“There is a governance gap!” This is one of the messages the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres delivered via a recorded message to around 6,300 participants at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the annual meeting that discusses topical internet policy issues, which took place in Kyoto, Japan from October 8 to 12, 2023. The Secretary General did little to elaborate what exactly this gap is or what it looks like beyond that statement. However, his message carried the implication 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 Global Digital Compact (GDC), would do to the internet. The GDC is the latest attempt to “fix” internet governance and address the perceived gap in the current multistakeholder governance model. The thesis of this narrative is premised on an old notion of “digital cooperation, or the attempt to enhance global collaboration in multiple forms in order to address the societal, ethical, legal and economic impact of digital technologies, seeking to maximize the benefits to societies;” and, for anyone who has been in the internet governance space long enough, this feels like the remake of a movie no one really wants to see again. Previous, formalized cooperation attempts have produced little, especially compared to informal ones which bring stakeholders together more organically.
The internet has always been, and will remain, a complex ecosystem. Thousands of networks around the world must interoperate with one another every day through a set of standards and protocols. Managing this complexity requires the participation and input of multiple, different actors, whose expertise is, by extension, indispensable to understanding and bridging existing gaps in internet governance. Most of the operations these actors engage in are not visible to the average user and are conducted according to a normative framework of rules and values that have been developed over years of internet management and operation. Understanding the policies, values and existing bodies underpinning that framework is fundamental to understanding what the internet is, why it should be protected, and how people’s ability to participate in its future evolution can be assured. The suggestion, therefore, that the challenges we face today in the internet can be addressed only by states – which is the premise of the GDC - should be alarming to all of us.
Decentralized, bottom-up arrangements like the Internet Governance Forum are a better fit for the complex system that makes up the internet. As a multistakeholder gathering of experts and interested actors, the IGF has successfully fostered and facilitated the development of the internet’s normative framework for eighteen years. Discussions at the IGF are usually grounded on the internet’s core values of openness and inclusion, while human rights considerations play a critical role in the way participants discuss various issues. Collaboration is not just encouraged, it ends up being a precondition for success. Building consensus-driven, normative standards has been a gradual but steady process, and that can result in criticism at the lack of “concrete” results from fora like the IGF. A lack of such concrete action should not be conflated, however, with a lack of impact. The IFG has indeed played a meaningful role in norms development around internet governance.
Despite that, at this year’s IGF, there was a sense that the GDC could be a pivotal avenue for future internet governance mechanisms and move key decision-making into a space controlled by states rather than the current multistakeholder model which ensures the participation of a range of independent, informed, and invested stakeholders. To be sure, the UN cannot “take over” the internet; the internet’s architecture makes that impossible. The multilateral, states only GDC could, though, become a new normative force in the field of internet governance. If the GDC (and its connected forum–the Summit for the Future)—were to supplant the IGF as a key avenue for internet governance decisions, it would cut off the access of technical experts and interested non-governmental organizations to internet governance conversations. In 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. Moreover, it is imperative to remember that the IGF exists within the UN structure and, in that sense, is just as “legitimate” as the GDC.
The IGF manifests the hard-won fights of the internet community to have a seat at a technical, global, interconnected table. Unlike the GDC though, the IGF was not created out of a top down and obscure process; it is a creature born out of years of successful multistakeholder cooperation. There is no question that the IGF needs to be reimagined; but the GDC will end up undermining it, not updating it. Therefore, as the GDC process is about to kick in and negotiations are about to start behind the closed doors of the UN Headquarters in New York early next year, let’s not forget that the IGF, despite its limitations, has proven its capacity to further true, collaborative, multistakeholder approaches to governance. The GDC has, to date, proven only that it can distract from the longstanding, mature, and nuanced governance model the IGF continues to support and uphold.
Konstantinos Komaitis is a nonresident fellow with the Democracy + Tech Initiative of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. He is also a veteran of developing and analyzing internet policy to ensure an open and global internet.