A man tries to get connected to the youtube web site with his tablet at a cafe in Istanbul March 27, 2014.

© 2014 Reuters

The choice of Turkey as the location for the world’s annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) might have been the conference’s most fundamental problem. But it was not the only one.

Thousands of stakeholders from around the globe gathered to discuss how to enhance digital trust, enable access, and prevent Internet fragmentation.

But perhaps the agenda was most notable for what it didn’t include: the question of Internet freedom in Turkey. Over the past year Turkish authorities have imprisoned journalists, banned Twitter, and blocked YouTube. Yet,“country-specific” panels and workshops are not permitted in IGF programs, so Turkey’s digital rights violations were missing from the agenda.

Not surprisingly, Turkey’s Internet freedom and governance problems forced their way onto the agenda anyway. Outside the IGF convention center, in the Google “Big Tent,” citizen journalist Arzu Geybullayeva directly challenged the Turkish government representative about his assertion that the shutdown of Twitter for 13 days wasn’t a significant infringement of free expression. Berkman Internet policy fellow Camille Francois challenged the government representative for his claim that the government was somehow not responsible for imprisonment of journalists on charges such as insulting the prime minister or raising corruption charges in news media. These confrontations generated enormous applause from the audience. 

Many Turkish activists chose to boycott the IGF. The “Internet UnGovernance Forum” was organized as an alternative venue for activists to speak freely, and to give a voice to critics of the IGF program. 

So, did the IGF accomplish anything worthwhile? The IGF was established in 2005 under the auspices of the United Nations as a forum for multistakeholder dialog about global Internet policy. But it is not a policy-making body. The IGF is a great place to meet and discuss vitally important issues: the fragmentation of the open Internet; the growing assertion of national sovereignty over cyberspace; and the fallout from the NSA spying scandal. But while IGF conversations about multistakeholder internet governance continue, Internet policy is being made in other venues. 

Internet governance will determine the future of Internet freedom. Going forward, IGF participants need to move beyond conversations to tangible outcomes, and get into fora where we can leverage our influence on actual Internet policy.