IGF 2021: A few changes to look out for

Profile picture for user Anriette Esterhuysen

IGF 2021: A few changes to look out for

Update from the MAG Chair


In 2020, once it became evident that we would not be able to have a face-to-face IGF as planned, the idea of a virtual IGF quickly took hold with everyone involved inspired by the IGF 2021 theme, “Virtually together for an Internet for human resilience and solidarity”. It was not easy, and it was not perfect, but vIGF 2020 succeeded in being large (6150 registered participants from 173 countries and more than 15,000 live viewers of the high level sessions on UN Web TV), more gender-equal than any previous IGF (50% of session organisers and 47% of all participants were women) and more inclusive of new people, with 59% of all attendees being at their first global IGF.

vIGF2020 was a truly collective effort by the MAG, the Secretariat, the UN (many UN agencies contributed), the original host country, Poland, past host countries, IGF donors, and thousands of individuals and organisations from across the stakeholder spectrum.

It also produced a set of digestible and reusable outputs (like its predecessors, which in 2019 resulted in the Berlin IGF messages, building on a tradition which started with the Geneva IGF messages in 2017 and continued with the Paris IGF messages in 2018). And, for the first time, the IGF reflected participation statistics not just based on region but also on the basis of high, middle and low-income countries. 40% of IGF participants in 2020 were from low and middleincome countries; presenting a clear target for the IGF to address as it aims to be more inclusive.

But responding effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic has not been the IGF’s only recent objective. During 2020 the UN Secretary-General published his Roadmap for Digital Cooperation which stated, that, “the Internet Governance Forum must be strengthened, in order to make it more responsive and relevant to current digital issues” as a starting point for building a more effective architecture for digital cooperation. [1]

The Roadmap outlined a set of ideas for making the IGF more responsive and relevant to current digital issues. Some of these, such as the establishment of a ‘strategic and empowered multistakeholder high-level body’ fall outside of the scope of the MAG's responsibilities. But others, such as (b) Having a more focused agenda or the Forum based on a limited number of strategic policy issues, (d) Forging stronger links among the global Forum and its regional, national, sub-regional and youth initiatives,  and (e) Better integrating programme and intersessional policy development work, [2] are covered by the MAG’s terms of reference.

This presented the IGF, and particularly the MAG and Secretariat, with significant opportunities and challenges. In the course of 2020, the MAG Working Group on IGF Strategy and Strengthening systematically explored these challenges and opportunities, also drawing on previous IGF-strengthening initiatives. The result is a comprehensive, practical set of recommendations, presented to the rest of the MAG in early 2021. These proposals are at the heart of some of the innovations being tried in this year’s programme development.

Thus, in its 16th year, with renewal of its mandate by the UN General Assembly in 2025, and a global pandemic which is simply not “ending”, the IGF MAG and the Secretariat have taken on a lot. 

• Organising a hybrid IGF is a huge challenge; more so than convening a fully virtual IGF was in 2020. The MAG, led by the MAG Working Group on Hybrid Meetings and supported by the host country and the Secretariat have tried to make sure that by using the hybrid format, the IGF does not lose the degree of inclusion enabled by the virtual format in 2020, while also offering the opportunity for those who can to gather face-to-face in Katowice in Poland in December. A recent letter from a large number of civil society organisations requested that IGF organisers make sure that the hybrid format does not result in “reduced” participation for the many, many people who will not be able to travel to Poland. In response, a town hall is being convened on 20 September, open to all, to talk through this challenge, and face it collaboratively.

Intersessional activities, Best Practice Forums and Dynamic Coalitions have been joined by two Policy Networks (one on environment and climate change, and on universal and meaningful access) whose goals are to develop specific recommendations. 

• An issue driven approach: To achieve the goal of a more focused IGF that discusses fewer issues in greater depth, the IGF 2021 programme is structured around two main focus areas (universal and meaningful access, and, economic and social inclusion and human rights) and four cross-cutting and emerging areas (emerging regulation, digital cooperation, environment and climate change, and trust, security, and stability). These six issue areas  were proposed by the community in response to an open call. Each issue area is clustered into sub-topics and policy questions, and the original idea was that deliberations during the IGF could focus on these specific issues and topics, thus producing more focused outputs. Whether this will succeed remains to be seen and in future years the MAG might find it easier to revert to broad thematic tracks. Achieving a more focused agenda is not a trivial exe

• The issue areas will be introduced during the Preparatory and Engagement Phase by the MAG-facilitated issue teams. These issue teams are open to ‎non-MAG members, as are 'wiki pages' created to document initiatives and activities with issue areas. The goals of the preparatory and engagement phase, which also includes youth sessions, and sessions organised by intersessional activities and MAG working groups, the Secretariat and the Office of the Tech Envoy, are to: 

  • Facilitate in-depth engagement with IGF 2021 issue areas towards achieving the goal of a more focused and impactful IGF
  • Provide the IGF community with opportunities for developing capacity in IGF-linked areas
  • Facilitate engagement with IGF intersessional activities, and,
  • Broaden participation and inclusion in all aspects of the IGF process.

There is more: the implementation of the IGF capacity building framework, and the development of a new IGF website – both led by the Secretariat.

The landscape of Internet governance as a concept, a discipline and a set of diverse processes evolves constantly. It is my belief that the IGF has to position itself as the one known, trusted pathway that traverses this shifting landscape. Or, to use a different analogy, as the clearing in a huge forest where the sun always shines, and there is a comfortable seat and safe space for everyone who cares about, and are affected by Internet-related policy to say their piece, argue and disagree if needed, better grasp one another’s perspectives, and strive for solutions. This implies having to maintain a delicate balance between, on the one hand, staying the same – being that IGF where one can meet old friends and colleagues, and rekindle old debates – and, on the other hand, changing, taking risks, opening up to new and different voices and interests, interrogating the status quo, but not at the expense of remaining relevant to people and institutions from across the political and stakeholder spectrum.

Looking forward to making IGF2021 a sunny, interesting and inspiring clearing in the forest of a year, which has been so difficult, in so many ways for most of us.

Anriette Esterhuysen

31 August 2021


[1] Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, p 25 https://www.un.org/en/content/digital-cooperation-roadmap/assets/pdf/Ro…

[2] From paragraph 93 of the Roadmap for Digital Cooperation​.