Striving for diversity, inclusion, and a new hybrid path forward: UK IGF 2021

15th November 2021


Nick Wenban-Smith
General Counsel & Head of Stakeholder Relations

Facing the prospect of a potential virtual UK Internet Governance Forum Meeting (UK IGF) for the second year in a row, we felt significantly more prepared than we did the first time around. With over a year of virtual conferences and increasing familiarity amongst organisers, panellists and participants with the virtual platforms and digital conference etiquette, we felt sure that we could deliver another great event. We made the early decision not to attempt a hybrid conference given the uncertainties both in legal restrictions that might be in place six months in advance, but also the willingness of participants to travel into London and attend an in-person event; plus the additional at-risk costs and planning time should a switch to a completely digital event be mandated at the last minute. In hindsight, this perhaps overly cautious approach proved to be completely correct, although it was a real pleasure to organise an impromptu in person social event on the evening of the first day attended by 30 of us.  

The UK Internet Governance Forum (UK IGF) is the national IGF for the United Kingdom. IGFs are an initiative led by the United Nations for the discussion of public policy issues relating to the internet. A key distinguishing feature of IGFs is that they are based on the multi-stakeholder model – all sectors of society meet as equals to exchange ideas and discuss best practices. The purpose of IGFs is to facilitate a common understanding of how to maximise the opportunities of the internet whilst mitigating the risks and challenges that the internet presents. While IGF’s are always recorded, streamed and open to virtual participation and, until 2020, the meeting has always taken place in person.  

With the help of our excellent multi-stakeholder steering committee, our first step was to implement the lessons learnt from 2020. After reviewing the feedback we decided this meant (1) we should prioritise morning sessions – these had a much higher attendance rate, (2) have fewer sessions – virtual is tiring and people are often multi-tasking, (3) push harder on diversity – it’s not enough to have a diverse event, we need to strive for each panel to be diverse, and (4) barely anyone goes to virtual networking events, even if you send them biscuits.  

This year we focused in on two half day mornings delivered virtually: Wednesday 20th October and Thursday 21st October 2021. This focused our sessions and delivered two keynote presentations, the traditional UK IGF address from the Digital Minister – this year, Chris Philp MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and a second keynote from Yih-Choung Teh – Group Director, Strategy and Research, Ofcom.  

The newly appointed Minister outlined the government’s approach to online regulation – a careful balance of placing the onus on platforms to protect users from harm, while also preserving freedom of speech, promoting innovation, and ensuring a proportionate risk-based approach. The shared findings from Ofcom’s recent research – the Online Nation and Technology Futures – unsurprisingly the pandemic has fuelled increased internet usage and streaming – which has doubled. The pandemic has also highlighted existing inequalities in the way we access the internet (is a mobile only access sufficient?), but the internet also continues to drive innovation and new approaches – some of which stick around longer than others (remember when House Party was all the rage?). The “DIY” video was popular in 2020, but there was also a high reported rate of potentially harmful experiences, particularly among children – which highlights the challenges ahead for Ofcom as the future Online Safety regulator.  

We had some excellent panels throughout the day, this included a lively debate on the future of the UK’s data protection regime (to GDPR or not to GDPR), a sobering discussion on gender-based violence and some predictions on the future of the internet. We also delved into the many faces of cybercrime, considered the environmental footprint of the internet and returned to a regular subject at the UK IGF – tackling online harm while preserving freedom of expression with a closer look at the government’s Draft Online Safety Bill as it strives to balance these objectives.  

To push our commitment to diversity above and beyond the previous year we pledged to organise the UK IGF with a commitment to champion underrepresented voices, signing ourselves up to the Future of London’s Speaker Diversity Pledge. The speakers participating in this year’s event were more representative of the UK than ever, with 58% of speakers being female, and just over a third Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME).  

For the first year ever, we collected stats on some light touch demographics of the attendees. We were delighted to see that the largest category of attendees were newcomers to the IGF, that 18-25 year olds were the largest demographic age, the sector breakdown highlighted that industry, with 28% of attendees, made up the largest attendance, with civil society making up 20%. This compared with the UN IGF where 18% of attendees are from industry, and 39% civil society. Attracting a broader base of attendees from civil society might be a priority for 2022 then. 

For the second year in a row, we were delighted to welcome a diversity of funding the UK IGF. This year we thank Donuts, ICANN (The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), and The UK Chapter of the Internet Society for supporting us in funding this important event. We are open to expressions of funding for 2022, contact [email protected] 

For the first time, we have now also implemented a general mailing list to hear updates about the UK IGF – please do sign up here: 

Our final challenge for 2021: networking. After suffering an 85% drop out rate on our virtual networking in 2020, we braved a small networking session in London for those who were able to join. While the turnout was small, the drop out was lower than 2020 and the conversation was lively and enthusiastic. Maybe, just maybe, this is a glimmer of how we might have our cake and eat it too – a dynamic virtual event with speakers joining from anywhere in the world followed by one or more regional get togethers in our local communities around the UK to discuss the topic of the day face to face.  

As always, it’s time we turn our minds towards the United Nations IGF and share our UK musings into the global conversations. I hope to see some of you there – in person in Poland, or joining online from wherever in the world you reside.  

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