One Ring to Rule Them All: The United Nations Secretary General lays out its vision for a UN-centric Internet governance.
A couple of months ago, I wrote an article about the Global Digital Compact (GDC), the United Nation’s new governance initiative for the Internet, and its goal. In that article, I did wonder whether the intention of the GDC is “to create a centralized system, where the UN sits at the top.” After reading the Secretary General’s new policy brief, I am convinced that this is the case.
The first thing I feel is worthy of mentioning is that, in the past twenty years of Internet governance discussions, it is the first time, at least to the best of my recollection, that a UN Secretary General produces such a detailed policy document for the governance of the Internet. (Former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, had shown interest in the Internet, but that was after his tenure as the head of the global intergovernmental body). So, this policy document, irrespective of where or how it will end up, is quite a big deal considering its source.
For its most part, the document hits the right tones and uses the right language – terms like multistakeholder, open Internet, human rights and collaboration appear throughout and make the case for a new process that will have these features at its core. And, if it were 2005 and Internet governance was still in a nascent stage, this policy brief would make a lot of sense.
The reality is, however, that after all these years of experience in Internet governance, this document offers nothing new to the Internet governance discourse. In the Internet governance microcosmos, the entire idea of “digital cooperation” upon which the entire GDC process is premised, is as old as the hills and has already been tested. After 2005, the agenda of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) called for enhanced cooperation to help governments reach consensus on international public policy issues; after a series of failed attempts and a rough ride in the UN system, the whole idea of enhanced cooperation was put to bed. Now, it seems to be back and rebranded as “digital cooperation”.
Just like the Secretary’s General’s “Common Agenda Report”, the policy brief identifies the same seven core issues that the UN should focus on, including connectivity, AI, human rights, Internet governance and data governance, amongst others. But the vision of the Secretary General comes full circle in the section of the document entitled, “Implementation, follow up and review”. There the proposal recommends the creation of “an annual Digital Cooperation Forum” tasked to support the implementation of the GDC. The Digital Cooperation Forum will effectively be a new process based on an old idea. And, what about the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) you may ask? It will continue to exist but, by the sound of it, it will have a supporting role. “Existing cooperation mechanisms, especially the Internet Governance Forum and WSIS […] would play an important role in supporting implementation, providing issue and sector knowledge, guidance and practical expertise to facilitate dialogue and action on agreed objectives”.
You can almost sense it that, should the SG’s proposal become a reality, the IGF will be displaced, an outcome that would be the result of a proposal that lacked the consultation of the wider Internet community. It would shift the IGF to a role to implement a vision that has not been set bottom up; a vision that appears more bespoke to government needs rather than the Internet’s or the multistakeholder model; a vision that will be “initiated and led by Member States with the full participation of all stakeholders”.
I’ve said in the past that the IGF is not perfect and it has its own problems and limitations. Still, it is a space that has gained the trust and legitimacy of a diverse set of stakeholders – governments, civil society, businesses, academia, international intergovernmental organizations, NGOs, the technical community – you name it; it is a process that already has the buy-in from the majority of the global Internet community. Why demote it then instead of trying to fix it?
The answer seems to lie in centralization. If I am reading this right, the role of the Digital Cooperation Forum will be to centralize different multistakeholder processes under its umbrella, ranging from the Christchurch Call to ICANN and the IETF (frankly, I really am looking forward to the day the UN attempts to ‘demand’ things from an organization like the IETF.) “The Digital Cooperation Forum would accommodate existing forums and initiatives in a hub and spoke arrangement and help identify gaps where multistakeholder action is required. Existing forums and initiatives, many of which are listed in Annex 1, would support the translation of Compact objectives into practical action, within their respective areas of expertise. The Digital Cooperation Forum would help promote communication and alignment among them and focus collaboration around the priority areas set out in the Compact. Internet governance objectives and actions, for example, would continue to be supported by the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) and relevant multistakeholder bodies (ICANN and IETF).“
Centralization and top-down processes are tricky when it comes to the Internet as they tend to slow things down and create unnecessary bureaucracies and chokepoints. Being decentralized itself, the Internet tends to respond better to looser and more agile governance arrangements that make room for fast-paced action. The UN system is the antithesis of this. It is slow, cumbersome and bureaucratic. It does not have a good track record of developing processes that have the flexibility to respond to the Internet’s evolving pace. Yet, the proposal really does insist on this solution. “[W]e have yet to put in place a global framework where states and non-state actors participate fully in shaping our shared digital space […]. The UN [..] is the only global entity that can convene and facilitate the collaboration needed”, the document reads.
That’s partly true though. Indeed, the UN is the only global entity that we have; but, convening and facilitating collaboration does not need to happen within the UN system necessarily. We have plenty of global multistakeholder initiatives that do not require UN oversight or intervention. The Christchurch Call is one such initiative supported by 58 governments and 14 online service providers, while civil society is participating in an advisory capacity; the network keeps growing. The Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) is another governmental initiative in which civil society and the private sector participate through an advisory network and working groups. Neither of these processes is, of course, panacea but the claim that we have not in place global frameworks is limiting in how we should understand Internet governance and global collaboration.
The more one reads the document, the more it becomes clear that the Secretary General is invested in trying to identify ways to address some core Internet-related issues, including Internet fragmentation, AI and content moderation. There are legitimate reasons for wanting to do so – governments are already producing regulation in most of these areas, the global Internet is indeed under the strain of fragmentation and AI is currently generating more questions than answers. The question though is whether the UN is ultimately the right place for these conversations?
The current state of the world does not seem to fit the Secretary General’s narrative about collaboration. In other words, the idea that governments will all gather and work in good faith for the better of the Internet is not realistic. How is it possible to believe that “human rights” can become “the foundation of an open, safe, secure digital future” when you have China and other countries with questionable human rights track record participating? How can the UN guarantee the application of human rights when in other processes it hosts human rights are, in fact, at risk? How can the UN assure multistakeholder participation will be upheld in a new process with new rules and new required resources?
As the UN ventures to create this whole new process, with New York being the center of operations, participation will become a crucial issue. Civil society, in particular, has historically struggled to participate in Internet governance fora – for the IGF it often has to do with geography; in the case of the GDC, it will be both geography and possibly new rules of procedure. Will the GDC and its proposal for a new Digital Cooperation Forum allow for the same levels of participation as the IGF does? Will this new forum rotate around the world, like the IGF, or will it be held exclusively in New York’s headquarters? If the latter, what about issues of visa? Let’s not forget that it was only a few years ago that people from certain countries were banned from entering the US. Is it a smart move to have Internet governance discussions centralized in New York? After so many years of experience, these questions should not exist; yet, here we are asking the same questions we were asking back in 2005.
In the end, the GDC feels top down, somewhat disconnected from what the Internet needs or how the Internet community operates. If I were reading the SG’s policy document without knowing anything about nothing that has transpired in the past twenty years, I would think that this is potentially the way forward. But a lot has happened in the past twenty years and, if there is one thing, we all have learned is that forced collaboration leads to tension and weakened structures.
The GDC may be an opportunity to address some things we have missed in the past twenty years; or, it may not. If we really want to find out, however, the conversation must have a different starting point, which is reaffirming, upholding and strengthening existing multistakeholder processes and rules of procedure; we should not be creating new ones.