum policies to ensure telecoms industry growth and dedication of spectrum for disaster and early warning systems. The ITU is at the forefront pushing for investment in meteorological services.

“Our Radio communication Sector identifies and protects the necessary radiofrequency spectrum for climate monitoring and disaster prediction, detection and relief. This includes close cooperation with the World Meteorological Organization in the field of remote-sensing applications,” said Toure in his opening ceremony speech.

Private sector interests

The IGF provides a perfect forum for pursuit of partnerships between governments and private sector. Global telecom giants like Microsoft, Cisco,Verizon and AT&T are involved in IGF, which gives the companies a forum to push for better policies and partner in formulation.

For Microsoft, the IGF provided a chance to demonstrate new super fast Wi-fi, that utilizes some of the unused TV band spectrum and delivers high quality voice, data and video at affordable costs. For the demonstration, Microsoft worked in collaboration with CCK, which means if the product was to enter the market, it will be easy for Microsoft to push its case with the regulator.

The IGF is therefore important to all parties but it was better for Kenyan techies at the Innovation Hub (iHub) who had a chance to interact with Vinton Cerf, who is a leading light in internet development and is currently a Vice President at Google.