Last week, a conference that aimed to determine the future of the Internet quietly took place in Baku, Azerbaijan. Sponsored by the United Nations and hosted by the Azerbaijani government, the 7th Annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) focused on “Internet Governance for Sustainable Human, Economic, and Social Development.”

Meant to be a “multi-stakeholder forum for policy dialogue on issues of internet governance,” one group was notably absent — the technology entrepreneurs creating and innovating the Internet’s future.

Sure, companies like Microsoft and Paypal were represented, but these tech giants already walk the corridors of power and set global agendas. Besides, they are hardly representative of the experiences and contributions of small tech start-ups.

Part of the problem comes from the event organizers, which invites the participation of the “technical community” as well as the “private sector”, while offering neither definitions of “technical community” nor distinction between large companies and small.

But this is only half of the equation, and the other half may lie with the lack of interest (and or knowledge) about the event itself. So techpreneurs, listen up, here’s why the Internet Governance Forum matters:

  • The IGF is where world leaders come together to discuss the future of the Internet. Big names including Vint Cerf, widely considered to be the father of the Internet; Dr. Hamadoun Toure, the Secretary-General of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU); Erika Mann, the Global Director of Public Policy at Facebook; and Larry Strickling, the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information, among others, debated Internet governance with each other as well as with audience members.
  • As an attendee, you’ll get plenty of access to said leaders. Held over four days in various locations around the world (next year’s is rumored to be in Bali, Indonesia), you’ll get an extraordinary amount of access to industry leaders in the same condensed period of time. Because the IGF is a UN-sponsored “multi-stakeholder” event, it is democratic – almost to a fault. The floor is often ceded to anyone that wants to speak, with few limits or actual moderation. This provides tech start-ups a unique opportunity to network.
  • It sets the global agenda on Internet governance. At its core, the forum seeks to answer the contentious question, “Who controls the Internet? More specifically, it discusses such topics as whether Internet access is a human right; new country code domain names such as .co (Columbia), .in (India), or .Is (Israel) could determine what laws of which country are applicable; and how to balance privacy concerns with cyber-security. These topics are all relevant to start-ups that are working on the space.
  • The IGF is the perfect site for (subtle, non-pushy) market research. If you’ve been thinking about your next big start-up or product, what better way to gather data about your client base’s greatest pain points, needs, and challenges? Because the IGF is attended by a unique mix of ministers, businessmen, citizen activists, and end users, you can get a wide sample size of thousands of potential customers.

Of course, the real decisions do not get made at IGF, but at events such as next month’s World Congress on Information and Technology (WCIT) in Dubai, where the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) will rewrite the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), the binding guidelines for how radio, satellite, and telephone services are operated internationally.

WCIT was on everyone’s minds at this forum, and several critics pointed out that while IGF was multi-stakeholder in nature, WCIT most certainly was not. That, however, makes attendance at open events such as the Internet Governance Forum even more important. IGF is essentially an open focus group for both governments and big business, who take the insights back to HQ. By not participating in the conversation, the startup community is losing its voice and its influence.

The Internet may be a force of democratization, but for now at least, the world’s corridors of power are still zealously guarded. On the rare occasions where the gates are opened, we aspirants should be pushing our way in. You may have missed this year’s Internet Governance Forum, but the word on the street is that the next annual forum will be held in Bali, Indonesia. As if that’s not reason enough to attend.

More details about the Internet Governance Forum, including participation, and how to submit proposals for workshops, can be found here.

Eileen Guo is the founder of Impassion Media, a start-up that focuses on ICTs, especially social media and mobile technology, in emerging markets and frontier environments.

Photo: Baku City, Azerbaijan by Mohammad Sadeghmo/Flickr