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How to Save the “Past” in the “Future of the Internet”: Principles, Procedures and Problems of the Washington Declaration

On April 28, 2022, a “Declaration on the Future of the Internet,” initiated by the U.S. government, was signed by 60 governments at the White House in Washington, D.C. According to Jack Sullivan, National Security Advisor to U.S. President Joe Biden, the Declaration is intended to serve as a reference document for future international negotiations on Internet-related issues. Is there a reason why the U.S. government is launching an initiative on the “Future of the Internet” at this point in time?

The idea of this declaration has a lot to do with the “Past of the Internet.” When the Internet was developing in the 1980s and 1990s, it was seen primarily as a tool that would expand individual freedoms worldwide, strengthen democracy, and create prosperity through innovation and economic progress. Remember when John Perry Barlow—in 1996—published his “Davos Declaration on Cyberindependence,” where he painted Cyberspace as a “promised land.” The expectation was that an “Internet for All” would create a new, democratic world: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

As we know it today, that was somewhat one-sided. The Internet has a downside, of course. Like any invention, the Internet can be abused. Criminals, hate preachers, terrorists, warmongers, child molesters all cavort on the Net. The Internet can be used to promote democracy, but it can also be used to restrict civil liberties. As early as 2008, Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain published a book entitled “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it.” Nathan Persifly of Stanford University wrote an article in 2017 titled “Can Democracy Survive the Internet?” The alarm bells have been ringing for a long time. Now we are on the brink of a new era on the Internet. There is no way back. Mankind is further stumbling forward into cyberspace. Digitalization can not be stopped. Against this background, the Declaration wants to set a sign where the journey should go. It wants to recall the values of the founding fathers of the Internet from the 1980s and 1990s. And it wants to provide a new orientation. The new (old) vision is an open, free, global, interoperable, trustworthy and secure Internet based on the values of the UN Charter and the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Principles

The Declaration is grouped around five principles, which are broken down into 23 sub-points. The highest principle is the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. This is followed immediately by the preservation of the global character of the Internet, i.e., the rejection of Internet fragmentation, the so-called “Splinternet.” The third principle is inclusion and affordability, an “Internet for all,” and overcoming the “digital divide.” Principle number four is trust, i.e., strengthening cybersecurity, fighting cybercrime, data protection, consumer protection. And finally, the multistakeholder principle for Internet governance, i.e., equal participation of non-state actors from business, academia, civil society and the technical community in the development and implementation of Internet policies.

Basically, the Declaration is a “to-do list” for politicians, entrepreneurs, developers and users in the cyber world. But it also says what not to do: cybercrime, disinformation, Internet shutdowns, censorship, surveillance, etc.

Doesn’t that sound like a wish list that was already drawn up at the UN World Summit on the Information Society in 2005? In principle, yes. But it is also true, that those principles are more and more ignored by more and more countries. Take human rights. The ideals of human rights were written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. A perfect document. There is no need for new human rights. The problem is implementation: Protect and respect. It’s a matter of complying with them, both offline and online.

In this respect, it makes sense to insist on their observance from time to time and as circumstances change. This is what the “Tunis Agenda” of the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) did in 2005. It was done in 2014 by the “NetMundial Declaration” adopted in Sao Paulo. And now those ideas are being invoked once again. Given the global rise of digital autocracies and the danger of Internet fragmentation, it does make sense indeed to reaffirm this loudly in 2022. Insofar, this is a good document

Procedures

After all, the declaration was signed exclusively by governments. But it refers very directly to the multistakeholder model. Isn’t that a contradiction? Many stakeholders from business, academia, civil society and the technical community have been very critical of the process by which the text of this declaration came about. It is meanwhile an established procedure that the Internet community develops positions and documents “bottom up” with public comment opportunities and a number of iterations in an open, inclusive and transparent way. This was the case, for example, with the “Sao Paulo Declaration” in 2014, in which hundreds of state and non-state actors had participated in drafting a document that did have, at the end of the day a sustainable impact and paved the way, inter alia, for the IANA transition in 2016.

The “Washington Declaration” came “top down”, directly from the White House. When the first version was leaked in Fall 2021, there was a lot of criticism, which did not go away at the “Democracy Summit” organized by U.S. President Joe Biden in December 2021 and at the UN’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Katowice, where the project was discussed. Tim Wu, a former Internet professor from Columbia University in New York City, was in charge of the project. He listened to the objections and subsequently rowed back and consulted with other governments. But there has been no broad involvement of non-state actors. That is a significant weakness of the initiative. How credible is the support for the multistakeholder approach in the global governance of the Internet if key stakeholders are excluded from drafting such a document?

However, during the governmental consultations, the EU, in particular, included some key language in the document, such as the reference to the “regulatory autonomy” of each state within its own jurisdiction, which makes it “less US-centric.” It is well known that the EU and the U.S. have different approaches and ideas on how to regulate the Internet. But the good news here is that regardless of their differences on specific regulatory packages, they are on one page if it comes to the democratic values of an open, free and secure Internet. And that has priority. The rest can be settled in bilateral consultations, as at the second meeting of EU-US-Trade-and-Technology-Council (TTC) mid-May 2022 in Paris.

Problems

Transatlantic harmony around democratic principles and human values are good. The declaration is supported by 60 governments. That’s a lot. But the UN has 193 members. There is certainly room for improvement. On the other hand, the declaration, as it stands now, did have its own history, which also explains the visible gaps.

The original idea—before Biden’s democracy summit—was to form an “alliance” for the future of the Internet, i.e., a platform for like-minded countries. The problem is that the Internet represents a universal infrastructure. This is a dilemma if you want to preserve a universal Internet on the one hand but form an “alliance” that is, of course, not universal on the other hand. Therefore, the new title - a “Declaration” based on democratic values - is a more constructive and inclusive approach than an “Alliance.” Anyone who supports the values can sign the declaration. This does not marginalize or exclude anyone.

Now 60 governments have signed the document. More will follow. The 2018 “Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace” started with an even smaller number of supporters. In 2022 the “Paris Call” has signatures from 81 governments and over 1000 non-state actors.

Signatories of the “Washington Declaration” are next to the US and all EU countries, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia, also some developing countries such as Argentina, Uruguay, and Senegal. But important Internet countries such as India, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, Ghana, Kenya and Singapore are still hesitant to sign. There is indeed room for improvement. It is certainly not very helpful that no procedure has yet been published on how to join the declaration. This applies above all to the inclusion of non-governmental stakeholders. Procedurally, this document is no masterpiece.

It is not surprising that autocracies are reluctant to support the declaration. The declaration supports a “democratic Internet” and rejects an “autocratic Internet.” It formulates a series of criteria for determining how “democratic” or “autocratic” the Internet is organized in a country. However, the declaration also complains that the once decentralized Internet has led to ever greater centralization. This hinders free and fair competition and slows down innovation. In other words, the Declaration tries to take a “holistic approach” and is not blind to deficiencies in the democracies of the West.

The overarching challenge, however, is to preserve the global nature of the Internet. The fact that anyone can communicate with anyone anywhere on the globe at any time is a gigantic achievement. But it is increasingly under threat. China has its “digital firewall.” Russia passed a law in 2019 that will allow it to disconnect from the global network. In many authoritarian states—from Iran to Saudi Arabia—the Internet is increasingly controlled by the state. The risk is high that the Internet, which is, after all, nothing more than a “network of networks,” will disintegrate into its individual components, into a “Splinternet” and many “national Internet segments.”

The Declaration therefore supports the preservation of the universality of the Domain Name System (DNS), globally applicable Internet standards, and network neutrality. The message is clear: Regardless of all political disputes, the “technical core of the Internet” should not be attacked. This is in line with recent statements made by ICANN, RIPE NCC and ISOC on the neutrality of the global management of critical Internet resources like domain names, IP addresses or Internet Protocols.

It would be naive to expect that the Internet could stand outside geopolitical battles. But the battles should not interfere with the public core of the Internet. Critical Internet resources are like the “air of the Internet.” In the “real world,” there is no “American air” or “Chinese air”; there is only “clean air” or “polluted air.” It makes no sense to undermine a global infrastructure which is now seen as part of the common heritage of mankind.

After all, the Declaration is not a contract with concrete obligations for the signatories. Like all such declarations, these are initially fine words. Paper is patient. That is not an argument against such principles. Fine words are good. They can be used as reference for “naming and shaming” if somebody ignores them. But it would have been helpful if the authors of the declaration had also come up with some ideas for an implementation mechanism: Reviews, reports, reconsiderations.

Furthermore, the Declaration is also unclear and very vague both regarding the future involvement of non-state actors and how to link the “Washington Declaration” to other processes that have been underway for two decades in the global Internet Governance Ecosystem.

In 2021, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres published a “Roadmap on Digital Cooperation.” There is the UN-hosted Internet Governance Forum (IGF), now under reform towards an IGF+. In 2023, the UN plans to develop a “Global Digital Compact,” which will be adopted at the “UN World Summit on the Future.” In 2025, there will be a review conference of the outcomes of the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS+20). It is also unclear how the new declaration positions itself with the “Freedom Online Coalition” (FOC), founded more than ten years ago and also aimed to promote human rights and individual freedoms on the Internet.

The text of the “Washington Declaration” states that it “takes note” of the “existing processes” and wants to contribute to their success. It mentions the UN, the IGF, OECD, WTO, ICANN and the Freedom Online Coalition. But how this is to be done remains completely open. Critics, therefore, fear that a proliferation of well-intentioned political instruments will reduce their effectiveness by tying up scarce resources and contributing to fragmentation and confusion. Well-intentioned is far from being well-done.

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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