Reflecting Back on the IGMENA Pre-Event to the Arab Internet Governance Forum  

The IGMENA pre-event to the Arab IGF was held on December 16, 2015 at the AltCity co-working space in Beirut. The event brought together fellows from the four different “classrooms” of this year’s online course on Internet governance in the MENA region. Fellows were selected from the top students in the course to participate in the pre-event and the Arab IGF conference.

The purpose of the pre-event was to bring fellows together and discuss their experience in the course, including what they learned and what skills and knowledge they could apply at the conference. Fellows also had an opportunity to meet in smaller groups to discuss specific topic areas that would be important to address at the Arab IGF.

The pre-event began with a round of welcoming remarks and introductions. The meeting was facilitated by Hamza Ben Mehrez of IGMENA and two of the instructors from the online course: Walid Al-Saqaf and Nadira Alaraj. Each of the fellows discussed their background and their interest in the topic of Internet governance.

Next, a “fishbowl” session was held to encourage participants to reflect on their experience in the online course. A small group of participants sat in a circle in the middle of the room and began the conversation. Throughout the session, new discussants swapped into the seats in the center and added their observations. A number of points were raised in the session:

  • People had a positive experience in the course.
  • Technical knowledge is important. There should be more technical people involved in the course and conversations about Internet governance conversations more broadly.
  • A major challenge for Internet governance discussions is that governments often see the Internet as a means of control.
  • In order to protect data online, there needs to be greater user awareness.
  • Governments, companies, and users don’t always understand the implications of their actions related to the Internet.
  • It would be helpful for there to be more trainings in Internet governance for all different stakeholders.
  • Multistakeholderism may be difficult to achieve in the MENA region, but many agreed it is worth pursuing.
  • It is important for civil society to be vigilant in monitoring the ways that laws are applied to the Internet.
  • There was not consensus in the group over how much governments should be involved in Internet issues. Some thought that there should be more explicit regulation of the Internet, while others felt that governments should be less involved in management of the Internet.
  • A major question within the group: which comes first, security or human rights?

Participants then divided into four smaller breakout discussions. Each smaller group focused on one of four topics: Digital Divide, Internet Access, Youth Empowerment, and Multistakeholderism. The following summarizes key points from the smaller groups that were shared with the larger group:

Digital Divide
  • The digital divide exists between countries in the MENA region but there are also divisions between populations within countries, for example between men and women and people in different age groups.
  • Corruption is a major problem impacting the digital divide. Language differences and infrastructure are also factors.
  • It is important for regulators to be independent and represent all users.
  • Rural development and increased investment from companies in underserved areas can be beneficial.
  • In some places, there are also digital divides due to social factors, for example within a family.
  • Education and awareness raising is important to counteract social factors.
  • It is also important that Internet users become more active in the way the use technology, including understanding how the technology works.

Internet Access
  • Access is about Internet penetration and infrastructure but it is also about the extent to which people are limited by other factors, including language barriers and censorship.
  • Regarding censorship, many people in the MENA region fear government monitoring, particularly because it is more pre-emptive than in some other parts of the world.
  • It is difficult for Internet users to ensure that they are not being monitored. Tor and other anonymization tools can help, but they are not a complete solution.
  • There are also downsides to anonymization tools.
  • Regarding infrastructure, investment by the private sector can be an asset.
  • Increasing demand for Internet will support greater development of services.
  • Production of new content, particularly in more languages, will help to increase the number of Internet users and demand for Internet services.
  • A lot of content consumed in the MENA region involves social media. Some people are hesitant to produce content because of censorship and government monitoring, so content remains limited.
  • Therefore, increased content production and consumption are both important.

Youth Empowerment
  • The issue of youth empowerment can be approached from political, social, economic, and cultural angles.
  • From an economic perspective, youth are empowered by the Internet because they can reach global markets (including jobs) that are not otherwise available.
  • From a political perspective, the Internet allows young people to engage with civil society activities. Therefore, the Internet can increase youth participation in NGO activities.
  • From a cultural perspective, the Internet helps young people exchange ideas. Using the web, youth can promote diversity and tolerance.
  • The Internet provides many social opportunities for youth, particularly through social media.
  • Regarding the Internet, there is a generation gap in the MENA region, and Internet usage tends to be dominated by young people.

Multistakeholderism in Internet Governance
  • The group felt that multistakeholderism is achievable and necessary in the MENA region, and that NGOs need to put pressure on governments to support multistakeholderism.
  • Some participants felt that governments need to be better educated about the value of civil society in Internet governance discussions.
  • Multistakeholderism can and should be implemented on both the national and the regional level.
  • There are historical and cultural issues with bringing people together using this model of governance, but it is important to reach consensus and compromise.
  • Political reform can be an important factor in being able to implement multistakeholderism, but at the same time multistakeholder discussions can lead to political reform.
  • Some members of the discussion wanted to see a new independent international body to facilitate multistakeholderism, more cyber laws in the MENA region, and an international convention on digital rights.
  • Others emphasized the importance of diversity of representation to increase legitimacy of the multistakeholder model. In particular, representation by a greater range of actors from civil society can add new perspectives to the discussion.

In the final section of the pre-event, facilitators discussed what fellows could expect in the coming days and talked about ways to engage effectively at the conference. The pre-event concluded with a question and answer session about the conference and fellowship activities. Thanks to all our participants for a great conversation and to our facilitators for bringing the event together!