“There is a management gap!” This is one of the messages UN Secretary-General António Guterres delivered via a recorded message to some 6,300 participants at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the annual meeting that discusses current Internet policy issues, which took place in Kyoto, Japan from October 8 to 12, 2023. The secretary general did little to elaborate on exactly what this gap is or what it looks like beyond that statement. But his message was that only the UN, as the true multilateral system, can help address such a governance gap.
There is nothing worse than adding a complex process to a complex system. And frankly, that’s what multilateralism, in the form of the UN’s Global Digital Compact (GDC), would do to the internet. The GDC is the latest attempt to “fix” internet governance and address the perceived divide in the current multi-stakeholder governance model. The thesis of this story is based on an old notion of “digital cooperation, or the attempt to improve global cooperation in multiple forms to address the societal, ethical, legal and economic impacts of digital technologies, with the aim of maximizing the benefits to societies;” and for anyone who has been in the Internet governance space long enough, this feels like a remake of a movie that no one really wants to see again.Previous attempts at formalized collaboration have yielded little, especially compared to informal ones that bring stakeholders together more organically.
The Internet has always been, and will remain, a complex ecosystem. Thousands of networks around the world must interact with each other every day through a set of standards and protocols. Managing this complexity requires the participation and input of several different actors, whose expertise is ultimately indispensable to understanding and bridging existing gaps in Internet governance. Most of the activities these actors engage in are not visible to the average user and are conducted according to a normative framework of rules and values developed over years of Internet management and operation. Understanding the policies, values and existing bodies that underpin this framework is fundamental to understanding what the internet is, why it should be protected and how people’s ability to participate in its future development can be ensured. The suggestion that the challenges we face today on the internet can only be managed by states – which is the premise of the GDC – should therefore be alarming to us all.
Decentralized, bottom-up arrangements like the Internet Governance Forum are better suited to the complex system that makes up the Internet. As a multi-stakeholder gathering of experts and interested actors, the IGF has successfully promoted and facilitated the development of the Internet’s normative framework for eighteen years. Discussions at the IGF are usually based on the Internet’s core values of openness and inclusion, while human rights considerations play a crucial role in how participants discuss various issues. Collaboration is not only encouraged, it becomes a prerequisite for success. Building consensus-driven, normative standards has been a gradual but steady process, and this can result in criticism of the lack of “concrete” results from forums such as the IGF. However, the lack of such concrete measures should not be confused with a lack of effect. IFG has really played a significant role in the development of standards around Internet governance.
Despite this, at this year’s IGF, there was a sense that the GDC could be a central avenue for future internet governance mechanisms, moving key decision-making into a space controlled by states rather than the current multi-stakeholder model that ensures the participation of a range of independent, informed and invested stakeholders. To be sure, the UN cannot “take over” the Internet; The architecture of the Internet makes that impossible. However, the multilateral, states-only GDC could become a new normative force in the field of internet governance. If the GDC (and its affiliated forum – the Summit for the Future) – were to replace the IGF as a key avenue for Internet governance decisions, it would cut off access for technical experts and interested NGOs to conversations about Internet governance. By creating a competing and possibly contradictory forum for Internet governance discussions, it would further strain the limited resources of these interested and expert parties, and could offer no guarantees that it would actually add value to Internet governance efforts. Furthermore, it is imperative to remember that the IGF is within the UN structure and in that sense is as “legitimate” as the GDC.
The IGF manifests the Internet community’s hard-won battles to have a seat at a technological, global, interconnected table. Unlike the GDC, however, the IGF was not created out of a top-down and obscure process; it is a creature born out of years of successful multi-stakeholder collaboration. There is no doubt that the IGF needs to be reshaped; but GDC will undermine it, not update it. Therefore, as the GDC process is about to start and negotiations are about to start behind the closed doors of UN headquarters in New York early next year, let us not forget that the IGF, despite its limitations, has proven its ability to continue , collaborative strategies for multi-stakeholder governance. The GDC has so far only proven that it can distract from the longstanding, mature and nuanced governance model that the IGF continues to support and uphold.
Konstantinos Komaitis is a non-resident fellow with the Democracy + Tech Initiative of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. He is also a veteran in developing and analyzing Internet policy to ensure an open and global Internet.
#Importance #Internet #Governance #Forum