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UN Secretary General’s Roadmap on Digital Cooperation: Creative Navigating in Stormy Cyberwaters

When UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced in January 2020 that he was preparing a global “roadmap for digital cooperation,” he had no idea that six months later, the world had made a quantum leap into the digital age. Home office, distance learning, online shopping, and video conferencing have been around for a long time, but the standstill of the real world during the pandemic has led to an unexpected expansion of the virtual world. In “lockdown,” Internet access became a vital resource for everybody. Without the Internet, the world would have experienced a hard landing. Even if not all Internet services have proven to be useful, a lasting side effect of the COVID-19 crisis is the enormous acceleration of global digitalization. Online and offline are now inseparable.

This applies to both positive and negative effects. The corona crisis was, unfortunately, also a gift for cybercriminals. Hospitals were hacked, fake news was disseminated, funds were sneaked up by manipulated email donation calls, zoom bombing sprinkled sand in the digital transmission. In April 2020 alone, 750,000 cyberattacks were registered. Unfortunately, the pandemic also deepened the existing divides. The unconnected suffered more than the connected, and underprivileged groups paid a higher price to survive the crisis.

UN as a platform for multistakeholder dialogue

Like the virus, the Internet doesn’t know national borders. In this respect, it is not only justified but also imperative to develop global strategies to maximize the benefits of the digital world and minimize its risks.

The Internet is nothing new to the UN. It organized a world summit on the information society (WSIS) 15 years ago. Back then, the critical controversy was how the Internet should be “governed.” The Chinese wanted governmental control; the Americans wanted the “free market.” The compromise was a mix called the “multi-stakeholder model”. In Internet governance, governments, business, the technical community and civil society should work hand in hand. The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was created as a discussion platform for this.

This model has proven to be a success. The architecture of the Internet is robust—it has enabled tremendous growth. There are now four billion Internet users. Online trade is in the trillions. In 2005, Google and Amazon were dwarfs, Facebook had just been founded, and there were no smartphones or Chinese Internet giants. With the upswing, however, the possibilities of abuse also grew. More and more, Internet governance became an issue that moved out of the garages of geeks and freaks and entered society as a whole. Fifteen years ago, the Internet was more of a technical problem with some political implications. Today it is a political battlefield with a technical component. Peace and security, economy, society and human rights, almost everything in our world is now “cyber,” “digital” and “online.” Who should take care of all the new problems?

Guterres now offers the UN not as the “world government of the Internet” but as a platform for a “multi-stakeholder policy dialogue” and as a “facilitator, mobilizing partnership and coalitions between governments, citizens, civil society, academia and industry.” That may sound banal, but it is a fundamental step for a 75-year-old intergovernmental organization that emerged from World War II ruins. Many governments fear that the opening of the UN doors to non-state actors is a risky infiltration of state sovereignty, which is the core principle of the UN system. When governments accepted the Tunis compromise on the multi-stakeholder approach to Internet Governance, their understanding was that this could work for the Internet, not for the world. But now the Internet is the world, and there is no world anymore without the Internet. Two different cultures are colliding. But this clash offers more opportunities than risks. And indeed, nowadays, it is a fact that progress is hardly possible in solving Internet-related public policy issues without the participation of business, the technical community, and civil society. Even in the UN cybersecurity negotiations—in the so-called “Open-Ended Working Group”—the involvement of non-state actors in the form of “informal consultations” in December 2019 in New York has proven to be an asset.

This applies all the more to UN issues such as sustainable development goals, digital division, human rights protection, and the ethical use of artificial intelligence. All this is negotiated in UN bodies: WTO (digital trade), UNESCO (artificial intelligence), ITU (telecommunications), UN Human Rights Council (freedom of expression and data protection), UNDP (development), UNCTAD (eCommerce), ILO (Future of Work) etc. But also non-governmental bodies negotiate critical issues that have public-policy implications nowadays: ICANN (domain names), IETF (Internet protocols) or RIRs (IP addresses). Bodies like the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos or the Munich Security Conference (MSC), the Global Forum on Cyberexpertise or the Freedom Online Coalition and many others are producing policies, principles and norms as the Contract for the Web or the Norms Package of the Global Commission on Stability in Cyberspace.

The problem in our connected world is that there are many negotiation bodies, but only one Internet. In particular, for some governments which have a very traditional understanding of the principle of sovereignty, it is a big challenge to share roles and responsibilities in a bottom-up, open, and transparent policy development process and in negotiations of agreements. But it will be difficult to manage the global problems of the 21st century with the political instruments of the 19th or 20th century. How this “opening of the UN door” will further evolve, has to be seen. But it is a good step in the right direction.

In a networked world, not only the devices are linked, but also the problems. Cybersecurity laws interfere with fundamental individual rights and have economic consequences. Business models for search engines, social networks, and online retailers raise questions about security, data protection and freedom of expression.

But the existing multilateral negotiation mechanism does not reflect this enormous complexity of the global Internet governance ecosystem. The left hand within a government often no longer knows what the right hand is doing in cyberspace. And internationally, security and trade diplomats, human rights experts and technicians are sitting in their silos and produce regulatory patchworks with the potential to fragment the Internet. The UN-Panel report on Digital Cooperation from June 2019, which constituted the starting point for the new UN Roadmap, argued that we live in the “age of cyberinterdependence.”

The UN Secretary-General has translated this spirit literally into his roadmap. When he presented the roadmap on June 11, 2020, he said: “Digital technology is shaping history. But there is also the sense that it is running away with us. Where will it take us? Will our dignity and rights be enhanced or diminished? Will our societies become more equal or less equal? Will we become more, or less, secure and safe? The answers to these questions depend on our ability to work together across disciplines and actors, across nations and political divides. We have a collective responsibility to give direction to these technologies so that we maximize benefits and curtail unintended consequences and malicious use.” He underlined that the overall aim of the roadmap is “to connect, respect and protect people in the digital age.” And he added: “Today’s digital landscape offers is an opportunity. But if we don’t take that opportunity, it could quickly turn into a threat.”

UN-Cyberadmiral for the digital fleet

Guterres takes a “holistic approach” to this new complexity and he is right. A decentralized international negotiation mechanism, which combines multilateral with multi-stakeholder platforms, is not a weakness; it is a strength. It makes sense, because the alternative of regulating the entire Internet on one single treaty like the oceans in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or climate change in the Paris Climate Pact, as several governments proposed it in previous years, would waste time, energy and resources and would be outdated if it would be ready for signature. What is missing in the existing international system is a “creative networking” of the individual negotiating platforms. And this is precisely where the UN Secretary General’s roadmap starts.

Guterres is not planning the next “Internet policy revolution”; he is betting on evolution. A “Technology Envoy,” which he plans to appoint in 2021, will become the critical manager to move the processes forward. This Envoy will not become the “Internet World President,” but she/he could play a similar role in the political Internet world that the root servers play in the technical Internet world: Enabling communication and linking people.

The Envoy will be a facilitator; his main task will be bringing stakeholders from government, business, science, technology and civil society together and networking negotiations on cybersecurity, digital trade, human rights and future technologies. This is not an easy task. As the UN-Cyber-Admiral, she/he will have to navigate the UN-fleet through stormy digital waters by also bringing non-state actors on board, searching together to find the right route into the virtual promised land.

The steam for this journey could come from a strengthened Internet Governance Forum (IGF). The UN-Roadmap advocates the IGF+ proposal, made by the High-Level Panel (HLP): better funding, higher-level management structure, parliamentarians’ involvement, closer links to regional and national IGFs, enhanced intercessional work, more tangible output.1

The roadmap links digitalization to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. To bring the next two billion people online until 2030, to bridge the digital divide, to build a human-centric information society, this will be key elements that will guide the UN through the 2020s. The UN Roadmap identifies eight areas for action as global and affordable connectivity, digital public goods, digital inclusion, digital capacity building, digital human rights, artificial intelligence and trust and security. New multi-stakeholder working groups are planned to finance infrastructure projects, digital capacity development and artificial intelligence. It proposes the drafting of a “broad and overarching statement” on digital trust and security, avoiding duplicating the work of the OEWG and the UN-GGE but contributing to safer cyberspace. Such a statement should not only be signed by the governments of the UN member states, but also by non-state actors from “the private sector, including technology companies, and civil society.”

More concrete details will come from the so-called nine “Roundtables,” which have been established to discuss the specifics of the recommendations of the High-Level Panel and which will deliver “Opinion Papers” for the forthcoming 75th UN General Assembly. The UN-Roadmap on Digital Cooperation is another milestone in a process that started twenty years ago and will continue into the coming decade. The next stop is 2025. Five years from now, the UN will host the next review conference of the UN World Summit on Information Society (WSIS + 20).

Cyberspring or Cyberwinter?

The UN Roadmap on Digital Cooperation covers a very broad range of issues. This mix may be seen at first glance as nothing more than a nice “shopping mall” or an idealistic “wishlist” without teeth and money. But this weakness is a reflection of reality. There is no “silver bullet” for traveling through cyberspace. Small steps and the networking of diversity is always better than a big jump. In any case, the UN-Roadmap sets the course to move forward towards a new global “cyberspring”. There is no guarantee that this will work. The political will of the UN member states and the commitment of the stakeholders are now required. The UN Secretary-General cannot be blamed for placing the opportunities of digitization in the foreground. However, reality also includes the recognition that we probably have to face a decade of bitter conflicts in cyberspace.

The pandemic has fueled tensions between the two cyber superpowers, the United States and China, which is about more than Huawei, 5G and misinformation campaigns. A proxy cyberwar between Iran and Israel is simmering in the shadow of Corona with reciprocal cyberattacks on civil infrastructure such as waterworks and seaports and a dangerous escalation potential. The UN Secretary-General’s proposal to ban autonomous weapon systems is falling on deaf ears. The subject of digital tax is beginning to divide the USA and the EU. If the OECD does not find a global solution by the end of the year, there is a risk of a digital trade war involving billions of dollars. Human rights are under pressure like never before. Digital face recognition and mass surveillance undermine data protection and privacy. A new UN committee, initiated by Russia, is negotiating a new contract against cybercrime that threatens to lose the balance between security and freedom of expression. And in the ITU, China has proposed developing a new technical Internet protocol—called “New IP”—that could turn a decentralized network into a new, centralized hierarchy that is easier to control. It is not just Yigal Unna, head of the Israeli “National Cyber ??Directorate,” who sees a “cyberwinter” on the horizon.

Obviously, we will have to get used to the coexistence of digital cooperation and cyber confrontation. Perhaps historical experiences will help. Parallel to the “cold war” in the 1960s and 1970s, a detente process with arms control treaties, political agreements, and the Helsinki Final Act was started, which ultimately proved to be more sustainable than the nuclear conflict between the USA and the Soviet Union.

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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Soon digital will become part of any policy debate Janis Karklins  –  Jun 17, 2020 4:32 PM

Thank you, Wolfgang, for informative overview.
Let me suggest that we are close to the turning point when discussion about digital per se will become the past. As you indicate, digital is part of the new normal and soon no sphere of life will be spared from being digital. As a result, digital as a separate issue will cease to exist (unless directly linked with digital itself, e.g. standards, cybercrime, etc) but will become an integral part of any policy discussion. Hence, focus should be on capacity building of all individuals who will be carrying these policy debates forward.
Janis Karklins

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