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Canada had a chance to bring the world’s foremost meeting on internet governance to Montreal, inviting a global who’s who of digital-technology expertise and free-expression advocacy to talk about preserving an open cyberspace.

But the Trudeau government did not even bother submitting a bid.

Instead, the 2024 meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is heading to authoritarian Saudi Arabia. Canadian companies say the decision is a missed opportunity, while international advocacy groups say it is an alarming win for autocracy.

The IGF is the United Nations’ main organization devoted to internet governance. While it is not a regulation-making body, it is regarded as a significant meeting and a rare chance to connect civil society, industry and government. The founding documents to the forum say that it is essential to managing the open internet.

There has been a mounting push by authoritarian countries – Russia, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia in particular – to have the IGF advocate for more country-level control of the internet. The mounting illiberal threat to the open internet prompted the White House, in 2017, to prioritize “active engagement” with the IGF and other fora as a key piece of its national-security plan.

Holding the IGF in Montreal would be good news for the city’s burgeoning tech sector and for the Canadian government’s digital priorities, argued an open letter by proponents of a Canadian bid.

Their petition to hold the forum in Montreal was signed on to by a number of Canadian and international human-rights and technology associations, including chapters of the Internet Society and the influential free-expression group AccessNow.

Montreal-based cybersecurity company eQualitie, a leading advocate for the idea, said the plan was endorsed by the city of Montreal and the Quebec government. The province had even offered up Montreal’s Palais des congrès as a meeting space.

When it came to the federal government, however, Ottawa demurred.

After rounds of conversations with Global Affairs Canada and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, the proponents were informed that Ottawa would not be bidding. “Eventually, we were told that ‘it doesn’t look like we will be able to secure the necessary funds,’ ” Michel Lambert, eQualitie’s general manager said to The Globe and Mail in a statement.

Failing to vie for the forum was a “missed opportunity,” eQualitie said in a press release. “Canada could have used this opportunity to facilitate meaningful discussions and drive concrete actions on topics like digital accessibility, cybersecurity and the impact of emerging technologies.”

The high hopes of holding the IGF in Canada for the first time were replaced with disappointment, as the forum fell to the successful bidder: Saudi Arabia.

The decision was announced at this year’s forum, held earlier this month in Japan. The announcement provoked condemnation around the world. An open letter, signed by AccessNow and a raft of other organizations, has demanded that the UN reverse its decision.

“Hosting the next IGF in Saudi Arabia, a country with a deeply troubling human-rights record, would effectively make it unviable for civil society to freely and safely participate in the meeting, consequently threatening the legitimacy of the multistakeholder model that forms the cornerstone of IGF,” the letter reads.

In recent years, Riyadh has been implicated in the assassination of dissident blogger Jamal Khashoggi, imposed the death sentence on citizens critical of the royal family on social media, and stepped up its already wide-ranging internet surveillance and censorship. Choosing Riyadh to hold the IGF “makes a mockery” of the UN’s own priorities, AccessNow and the other groups say.

As it stands, global internet regulations promote the continued existence of an open and neutral internet. Through a variety of bodies, regulators and standards, the UN tends to promote a decentralized infrastructure that eschews government control.

But there has been a concerted effort to change that. China has pushed for “new IP,” a standard offering new levels of control for central governments, making surveillance and censorship even easier. Russia, meanwhile, has advanced a cybersecurity compact that seeks to de-anonymize internet usage.

Advocates have called on democratic countries to take the authoritarian threat to the internet seriously. The United States, in particular, has stepped up: Last year, it mounted a major campaign to win the presidency of the International Telecommunication Union, which manages significant aspects of the internet’s infrastructure. The American candidate, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, won decisively against her Russian opponent.

Russia is bidding to hold the IGF in 2025. Norway, however, has already thrown its hat in the ring to challenge Moscow, arguing that it wants to “unite the international community to foster inclusive and meaningful conversations on key internet-related issues.” It would be a boon for the country’s “thriving digital ecosystem,” Oslo added in a press release.

Canada had the same opportunity, but unfortunately couldn’t get its act together.

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