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Framing the Internet Governance Debate: The Long Road to WSIS+20 (2025)

Since the early 2000s, the global debate about Internet Governance did have its ups and downs. We did see the establishment of ICANN, the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the making of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), and the failure of the World Conference on International Telecommunication (WCIT). We did see NetMundial and the IANA transition. We recognized the growing role of non-state actors in the Internet Governance Ecosystem, the senseless battle between “multistakeholderism” and “multilateralism” as well as war and peace between ICANN and the ITU. A whole “Internet Governance Ecosystem” with a fast-growing complexity emerged where the political, economic, cultural, social and ideological controversies—both among governments and among state and non-state actors—created unfriendly confrontation and undermined traditional trust. We did see a booming digital economy and a weaponized cyberspace, cybercrime, fake news, hate speech, violation of human rights and the rise of digital authoritarianism. 2000 we did have less than 100 million Internet users. 2020 we have more than 4 billion “netizens”.

In the early 2020s, the debate gets a new twist. Issues related to the Internet, digital economy and cyberspace are now a top priority on the agenda of world politics. During the recent virtual Munich Security Conference in February 2021, US president Joe Biden, the president of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, French president Emanual Macron and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, raised the issue as one of the most important challenges in a Post-Covid-Time. And indeed, since the presentation of the Final Report of the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation (Jun 2019) and the UN Secretary General’s “Roadmap on Digital Cooperation” (June 2020), the debate got a new momentum. The “Option Paper on Recommendation 5A/B” of the HLP Report (September 2020) recognized gaps in the architecture of today’s Internet Governance Ecosystem. In the UN 75, Summit-Declaration 193 heads of the UN member states recognized that “digital technologies have profoundly transformed society.” They agreed that “they offer unprecedented opportunities and new challenges. When improperly or maliciously used, they can fuel divisions within and between countries, increase insecurity, undermine human rights, and exacerbate inequality”. And they offered the UN as a platform for multistakeholder dialogue.

What is left somewhat unclear is how the proposed next steps align with what is expected to be the next major meeting of the World Summit of Information Society (WSIS) in 2025. WSIS+20 is a unique opportunity to discuss all those opportunities and risks. It will review what has been achieved in the first quarter of the century, what has failed, what lessons has been learned and how the digital future shoud be designed. WSIS+20 will also have to decide about the IGF. Its present mandate expires in 2025.

Against this background, a group of NGOs and academic institutions from around the globe, supported by the German government—one of the Co-Champions of the “Option Paper”—organized a virtual high-level brainstorming meeting on January 19, 2021. The informal investigation of the future of cyberspace also included speakers from the private sector, cyber ambassadors from various key governments, representing both the “Global North” and the “Global South”, as well as decisions makers from the technical community (ISOC, ICANN, APTLD and others). The meeting took place under “Chatham House Rules”. Below there is the summary of the discussion.

1. The “Virtual High-Level Expert Brainstorming” dealt with the short- and medium-term perspectives for the preparation of the review conference, dedicated to the results of the UN World Summit on the Information Society of 2005 (WSIS+20), which is planned for 2025. WSIS+20 offers an excellent opportunity to discuss the future of the Internet Governance Ecosystem. More efforts are needed to achieve concrete outcomes in the key areas of digital cooperation as they are cybersecurity, digital economy, sustainable development, protection of human rights and the development of new technologies (inter alia artificial intelligence).

2. The multistakeholder model for Internet Governance, introduced by the Tunis Agenda in 2005, must be further developed. It needs innovative procedural rules and new formats for enhanced cooperation between stakeholders, in particular between state and non-state actors. And it needs the enhancement of the existing institutional mechanisms. It was criticized that many governments pay only lip service to the multistakeholder model. Informal consultations by governments with non-state actors are an important element of enhanced cooperation among stakeholders. However, such consultations without clear procedures how they impact final decisions do not match the criteria for multistakeholder collaboration as laid down in the Tunis Agenda (November 2005) and the NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement (April 2014).

3. It was found that since the WSIS summit in 2005, an extensive intergovernmental mechanism on digital and cyber issues had been developed outside of the WSIS process. Cybersecurity (UN/OEWG/GGE), Digital Economy (WTO, OECD), Human Rights (UN-HRC), or Artificial Intelligence (UNESCO/WIPO) are subject of separate negotiations among governments. All these topics are addressed in the WSIS Geneva Action Plan (2003) and are discussed by the IGF. However, the results of the multistakeholder discussions do not reach the negotiators in the intergovernmental bodies. Conversely, the discussions on multistakeholder platforms are criticized as being too theoretical and impractical. This separation of “discussion” and “decision” must be overcome. Furthermore, many of those negotiations take place in silos.

4. The experts underlined that the complexity of the Internet Governance Ecosystems calls for a “holistic approach”. However, it would make no sense to bring all the issues related to digital cooperation into one large negotiation package. Neither the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea nor the Paris Climate Agreement are good models for global negotiations around digital and cyber issues. What is necessary, however, is an interactive network between the negotiating bodies and creative inclusion of non-state actors. The existing gap between the “discussion layer” (the IGF) and the “decision-making layer” (intergovernmental negotiations on Internet-related public policy issues) has to be bridged. The “output” of the IGF discussions needs a “landing place”, where it serves as “input” into intergovernmental debates. In order to achieve sustainable results, innovative participation models need to be developed according to the specifics of individual issues (“no one size fits all” and “in their respective roles”).

5. The IGF+ proposal, supported by the UN Secretary General’s “Roadmap on Digital Cooperation” (June 2020) and the German-UAE “Options Paper for the Future of Global Digital Cooperation” (September 2020), was seen as a right approach. Various elements—for instance, as laid down in Paragraph 93 of the Roadmap - should be implemented as soon as possible.

  1. An IGF+ needs a mechanism to produce measurable results that have a practical impact and convert the ideas (IGF messages) into negotiable proposals. The IGF itself should not turn into a negotiation platform. Existing IGF output (IGF messages, summary of the chair, session reports, etc.) could be further compressed into a document with “Options for Actions” (OFA) for intergovernmental negotiating bodies.
  2. The proposed “Multistakeholder High-Level Body” (MHLB) must be integrated into the existing IGF structures and closely linked to the Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG). It should not have more than 20 members and should be made up of high-ranking, internationally respected personalities who have both the authority and the legitimacy to act as ambassadors between the discussion and decision-making layers. Duplication or overlap between different bodies should be avoided. An MHLB needs a very precise mandate. As permanent exofficio members, the MHLB should include both the chairperson of the MAG and the UN Technology Envoy.
  3. The plan to establish a Technology Envoy with an independent office in the UN Secretariat was unanimously welcomed. The role of Nitin Desai as “Internet advisor” to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was remembered. A precise mandate for the Technology Envoy and corresponding office equipment was requested. Reference was made to the criteria contained in the position paper on the nomination of a Technology Envoy submitted by 70 NGOs on November 16, 2020. The nomination process should be as open and transparent as possible. Concerns were raised that the new functions would create parallel structures which, in the worst case, could lead to overlapping competencies between the Technology Envoy Office in New York and the IGF Secretariat in Geneva. The future role of UNDESA should also be clarified.
  4. A “Parliamentarian Track” as an integral part of an IGF+ should not be limited to the organization of an annual “Parliamentary Round Table”. It should rather enable inter-sessional cooperation between parliamentarians and an exchange of ideas among parliamentarians and IGF stakeholders. The recommendation from the virtual IGF, to form an “Informal Parliamentary IGF Group” (IPIG), was supported.
  5. There is a need to bring more voices from the “Global South” to the IGF. Issues related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have to be a first priority for an IGF+. Furthermore, WSIS+20 should produce input for the 2030 World Summit on the SDGs.
  6. The points proposed in Paragraph 93 of the “Roadmap on Digital Cooperation” on the future of the IGF received broad support. The following measures were considered to be particularly urgent:
    1. Improvements in the development of the IGF annual programme,
    2. Creative networking between stakeholder that are used to work in a bottom-up environment with groups that act according to top-down mechanisms, by interlinking IGF discussions with intergovernmental negotiations,
    3. Strengthening the inter-sessional work between the annual IGFs, in particular by encouraging the IGF Best Practice Fora (BPFs) and the IGF Dynamic Coalitions (DCs) to produce more relevant and concrete results (reports, analyses, mapping) and to function as “policy incubators”;
    4. Participation of high-ranking politicians and business representatives beyond the delivery of keynote speeches;
    5. Expansion of the accompanying programme (IGF Village, Digital Olympics, Day Minus1 for Newcomers, etc.)
    6. Better communication strategy
    7. Sustainable funding mechanisms
    8. Closer integration of the national and regional IGFs (NRI)

6. Digital cooperation plays a growing role at the regional level. Plurilateral and bilateral agreements are easier to negotiate, have the potential to stabilize specific areas and can pave the way towards global solutions. The situation in the Asia-Pacific region, in Africa, or Latin America would often differ considerably from the problems in the USA and Europe. Regional decentralization in Internet policy development is a constructive option as it was demonstrated by the agreements on Confidence Building Measures in Cyberspace (CBMCs) for Europe (OSCE) and Asia (ASEAN). Bilateral cybersecurity dialogues under the so-called Track 1.5, which offers informal, intergovernmental exchanges by including experts under Chatham House Rules, are also useful. Also, national and regional IGFs could play a helpful role.

7. Participants identified a substantial shift in the approach towards regulation on issues around digital cooperation. During the first two WSIS phases (2002-2005), regulation was primarily seen as an instrument to restrict innovation and Internet freedoms. Today, regulations are needed to protect competition and human rights. The problem, however, is that the consensus that international law and human rights apply offline, as well as online, is masked by differing views on how these legal provisions are to be applied in specific cases. There are also continuing geopolitical divisions projecting different ‘visions’ for internet governance.

8. The problem of “Internet fragmentation” has been raised several times. There were different perspectives.

  1. On the one hand, it has been argued that the Internet as a “network of networks” has been a “fragmented network” from the start. It is crucial that uniform protocols are used on the lowest layer in order to guarantee technical interoperability. The universality of the network is one of ICANN’s responsibilities (Technical Internet Governance/TIG).
  2. On the other hand, it has been acknowledged that “Internet fragmentation” is advancing at the “application layer”. National laws on content, data localization, data protection, platform regulation, etc., led to an increasingly legal incompatibility between the 193 national jurisdictions of the UN members. Additionally, there are proprietary standards from commercial providers of digital services which create barriers for interoperability.
  3. A new dimension comes with geopolitical conflicts between different value systems, which could lead to an Internet bifurcation.
  4. The corona pandemic made clear that the protection of the technical public core of the Internet is in the interest of all parties, regardless of their political priorities. However, one should not overlook the fact that the “public core” of the Internet can also become the subject of geopolitical conflicts, e.g., through the development of new, incompatible Internet standards (New IP).

9. The use of confusing and irritating language was criticized as a potential source of misunderstanding. The WGIG definition for Internet governance from the Tunis Agenda, confirmed by the UN in the WSIS+10 final document, was seen as still relevant. However, it is unclear to what extent new terms such as “tech governance”, “data governance”, “cyber-governance”, “digital governance,” or “digital cooperation” are identical with the Internet governance definition from 2005. It was also questioned whether topics such as cybersecurity, digital commerce, and artificial intelligence are part of Internet governance. It was recalled that the WGIG 2005 deliberately opted for a broad definition, which included the so-called “Internet related public policy issues”. It was discussed whether a new definition for “digital cooperation” would be helpful.

10. One discussion point was the consequences of the corona pandemic for the preparation of WSIS + 20. The transfer of conferences into the virtual space has its strengths and weaknesses. Hybrid meetings could be useful on the road to WSIS+20 (greater inclusion by lowering traditional barriers such as travel costs, time expenditure and restrictive invitation practices by organizers). But it also needs F2F opportunities to allow all involved stakeholders to become equally involved in finding consensus.

11. In order to have a successful WSIS Review Conference in 2025, an early start was recommended. Broad and equal participation of all stakeholders must be ensured. A proposal was made to have a preparation process consisting of two interconnected levels (dual track):

  1. The UN has an established mechanism for the preparation of review conferences for UN world summits. This preparatory process should take into account the experiences of the first WSIS summits in Geneva and Tunis (2002-2005) and the WSIS + 10 Review Conference in New York (2015), and it should be inspired by NETmundial (Sao Paulo, 2014). Early and equal involvement of non-governmental stakeholders should be guaranteed. The 78th UN General Assembly (2023) should decide upon the modalities and procedures for preparing WSIS + 20.
  2. The official UN preparations for WSIS + 20 should be accompanied by a parallel bottom-up process that is not subject to UN regulations and creates additional opportunities for broad, public and innovative discussions between all stakeholders. Different options, how such a “parallel process” could be organized, were discussed.

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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