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Internet Governance Outlook 2019: Innovative Multilateralism vs. Neo-Nationalistic Unilateralism

What says the “Crystal Ball” for the Internet Governance Ecosystem in 2019? In a best case scenario, we will take three steps to Cyber-Heaven. In the worst case scenario we will take three steps to Cyber-Hell. The middle way is no “digital big bang”, but some small “digital goodies” and some small “digital disasters”. Stumbling further forward into the digital cyberworld. However, 2019 could also go into the history books as the year of “digital wisdom”. More than half a dozens of think tanks, global commissions, high-level panels, working groups and review teams will table in the coming 12 months reports with ideas, proposals, recommendations and long “to do lists” for governments, the private sector, civil society and the technical community how to keep the Internet Governance Ecosystem free, open, stable, innovative and unfragmented.

The Internet Governance Knowledge Factories

It will start already in January 2019 when the “Global Commission on the Future of Work”, chaired by the Swedish prime minister Sven Löfgren and the President of South Afrika, Ramaphosa, will present its final report. The International Labour Organisation (ILO), which has asked for the report, celebrates in summer its 100th anniversary. It hopes to get an answer from the Commission how to secure “decent and sustainable work” for everybody in tomorrows digital world. In May 2019 we expect the final report of the High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation (HLP.DC). The Panel was established in June 2018 by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. The expectation is that the Panel chaired by Melinda Gates from the Microsoft Foundation and Jack Ma from Alibaba, will offer some new ideas, how to organize the digital cyberworld. At the end of the year, the Global Commission on Stabiliy in Cyberspace (GCSC), chaired by the former Estonian Foreign Minister Marina Kaljurand, will present another report on Cybersecurity.

Furthermore, on the 2019 agenda, there are reviews of Sir Tim Barners-Lee project of a new “Contract for the Web”, of the “Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace”, of Microsoft’s “Tech Accord” and Siemens’ “Charter of Trust”. The French G7 Presidency has announced a report about Artifical Intelligence. They are expert meetings as the “3rd Global Conference of the Internet & Jurisdiction Policy Network” (June 2019 in Berlin), “Rights Con” (May 2019 in Tunis) or the “6th World Internet Conference” (November 2019 in Wuzhen). The High-Level UN Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation (STI-Forum) will have a special meeting on how to digitalize the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in New York in May 2019. And over the year there will be dozens of national and regional IGFs around the globe which will pave the way for the 14th UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Germany, November 25—29, 2019 and will feed the expected “Messages from Berlin”. With other words, at the end of 2019 will have a lot of more knowledge about the state of the art of the Internet Governance Ecosystem as we have today.

What we will do with all this knowledge? Will 2019 become the starting point for a conceptual re-thinking how to approach global Internet Governance and how to frame the ongoing and very diversified negotiations on cyber and digital issues into an interconnected process which could lead to a “New Deal” on global Internet Governance in the 2020s?

A New Internet Governance Controversy

If we review the 2018 Internet Governance debates, we see two different developments, which could lead to a new Internet Governance controversy:

On the one hand, there is a growing number of stakeholders who recognize that the flexibility of the existing Internet Governance Ecosystem needs more stability and that means also regulation. But, as UN Secretary-General Guterres said at the IGF in Paris, this does not mean traditional forms of regulation, as we know from the 20th-century diplomacy. “Discussion on Internet Governance cannot just remain discussion”, said Guterres in Paris “Policy, and when relevant normative frameworks, must be developed to ensure impact. We cannot leave our fate in the digital era to the invisible hand of the market force. But the classical form of regulation does not apply to many of this new generation of challenges. Non-traditional, multilateral and multi-stakeholder cooperation will be crucial, including governments, the private sector, research centers, and civil society”.

This was echoed by the French president Emanuel Macron, who called for an “innovative Multilateralism”. I believe, said Macron in Paris “that the Internet we take for granted is under threat… In the name of freedom, we have allowed so many enemies of freedom to advance in the open, we have allowed them to enter all our systems, giving them the impression that they had the same right as the other just as they trampled over what brought us together… That is also why I believe we need to move away from the false possibilities we are currently offered whereby only two models would exist: that on the one hand of completed self-management without governance and that of the compartmented Internet entirely monitored by strong and authoritarian states… We, therefore, need through regulation to build this new path where governments, along with Internet players, civil societies and all actors are able to regulate properly. ... We need to invent—innovate—new forms of multilateral cooperation that involve not only states but also all of the stakeholders”.

And indeed, more and more private companies—from Microsoft to Siemens—understand, that a stable regulatory framework, designed in the right way, will not stifle freedom and innovation. On the contrary, a stable Internet Governance Framework, supported by multistakeholder mechanisms, will become a big enabler for innovation and creativity based on established rights and freedoms.

On the other hand, there is a growing number of governments who do not believe anymore in common multilateral arrangements on the global level. The key words here are “My country, first”, “Cybersovereignty”, and “National Internet Segment”. This neo-nationalistic unilateralism can be seen both in the policies of big cyberpowers as China, Russia and the US, but also by members of the G20 or even the European Union as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Poland or Hungary. Laws on data-localization, on content control and cybersecurity are mushrooming and undermine the existing Internet rights and freedoms. Freedom House has titled its 2018 report, “The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism”. Freedom House has analyzed the state of Internet Freedom in 65 countries (representing more than 80 percent of the world’s Internet users) and concluded that the situation in 26 countries has worsened. What is declared very often as an “internal affair” of a country to enhance national security and to fight against crime, can have side-effects for the global Internet Governance ecosystem. Just to take a recent example: The new Russian law on the national Internet segment is aimed to make Russia more resilient against interference from abroad, but the unclear ideas of the development of a new DNS and a separate Internet root server system can have effects on the functioning of the global Domain Name System, which connects four billion Internet users around the globe.

Even the US government, for decades a fighter for freedom of the Internet, has translated its “America First” approach into a National Cyber Strategy which pays lip service to the multistakeholder Internet Governance cooperation, but refuses to sign the “Paris Call for Trust and Security on Cyberspace”. The US government has declared that it agrees with the values of the “Paris Call”, but it wants to keep a free hand if it comes to commitments in cyberspace.

The confusing reality is that the Paris Call is signed now by 100 governments and more than 1000 non-state actors. Signatories are, inter alia, all EU member states, including the United Kingdom and many US companies as Facebook, Google and Microsoft. The “No” comes from the governments of China, Russia and also from the US. The big Chinese Internet giants as Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent or Huawei have also refused so far to sign the “Paris Call”. Chinese corporations also ignored Microsoft’s “Tech Accord” or Sir Tim Barners-Lees call for a “Contract for the Web”.

In this new political constellation, we have on the one side efforts based on the idea of an “innovative Multilateralism” and on the other side activities based on the concept of a “neo-nationalistic Unilateralism”. This could contribute to a growing Internet Governance confusion. And this will further complicate efforts to stabilize cyberspace by global arrangements, based on a common set of values as the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the WSIS Tunis Agenda and the NetMundial Statement.

Towards a “New Deal” for global Internet Governance

The controversy of “innovative Multilateralism” vs. “neo-nationalistic Unilateralism” could dominate the global Internet Governance debate in the coming years. This global debate has already started in the early 1990s. It circled in the first years around the management of critical Internet resources. But since the Tunis Agenda from 2005, which introduced the “multistakeholder approach”, the discussion has moved into all fields of global policy-making: from security to trade to human rights. It was a technical issue with political implications 20 years ago. Now it is a political issue with a technical component.

This has consequences for policy making and regulation. The “Zeitgeist” has changed. The recent initiatives by state and non-state actors, mentioned above, signal a growing recognition, that a “New Deal” for Internet Governance is needed. Such a “New Deal” will not replace the “Old Deal”—as manifested in the Tunis Agenda—but will introduce an additional layer into the Internet Governance arrangements. This “New Deal” will not be negotiated overnight. But with the WSIS+20 (2025) on the horizon, it would make sense to start such a process rather soon. 2019 could become the year, where the Internet Governance agenda for the 2020s is drafted.

In the field of cybersecurity, we will see in 2019 two new UN groups. A small UN Group of Governmental Experts (UNGGE) and a larger Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG). Both groups have a rather similar mandate: To look how international law should be applicated in cyberspace and how norms and confidence-building measures can contribute to enhanced security in cyberspace. The UNGGE is based on a US proposal, the OEWG is based on a Russian proposal. How the two groups will communicate, coordinate and collaborate is unclear. The OEWG has to report back in 2020, the UNGGE in 2021.

There is another Group of Governmental Experts which deals with Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS GGE). This group was established two years ago and is moving now into a critical phase. After the first series of meetings have cleared a number of conceptual questions, the group has now to give more concrete answers, how such new weapon systems should be handled by the international community: Should there be a new treaty? Should there be a moratorium? Should there be a “laissez faire”, a “carte blanche” for the development of killer robots and military drones?

Furthermore, with rising cybercrime the question, whether there is a need for a global treaty against cybercrime, will not go away. The Council of Europe Budapest Cybercrime Convention from 2001 is a very good instrument, which is also signed by many non-European states. However, it is ratified only by around 70 states and big cyberpowers as Brazil, India, China and Russia did not sign the convention. Russian did now introduce a new proposal into the 3rd Committee of the UN General Assembly, but the readiness of UN member states, to kick-start new treaty negotiations is very low. The issue will be further studied and remains on the agenda, but progress will be slow.

In the digital economy, the world is also waiting for progress within and outside the World Trade Organisations (WTO). UNCTADs activities have produced a lot of ideas, how digital trade can be further enhanced and how the digitalization can contribute to the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) until 2030. However, concrete progress in the intergovernmental negotiations remains limited. Even AliBabas “eWorld Trade Platform” (eWTP), an initiative which was started to speed up eCommerce with developing countries and bypassing slow intergovernmental proceedings, does so far not meet the high expectations, which emerged when Jack Ma presented his plans at the World Economic Forum in Davos two years ago. Nevertheless, Alibaba itself is moving forward with the opening of a new European Hub in Lüttich and cooperative arrangements with Rwanda. The European and African market is calling and Alibaba is coming!

The fear is that the next moves will go into the wrong direction and we will see in 2019 digital trade wars and Chinese-American wrestling to get more influence in the digitalization of Africa. That eCommerce produces big opportunities for the African continent to leapfrog into the digital economy is unquestionable. The new BRICS Partnership for the 4th Industrial Revolution (PARTNIR), which was established in December 2018 in Johannesburg, has big plans and great potential. But there is also a risk, that African countries can be sandwiched in the competition between the Chinese “Digital Silk Road” and the new US “Prosper Africa” plan.

In the field of human rights, there is also a mixed situation. In 2018 the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has rocked the boat. Many non-European governments, but also many private corporations, got a wake-up call that data protection is an issue one cannot ignore anymore in cyberspace. On the other hand, the idea of the Special UN Rapporteur on Privacy in the Digital Age, Joseph Catanacci, to kick start a process for a new global legal instrument, has only little support within the UN Human Rights Council. There is a lot of lip service on data protection, but there are deep cultural gaps around privacy.

The situation is similar if it comes to fake news and hate speech. There is a broad consensus, that something has to be done. But to outsource the responsibility for the removal of bad content to private corporations cannot be the final solution. There is a need to strengthen the role of neutral third parties. To develop an independent online-judiciary for controversial content related cases is a big challenge and would need next to good political will also a lot of creativity. But why independent panelists could not do a better job than the thousands of small censors, hired by Facebook?

In the field of emerging technologies, number one on the priority list for 2019 will be Artificial Intelligence (AI). The issue is not new and we have already a number of instruments as the Toronto Declaration or the Brussels Guidelines from “The Public Voice” But in 2018 the issue is moved onwards on the political and economic agendas of the big powers. Everybody wants to become now a leader in AI. The G7 Multistakeholder Conference on AI on December 6, 2018, in Montreal, marked just a new starting point. The French President Macron has already announced that AI will be a key issue of the French G7 presidency in 2019.

Another big issue will be the Internet of Things. Part of the discussion is how to identify the billions of objects if they are connected to the Internet. The Digital Object Architecture (DOA) is controversial and still in its infant stage. But now there is another related issue which emerges as the result of the rapid growth of civilian drones. There is a need to have an identifier system for such “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” (UAV). ITU-T together with other standardization organizations, including the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) has started to discuss new solutions. There is some political dynamite in such developments.

New controversies could also emerge around the new protocols for DNS over HTTPS. ICANN moved out of the political spotlight when it completed its IANA transition in 2016. But with new developments which could affect the stability and security of the public core of the Internet, the DNS, the IP-address and routing-systems etc., ICANN could be pulled back into the Internet Governance line of fire.

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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Thank you, Wolfgang for your thoughtful overview.As Janis Karklins  –  Jan 11, 2019 6:08 PM

Thank you, Wolfgang for your thoughtful overview.
As I see not much has change since past 10 years when discussion - governance of vs governance on the Internet emerged.
Observing crowded international space of what you call knowledge factories, I would argue that maybe there are not enough groups that analyse and think about impact and consequences of digital evolution to individuals and societies and offer some possible remedies. In general our understanding where “all this” is going seriously lags behind the speed of technological evolution.
As per New Deal - as wind blows with different intensity around the world, it is hard to imagine that the New Deal will or should be unified or centralized. Rather we need to look into direction of ecosystem where everyone can participate at its own pace. It might take form of a system of voluntary multi-stakeholder commitments related to use of Internet which would create a network of variable geometry collaboration.
Janis Karklins

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