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Understand More, Fear Less: Will G20 Be Able to Contribute to an Internet Future with a Human Face?

Co-authored by by Constance Bommelaer, Senior Director of Global Internet Policy at Internet Society and Wolfgang Kleinwächter, Professor Emeritus at the University of Aarhus

Last week, the G20’s ministers responsible for the digital economy met in Düsseldorf to prepare this year’s G20 summit, scheduled for Hamburg, July 2017. Building on important strides initiated two years ago during the G20 summit in Antalya and based on the G20 Digital Economy Development and Cooperation Initiative (DEDCI), which was adopted last year under the Chinese G20 presidency, the Düsseldorf meeting adopted a “G20 Digital Economy Ministerial Declaration” which also includes a “Roadmap for Digitalisation”. One day before the ministerial meeting, non-state actors were invited to discuss “Policies for a Digital Future” within a so-called Multistakeholder Conference.

The ministerial outcome document reflects a deepened understanding of the Internet’s role in the future. It reiterates the importance of the digital economy for the overall economy, for growth, job creation and a sustainable development. And it reaffirms the commitment to the goals and principles laid down in the documents of the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development and the OECD Ministerial Declaration of Cancun (June 2016).

Despite the diversity of the “Group of Twenty”—which includes both the G7 countries (US, UK, France, Germany, Canada, Japan, Italy) and the BRICS countries (China, Russia, India, Brazil, South Africa) as well as countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Argentina—the document recognizes, “that freedom of expression and the free flow of information, ideas and knowledge across border are essential for the digital economy and beneficial to development”. Furthermore it “reaffirms support for ICT policies that preserve the global nature of the Internet” and “allow Internet users to lawfully access online information, knowledge and services of their choice”.

It is also remarkable that Paragraph 3 of the Düsseldorf Declaration reaffirms the G20 commitment “to a multistakeholder approach to Internet Governance, which includes full and active participation by governments, private sector, civil society, the technical community and international organisations, in their respective roles and responsibilities”. The ministers of the G20 countries also support “multistakeholder processes and initiatives which are inclusive, transparent and accountable to all stakeholders.”

This is good news and will help to deepen and broaden the still controversial discussions around “enhanced cooperation”, “Internet fragmentation” and “multistakeholder models” in the global Internet Governance Ecosystem.

But what the meeting also showed was increasing concerns around trust, and new challenges offsetting the Internet’s benefits. In many regards, it reflected a view that the Internet is no longer a naïve space which offers more and more opportunities, but a technology with risks and threats and with significant impact on humans lives and diplomatic relations. Indeed, despite the world’s increasing dependency this global network the Internet has become a centerpiece of a political context where globalization is being put into question.

New reflexes of fear are emerging, and not only from governments who may sense they are losing control of their national boundaries and see new risks of cyberattacks against their critical national infrastructure. Workers fear that digitalization will destroy their jobs, consumer movements argue that new business models undermine consumer protection, and industry is proactively calling for norms to limit state-sponsored cyber-attacks in times of peace. Developing countries fear becoming marginalized in a digital world. Micro-, small and medium sized business (MSMSs) fear having no chance to compete with the digital giants. And individuals fear losing their privacy and digital identity.

We’ve seen many of these issues expressed in the consultations of the Internet Society’s “Internet Futures” project. And indeed, many of those “digital fears” are real and justified. However, innovation always produces opportunities which go along with risks. More opportunities, more risks.

This is not new. We saw this when the automobile was invented (the risk was that people would die in car crashes and the air will be polluted) or when nuclear fission was discovered (the risk was nuclear war and nuclear energy disasters). The way forward was always the same: Do not stop innovation but develop strategies to get the threats under control. Maximize opportunities, minimize risks. The airbag in the car or the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) in the world of nuclear bombs are two examples how safeguards can be developed—both by other technical innovation or by good will in intergovernmental negotiations.

In shaping the future, we must not be naïve but we should not let fear become the driving force for the development. As Marie Curie once said as she was making ground-breaking discoveries “now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less”, because “nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.” But in today’s digital environment understanding alone is certainly not enough. What we need are also actions. What we need are innovations like an “airbag” and an “NPT” for the digital future. 

Is the digital revolution to be human?

If trust in institutions such as media, business or governments is eroding in general, the Internet is no exception as shown in ISOC’s 2016 GIR on Data Breaches.

The G20 preparatory process revealed that many stakeholders question the value of the digital revolution for mankind. The transformation resulting from the Internet of Things (IoT) combined with artificial intelligence and robotics will certainly drive a potentially radical transformation of industry and society. And while the impact of this technological transformation is yet to be seen, it is important that they have a human dimension at their core.

In many regards, the challenges of the future will also amplify the challenges we have today. As Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, stated recently, we seem to have lost control of our personal data in an online world increasingly characterized by monitoring and surveillance. An unsustainable environment increasingly portrayed by manipulation and distrust where it seems no one is liable nor accountable

Another increasing fear is the impact of ICTs on jobs. Studies predicting that 50% of today’s jobs are at risk of automation, and where 65% of children entering primary school will end up working in new job types that don’t yet exist, are all sources of anxiety.

While many of these fears are well-grounded, there is also a need to approach them in a sound and strategic manner. Many aspects of automation, for instance, are still dependent on innovations yet to come, and adapting to an increasingly digital world is about adapting skills and education to such an environment. This includes fostering confidence in using the technology, source criticism and a basic understanding of how the Internet and its economy work, and how it’s governed. Promoting human empowerment in a 21st-century environment is to recognize that digital literacy is vocational and civic education combined in one.

Will the Internet technology bring the world together or tear it apart?

The G20 meeting in Düsseldorf also put the finger on the constant tension between globalization and the development of an interconnected Internet. Geopolitics continues in an interconnected world, and it puts to test free trade, liberal ideologies and enables new actors that challenge the traditional roles of states.

Technology isn’t neutral in balancing geopolitical interests. Cyber threats and attacks including to harm nations economically are becoming more common, sophisticated and damaging. With this, cyberspace on its own has become the fifth domain of warfare, and tensions among governments are likely to increase. The UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Cybersecurity will meet later in June to clarify the mutual responsibilities of governments to promote confidence building in cyberspace. In the same month, the new Global Commission on Stability in Cyberspace (GCSC), which has a three years mandate to bring a multistakeholder perspective to the intergovernmental negotiations, will have its first full meeting in Tallin. 

So, is the Internet helping to unite nations or can it tear them apart? Are we moving towards a multipolar world where everybody is fighting against everybody or are we able to identify common interests and to build new innovative political mechanisms—like the multistakeholder approach—around the technical innovation which drives now the global economy?

Since the 80’, globalization and growth of an open and interconnected Internet have been closely interrelated. Openness is their common denominator. However, today’s fears and temptations of isolation could have an unavoidable impact on the open Internet as we know it, i.e. the communications infrastructure of the digital economy and society.

As we have seen in recent years, the Internet is increasingly seen as a domain where hacking and dis-information are “the continuation of politics by other means”. What happens in cyberspace is no longer isolated to cyberspace, but is seen as a manifestation of global dynamics. Online hate-speech, surveillance, terrorism, and state-sponsored attacks are all activities that are driving these developments and are in turn impacting the Internet itself. Censorship, calls to weaken encryption and to force data to adhere to national borders will reduce the opportunities which come with an open, free, borderless and secure Internet.

As noted by Jovan Kurbalija, head of the Geneva Internet Platform, “if the crisis of globalisation leads to further restrictions in the movement of people, capital, and goods across national borders, the same is likely to happen with Internet cross-border traffic.” Such “a less integrated society would lead towards a more fragmented Internet along national and commercial borders” with unforeseeable consequences for cybersecurity, the digital economy and human rights. The risk of these dynamics of a fragmented Internets is that economic and social promises of the digital opportunities would be broken, we would see a deepening not only of the digital divide but new forms of digital battles to re-distribute the shrinking digital dividends. In the wake of new global commitments such as the 2030 Agenda, this is of utmost concern as it could undermine the Internet’s role as a critical enabler for development.

But this is also why the G20 agreements can be so important. They identify the opportunities, the challenges, and offer a chance to settle the political mistrust through collaborative visions. They can help to turn digital fear into a digital détente.

Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.

The G20 this year did agree on a set of useful goals from expanding Internet infrastructures through increased competition to supporting MSMEs in reaping the benefits of digitization and promoting consumer protection online.

This is good, BUT much more needs to happen. Fears will disappear and eventually become themselves an engine for progress if we have a concrete plan to harness the impact of the Internet on our societies. This implies to deconstruct the issues and transform high-level declarations into actions.

We would propose considering at least three immediate actions:

  • Increasing accountability for data breaches by giving users control and imposing more of the economic externalities of the data breach on the organizations holding the data.
  • Promoting digital inclusion by expanding access and empowering users. Digital literacy needs to be a priority in education, and business practices have to adopt a user centric approach in managing personal data.
  • Protecting encryption to protect a trusted ecosystem. Because confidentiality is the basis of any society and economy. Weakening encryption constitutes a systemic risk to the Internet and its plethora of online services including banking transactions, e-commerce or government services.

The Way forward

How can this be achieved? There is no blueprint or ideal solution. Each case must be treated individually. But one thing is for sure: It will need the efforts by all stakeholders.

Governments certainly play an important role. But they are not “the only band in the digital town”. The G20 recognized in Düsseldorf “the critical importance of private sector and enterprises in the digital economy”. This is a very realistic statement. But this will not be enough. All stakeholders are needed. A multistakeholder approach can’t be reduced to a public-private partnership where big government and big industry agree on top down behind closed doors. A multistakeholder approach—as supported in the Düsseldorf Declaration—also needs the involvement of the Internet technical community and the active participation of civil society, the citizens, and netizens in cyberspace. Otherwise, decisions will not be legitimate nor sustainable.

It is good that the G20 Ministerial Declaration refers to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to freedom of expression and “applicable frameworks for privacy and personal data protection”. Ignorance of individual rights will undermine trust as a key issue of digital transformation. This is relevant also for mass surveillance, both by governments and by private corporations. References to this controversial subject are missing in the Düsseldorf Declaration. This issue has been raised recently in the March 2017 meeting of the UN Human Rights Council by UN Special Rapporteur for Privacy in the Digital Age, Joseph N. Canatacci. And this issue will not go away, neither for the governments of the G20, nor for the private corporations which are collecting personal data from billions of individual Internet users.

Anyhow, the commitment to the multistakeholder approach by the G20 governments is a good step forward. The next step is to translate the commitment into concrete actions. How “sharing” of policy development and decision making among state and non-state actors in cyberspace—as agreed in the WSIS Tunis Agenda from 2005—can be organized in the day-to-day operations? This is not easy and a big challenge. This needs political creativity. And there is a still a long way to go.

Even with the positive approach towards multistakeholderism under the German G20 presidency, a lot of the multistakeholder gestures were more symbolic than substantial. The Ministerial Declaration was negotiated behind closed doors by the governmental sherpas. There was no chance for public comment, as we know it from ICANNs policy development processes (PDP). Participation in the multistakeholder conference was by invitation only. There was no remote participation as we know it from EURODIG or the UN Internet Governance Forum. The ministers met behind closed doors in a hotel, separated from the venue of the multistakeholder meeting, which reduced the chances for direct interactions among governmental and non-governmental representatives.

With other words, if form follows function, there is still space for improvement for the G20 governments to position themselves in the global Internet Governance Ecosystem. Key criteria for multistakeholder processes, specified in the 2014 NetMundial Declaration from Sao Paulo, like openness, transparency, bottom up, inclusiveness etc., did not exactly match with the 2017 “Road to Düsseldorf”.

It remains to be seen how the G7 will handle their meeting of the Digital Economy Ministers in Torino in September 2017. Is their commitement to the multistakeholder approach just a lip service or a serious effort to innovate public policy making? When the foreign minister of the G7 met in Lucca on April 12, 2017 their “G7 Declaration on responsible states behaviour in cyberspace” had no reference to the multistakeholder approach. One could argue that cybersecurity is the special responsibility of states. This is what the formula from the Tunis Agenda, that stakeholders act in the multistakeholder cooperation “in their respective roles” means. But isn´t it a reality, that even cybersecurity in the 21st century can not be guaranteed without a construcitve engagement of non-state actors. It will be interesting to see, how the BRICS summit in Xiamen, also in September 2017, will handle the new challenges which come with cybersecurity, digital economy, individual rights and multistakeholder approaches. 

Argentina will overtake the G20 presidency in 2018. The Latin America country hosted already three ICANN meetings. Those experiences will certainly help them to take the next step in linking technical innovations—which drive the digital economy—to political innovations—which drive the digital society.

By Wolfgang Kleinwächter, Professor Emeritus at the University of Aarhus

He is a member of the Global Commission on Stability in Cyberspace, was a member of the ICANN Board (2013 – 2015) and served as Special Ambassador for the Net Mundial Initiative (2014 – 2016).

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