Death and the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) 2015

Edina Harbinja 
Lecturer, University of Hertfordshire; PhD, University of Strathclyde


Credits to

This was my first time participating in of one of the world’s ‘most important’ internet governance events (arguably and with a lot of critique) – the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), held in Joao Pessoa, Brazil, 9-12 November 2015. The event gathered more than 2,400 participants from all over the world, representing different governments, companies, civil society and academia. The main theme for the 10th IGF was: ‘Evolution of Internet Governance: Empowering Sustainable Development’.

IGF is an international forum that arose from the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005. The IGF’s main aim is discussing “public policy issues related to key elements of Internet governance to foster the sustainability, robustness, security, stability and development of the Internet”. It is based on the multi-stakeholder model, meaning that stakeholders (governments, private sector, civil society, academia, individual Internet users) are brought together to participate in the dialogue, decision making, and implementation of solutions to common problems or goals, i.e. the Internet governance related issues. The IGF 2015 produced some recommendations and outputs, which may or may not be taken into account by international organisations, governments and the private sector.

As my research has been focused a lot on the area of law and digital legacy, I was invited to speak on the panel organised by ISOC’s (Internet Society) Narelle Clark. Our workshop was a part of the large family of about 150 thematic workshops and other sessions that took place throughout the week at IGF. The panel was multidisciplinary and, in addition to Narelle and myself, included the following speakers: Michael Arnold, the University of Melbourne (humanities); Carlos Affonso Pereira de Souza, Brazilian lawyer; Steve DelBianco, NetChoice organisation (law and policy); Bob Hinden, Internet Society (technology); Marcel Leonardi, Google (private sector); Mary Uduma, Nigerian Communications Commission (government); Matthew Shears, Centre for Democracy and Technology (policy and technology).

The workshop explored the many legal and social questions around access to a person’s digital life after death: what rights should heirs have and what rights do they have? This forum highlighted the issues for legislators and consumers, and explored ways of assisting people in planning their digital legacy.

The workshop was structured around a hypothetical scenario of a person (Matthew) dying and leaving complex and messy online legacy. Therefore, it was highly engaging and interactive, with the speakers’ interventions flowing seamlessly during the workshop, following the clever and fun story composed by Narelle. My contribution was twofold and somewhat schizophrenic, representing the deceased as a practitioner (the views I do not share as an academic, e.g. US state laws and jurisdiction issues related to digital legacy) and being an academic questioning these views (and arguing for post-mortem privacy).

After our story and ‘talk’ had finished, we got a huge number of questions, both from the audience there (more than 50 people, very surprising for a death panel!) and remote participants (IGF workshops are being streamed and questions can be asked remotely). Therefore, in addition to Matthew (the deceased), his family, lawyers, companies, technologists, policy-makers and governments, during the question time our story was hijacked by Mathew’s lover, a cleaning lady, friends etc. I really enjoyed seeing so many people interested in the topic and being able to participate in a panel that made death entertaining! Tweets referred to it as one of the best (if not THE best) workshops at the IGF.

In summary, the IGF 2015 offered a great opportunity for me to showcase some of my research, see good workshops and panels (e.g. on the Right to Be Forgotten, IANA transition, Big Data, the Internet of Things etc.) and meet some amazing individuals working in the area and elsewhere. I am hoping to be back…


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