March 4, 2024

The importance of the Internet Governance Forum

“There is a governance gap!” This is one of the messages that United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres delivered in a recorded message to some 6,300 participants at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the annual meeting that debates current policy issues. of the Internet, which took place in Kyoto, Japan, in October. 8 to 12, 2023. The Secretary General did little to explain what exactly this gap is or what it looks like beyond that statement. However, his message implied that only the United Nations, as a true multilateral system, can help address that 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 United Nations’ 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 multi-stakeholder governance model. The thesis of this narrative is based on an old notion of “digital cooperation, or the attempt to improve global collaboration in multiple ways to address the social, ethical, legal and economic impact of digital technologies, seeking to maximize the benefits for societies. ”. ;” and, to anyone who’s been in the internet governance space long enough, this seems like a remake of a movie no one wants to see again. Previous attempts at formalized cooperation have produced little, especially compared to informal ones that bring together stakeholders more organically.

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The Internet has always been and will continue to be a complex ecosystem. Thousands of networks around the world must interoperate with each other every day through a set of standards and protocols. Managing this complexity requires the participation and contribution of multiple and different actors, whose experience is, by extension, essential to understand and close the existing gaps in Internet governance. Most of the operations performed by these actors are not visible to the average user and are carried out according to a regulatory framework of rules and values ​​that have developed over years of managing and operating the Internet. Understanding the existing policies, values, and agencies that underpin that framework is critical to understanding what the Internet is, why it must be protected, and how people’s ability to participate in its future evolution can be ensured. Therefore, the suggestion that the challenges we face today on the Internet can only be addressed by states (which is the premise of the GDC) should be alarming to us all.

Decentralized and bottom-up arrangements, such as the Internet Governance Forum, are better suited to the complex system that constitutes the Internet. As a multi-stakeholder gathering of experts and stakeholders, the IGF has successfully fostered and facilitated the development of the Internet regulatory framework for eighteen years. Discussions at the IGF are generally based on the Internet’s core values ​​of openness and inclusivity, while human rights considerations play a key role in how participants discuss various topics. Collaboration is not only encouraged, but 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 for the lack of “concrete” results from forums like the IGF. However, the lack of concrete measures should not be confused with the lack of impact. Indeed, the IFG has played a significant role in developing standards around Internet governance.

Despite that, at this year’s IGF, there was a sense that the GDC could be a critical avenue for future Internet governance mechanisms and move key decision-making to a state-controlled space rather than the current model. multi-stakeholder approach that ensures the participation of a variety of independent, informed and committed stakeholders. To be sure, the UN cannot “take over” the Internet; The architecture of the Internet makes this impossible. However, the multilateral GDC, consisting only of States, could 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 the key avenue for Internet governance decisions, it would cut off access for technical experts and interested non-governmental organizations to Internet governance conversations. . Creating a competitive and possibly adversarial forum for Internet governance debates would further strain the limited resources of these stakeholders and experts, and could provide no assurance that it would actually add value to Internet governance efforts. Furthermore, it is imperative to remember that the IGF exists within the UN structure and, in that sense, is as “legitimate” as the GDC.

The IGF manifests the hard-won struggles of the Internet community to have a seat at a technical, global and interconnected table. However, unlike the GDC, the IGF was not created from an obscure, top-down process; is a creature born of years of successful cooperation between multiple stakeholders. There is no doubt that the IGF needs to be reinvented; but the GDC will end up undermining it, not upgrading it. Therefore, as the GOC process is about to begin and negotiations are about to begin behind closed doors of the United Nations headquarters in New York early next year, let us not forget that the IGF, Despite its limitations, it has demonstrated its ability to promote truly collaborative and multi-stakeholder governance approaches. To date, the GDC has only proven that it can distract from the long-standing, mature and nuanced governance model that the IGF continues to support and defend.

Konstantinos Komaitis is a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Laboratory’s Democracy + Technology Initiative. He is also a veteran in developing and analyzing Internet policies to ensure an open and global Internet.

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