Sarah Logan is a PhD candidate in the Department of International Relations, ANU.
The drive from Baku's airport to the city is somewhat startling. Huge and gleaming new architectural follies punctuate a skyline otherwise more reminiscent of the twelfth century than the 21st. Coupled with this year's Eurovision, they mark Azerbaijan's attempt to make a name for itself as something more than a corrupt petrostate. Baku's hosting of the UN's Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in early November was more of the same.
This was a classic UN talkfest in many ways, featuring Nordic youth representatives, junketeers from a variety of small states, and large delegations from the US and Europe. In hosting, Azerbaijan proclaimed itself a tech-savvy democracy: as the telecommunications minister noted in his opening address, the internet is not filtered in Azerbaijan, a marked point of difference in a region noted for heavy-handed state censorship.
Unsurprisingly for a forum dominated by Europeans and Americans, key debates at the IGF focused on how to implement internet freedom policies in the face of such repression. But the meeting's collegiality was shadowed by awareness that next month this issue and others will come up for debate in a forum in which many participants will not share the IGF's apparent enthusiasm for a free and open internet.
In December, Dubai will host the World Conference on International Telecommunications where the International Telecommunications Union, a specialised agency of the UN with historical responsibility for coordinating International Telecommunication Regulations, will attempt for the first time since 1988 to update the regulations to reflect the seismic impact of the internet on the Telecommunications Union's remit.
There are divided opinions about what role, if any, the UN should play in regulating the internet, and the upcoming meeting inspires anxiety amongst those who regard the UN as the wrong mechanism for forging global internet policy.
Large-scale change is unlikely, at least in the short term. The internet's architecture is simply beyond the sort of regulation envisaged. However, for the first time, important internet policy issues will be open for debate in a 193-member UN forum, highlighting important differences of opinion which will have an ongoing affect on the development of internet-focused foreign policy. Proposals by states such as Saudi Arabia to implement changes which will facilitate further fracturing of the internet, as in Iran, send chills down the spines of internet freedom activists. Meanwhile, cyber security will be at the forefront of discussions, as a bloc formed by China and Russia will continue to argue for regulating the use of cyberspace for military purposes, sending even larger chills down the spines of others.
Azerbaijan is part of this bloc, and despite its best attempts, this year's IGF highlighted how little things have really changed in a nation known for arresting anti-government bloggers. EU commission staff reportedly had their computers hacked, and a lack of wifi at the IGF led many to suspect that the Government wanted to keep visiting Western civil society activists off the net, fueling the fears of those anticipating the worst at Dubai.
These issues rarely strike close to home for Australia, and indeed there was no official Australian delegation at the IGF this year. But there will be at WCIT. The advent of the NBN, the apparent widening of the scope of the long-overdue cyber white paper and spectacular growth in internet use in our region mean that internet policy issues are increasingly relevant to Australian interests. Next year's IGF will be held in Bali: the threat of state interference to conference goers will be less, but the promise of engaged, informed debate from Australian attendees will hopefully be greater.
Photo by Flickr user InternetSociety.