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UN and the Global Digital Compact: How to Strengthen the IGF?

According to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the forthcoming UN World Summit on the Future”, scheduled for September 2024, should adopt a “Global Digital Compact” (GDC).1 The GDC is part of the so-called “UN Common Agenda.” The compact is expected to “outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all” and to cover issues as digital connectivity, avoiding Internet fragmentation, providing people with options as to how their data is used, application of human rights online, and promoting a trustworthy Internet by introducing accountability criteria for discrimination and misleading content. A key issue is Internet Governance.

The process was kick-started in 2022. GDC issues were on the agenda of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Addis Ababa in December 2022. In January 2023, UN Secretary-General appointed two facilitators—the governments of Sweden and Rwanda—to manage the process towards a GDC Ministerial Meeting in New York (September 2023). This meeting will draft a document as a basis for further discussion and pave the way for the 2024 summit.

The two GDC facilitators have meanwhile started a series of multistakeholder consultations.2 The plan includes seven so-called “Thematic Deep- Dive” seminars on digital inclusion, Internet Governance, data protection, human rights online, digital trust and security, artificial intelligence and digital commons. The results will be reflected in the so-called “Issue Papers,” which will go to the Ministerial Meeting in New York in September 2023.

On April 13, 2023, a “Thematic Deep Dive” seminar took place as a hybrid meeting in the UN-Headquarter in New York. More than 500 experts from about 100 countries participated online and offline.

Below is my statement, which I presented in the afternoon sessions of the Seminar.

The Multistakeholder Approach

It is very good to see that the facilitators have included Internet Governance as a key issue in the process toward a “Global Digital Compact” (GDC). The Internet is the core infrastructure of the digital age. Its proper management, and in particular the management of its public core with critical resources such as Internet protocols, domain names and IP addresses, routers, cables and satellites, is a precondition for free communication among the five billion Internet users for enhanced digital cooperation and the development of a global information society.

It was good to hear this morning that so many governments supported the multistakeholder approach to Internet Governance. The acceptance of the multistakeholder approach by the WSIS Summit in 2005 was like a revolution. It opened the door for a new quality of understanding of global governance in the information age.

The multistakeholder approach was agreed upon by the 193 UN member states in the Tunis Agenda of 2005, where heads of states recognized that it needs the involvement of all stakeholders—governments, private sector and civil society, in their respective roles—to find solutions for the long list of complex problems in the global Internet Governance Ecosystem.

As we have seen since 2005, this was true for the management of the technical Internet resources. The technical infrastructure of the Internet works, regardless of all the crises of the last years as pandemics or wars. Regardless of all geo-political tensions, the technical infrastructure of the Internet is not fragmented. There is no splinternet. On the “Transport Layer,” we do have “One World, One Internet.”

But the multistakeholder approach is also relevant for the “Application Layer” for the management of Internet-related public policy issues, even if we do have here “One World, 193 National Jurisdictions”. No single stakeholder alone has the capacity to maneuver today’s big digital ships through the stormy waters of tomorrow’s cyberspace, from cybersecurity to artificial intelligence.

All stakeholders must work hand in hand and share their knowledge, experiences and resources if they want to find sustainable solutions. In the Tunis agenda, the 193 UN member states agreed that Internet Governance has to be based on “shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.”3

This can be done first of all by bottom-up, open, transparent and inclusive policy development processes based on mutual trust and respect for international law and human rights. Those principles for Internet Governance were defined, inter alia, in the NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement adopted in April 2014 in the “Sao Paulo Declaration.”4 Both the WSIS definition from 2005 and the Net Mundial principles from 2014 are important guidelines that are relevant today and will remain important tomorrow when we move forward into new digital territories.

The Need for Political Innovations

But preaching the multistakeholder approach is one thing; practicing is another. There is no one clearly defined multistakeholder model. Many governments have a different understanding of what multistakeholder Internet Governance means in practice. They pay lip service to the concept, but in reality, they continue with their classical top-down policy making, which is very often neither open and transparent nor inclusive.

It is certainly a step in the right direction if more and more governments organize consultations on Internet-related public policy issues with non-state actors from business, civil society and the technical community before making decisions. The problem is that there are no procedures in place on how the “input” of non-state actors in those consultations leads to an “impact” on the final decisions. The Tunis Agenda speaks about “sharing of decision making.” But “consulting” is not “sharing.” There is still a long way to go until we can really celebrate the multistakeholder approach as a big success and an innovation in global Internet policymaking.

I remember what Kofi Annan told us during a WGIG Meeting in 2004. He said, “we need to develop inclusive and participatory models of governance. The medium must be made accessible and responsive to the needs of all the world’s people”. And he added that “in managing, promoting and protecting [the internet’s] presence in our lives, we need to be no less creative than those who invented it. Clearly, there is a need for governance, but that does not necessarily mean that it has to be done in the traditional way for something that is so very different.”5

Kofi Annan encouraged us to think out of the box. He called for “political innovations.” The multistakeholder approach was such a political innovation. But talking the talk is not enough; walking the walk is the issue. The Global Digital Compact is a unique opportunity to continue to walk, to continue with political innovations and to enhance both the conceptual understanding as well as the practical implementation of the multistakeholder approach.

We do have the Internet Governance definition from 2005. We do have the Internet Governance principles from 2014. But we don’t have procedures for interaction among the stakeholders. This is a missing link in the global Internet Governance Ecosystem. The proposal of the Swiss government to form multistakeholder drafting teams for the elaboration of “GDC Issue Papers,” which could constitute the basis for the GDC-Ministerial Meeting in New York (September 2023), would be a new and innovative procedural step to implement, what the mothers and fathers of the Tunis Agenda had in mind when they used the language of “sharing” in the Internet Governance definition.

The Role of the IGF

Let me make a second point with regard to the role of the GDC in strengthening the IGF. The IGF has its strengths and weaknesses. We know this from the very early beginning. There was a good reason why the IGF was designed for “discussion only.” The fear was that an IGF with a decision-making capacity would turn the new discussion platform into an intergovernmental battlefield. The hope was that a discussion-only platform would open minds, mouths and ears to allow all voices and arguments to be expressed and heard, to stimulate free and frank dialogues among all stakeholders on equal footing. The expectation was that knowledge and wisdom produced in the IGF discussions would enable decision-makers to find innovative solutions. Those decisions should not be made inside but outside the IGF, by mandated policy organizations, businesses and civil society ventures. But the weak point so far is that there is a missing link between the “discussion layer” in the IGF and the “decision-making layer” in intergovernmental organizations.

In 2021, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was wise to recommend in his “Roadmap on Digital Cooperation”6keep the strengths of the IGF, but to overcome its weaknesses. He accepted the recommendation of the “High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation” (HLP)7 to transform the IGF into an IGF+. His appointment of the UN Tech Envoy, his nomination of the IGF Leadership Panel, the introduction of the IGF Parliamentarian Track and other concrete steps have indeed given more steam to the improvement of the IFG to make it more relevant.

The GDC should be an integrated part of this process. It was very encouraging to see that during the recent IGF in Ethiopia (November 2022), all issues raised by the GDC were central to the global multistakeholder discussion. The substance is reflected in the “Addis Ababa Messages”8 Together with the other documents of the Ethiopian IGF, this is a very tangible output. It is much more than a source of inspiration for the drafters of the GDC; it demonstrates that this multistakeholder discussion platform is an excellent place to discuss the relevant issues in depth.

A Kyoto Digital Protocol?

At the end of the day, a “Compact” like the GDC has to be adopted by governments. The UN is an intergovernmental organization. The “UN Summit on the Future” will be a meeting of heads of states and governments. But in the information age, intergovernmental negotiations are embedded into a multistakeholder environment. And governments will fail to achieve sustainable results if they ignore input from non-state actors.

The “Addis Ababa Messages” have to play a key role in drafting the “Issue Papers” for the GDC Ministerial Meeting in New York in September 2023. Four weeks later, the 18th IGF will take place in Kyoto. This is a unique opportunity for the multistakeholder community to evaluate the results from the New York Ministerial GDC Meeting. The IGF Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) was very forward-looking when they defined the key issues for the Kyoto IGF at its meeting in early March 2023 in Vienna. All seven selected issues are very relevant for the GDC.

It would make sense if such a discussion at the Kyoto IGF were summarized in a joint statement with critical and constructive comments on the GDC Ministerial Document. This could be done under the guidance of the IGF Leadership Panel. Such a multistakeholder “Kyoto Digital Protocol” would be a strong message to the “UN Summit on the Future.” And it would give the GDC a much higher level of authority and legitimacy.

The GDC will not be the end of the story. It will mark a new beginning and frame digital policymaking until 2030 when the sustainable development goals (SDGs) have to be reviewed. There will be a need for a GDC follow-up. It would be wise to pick the IGF as the natural home for the implementation of GDC recommendations. This could make the IGF+ into an IGF++. And this would positively affect the discussions about a renewal of the IGF mandate in 2025 by the WSIS+20 review conference.

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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