G20 Avoids Encryption; Talks Rule of law; and, Extends a Hand of Collaboration to Internet Technology Firms
This past weekend, the leaders of the G20 group concluded their discussions in Hamburg in what it has been declared "a solid success". This success, however, relates more to the fact that the G20 managed to publish a joint G20 communique rather than to its substance. Although there was some strong indication on the need to move forward on key security issues of countering terrorism, the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear program and commitments on rising economic growth, financial regulation and architecture, tax cooperation and skills literacy, it was the lack of credible action on climate change, migration and liberalization of trade that will mark this year's summit.
But, what about the Internet provisions?
The Internet provisions do not appear to go as far as one would have expected and the G20 group has, instead, opted for some vague and opaque language, indicating that there is more work to be done between now and next year's G20 meeting in Argentina.
The G20 communique recognizes "that information and communication technology (ICT) plays a crucial role in modernizing and increasing efficiency in public administration." It talks about the need to "bridge the digital divide" and to "ensure that all our citizens are digitally connected by 2025" and "promote digital literacy and digital skills". In line with the G7 action plan, the G20 leaders committed "to foster favourable conditions for the development of the digital economy and [...] to promote effective cooperation of all stakeholders and encourage the development and use of market- and industry-led international standards for digitised production, products and services that are based on the principles of openness, transparency and consensus and standards should not act as barriers to trade, competition or innovation."
Interestingly, there was also commitment to support the work of the WTO on e-commerce, which will be interesting to observe considering the strong objections of this work coming from the African group within the WTO.
As expected, terrorism occupied much of the G20 discussions. It is only on that statement that we see the term "Internet' being used: "We will work with the private sector, in particular communication service providers and administrators of relevant applications, to fight exploitation of the internet and social media for terrorist purposes such as propaganda, funding and planning of terrorists acts, inciting terrorism, radicalizing and recruiting to commit acts of terrorism, while fully respecting human rights". This is not a surprise.
There is an increase governmental awareness and concern about the use of the Internet and social platforms to radicalize and recruit terrorist. France and the United Kingdom have already been on the record as wishing to create legal requirements for technology companies to aid the fight against terrorism online. Germany is also toying with the idea of imposing hefty fines on social networking sites failing to remove hate speech.
Despite some early indications coming from individual countries about the need to address the challenge of encryption, both the G20 communique and the Statement on Terrorism, avoid use of the word. This is good as the debate can continue to be addressed through more inclusive frameworks with the collaboration of all interested parties -- technologists, security experts, governments, law enforcement and the users. However, there is some language that could be interpreted loosely regarding "lawful and non-arbitrary access to available information".
The Rule of Law
The G20 Hamburg Statement on Countering Terrorism ends with a strong message: " We affirm that the rule of law applies online as well as offline". This means two things. The obvious first one is that existing traditional regulation will apply online. This could be problematic. If the past twenty-five years are of any indication, applying regulation that was created before the Internet to address issues as they emerge on the Internet can be problematic and counterproductive. It can affect innovation, economic growth and scale back the Internet' s development.
The second thing is that the judiciary will have a stronger role to play. Courts will need to interpret how the rule of law can apply both offline and online. This is good. If there is still one institutional arrangement that is independent enough to resist the political forces of populism, protectionism or uphold human rights and civil liberties is the judiciary. Courts will have a bigger role to play and, thus, their potential impact on the future growth of the Internet will be greater.
All in all, the G20 communique is a solid declaration towards a more collaborative and sustainable approach to address terrorism and the digital economy. It does not include anything that should automatically ring any alarm bells, but it should be seen by everyone as an invitation to collaborate towards finding solutions to some of the Internet's 'wicked problems'.