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The Times Stand Still: Internet Shutdowns, the Irony of the Multistakeholder Process and Realpolitik

Governments worldwide increasingly resort to shutting down the Internet as a political tool to control information and silence dissent. This alarming trend is not limited to developing nations grappling with civil unrest or political transition. Indeed, it is gaining traction in developed nations, suggesting a global phenomenon transcending geographical boundaries and socio-economic development levels.

In Ethiopia, the Internet government shutdown, meant to control information outflow amidst violent clashes in the Amhara region, contradicts the principle of universality—an idea that any network, anywhere, should be able to connect with any other network. In France, amidst protests denouncing systemic racial injustices, the government’s decision to restrict Internet access tampers with the principle of neutrality, which mandates that all Internet traffic should be treated equally, without discrimination.

When governments restrict Internet access, they make a troubling statement about the interpretation and application of the foundational principles that guide the functioning of the Internet.

These principles include universality, neutrality, and freedom from central control. The concept of Internet universality, the idea that all networks, irrespective of their geographical location, should be able to connect with any other network—is brazenly flouted when governments strategically sever Internet services. They effectively impend the free flow of information and ideas.

The impacts of such decisions ripple far beyond just political implications. They have tangible effects on the lives of everyday citizens. The Internet is essential for communication, expression, education, and survival.

Ethiopia and France have already hosted the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Hosting such a significant forum communicates a nation’s commitment to these principles and places the host under scrutiny regarding its digital practices. Yet, the actions taken by both countries in the face of internal unrest present a discord with the IGF’s ideals. A more nuanced view suggests that these situations can also be emblematic of changing times. It raises the question: is the multistakeholder model now under threat? The multistakeholder model’s essence is to incorporate various stakeholders, from governments to civil society, in decision-making processes to ensure a holistic and democratic approach to Internet Governance.

It is imperative to understand these Internet shutdowns not just as isolated national actions but as reflective of broader global trends that could be signaling a pivot in how the Internet is governed. As we navigate this digital age, there is a pressing need to reaffirm the multistakeholder model’s core tenets and ensure it remains resilient against the shifting sands of realpolitik and international diplomacy.

Such pragmatism extends to the Global North’s reaction to these shutdowns. While they quickly critique similar practices in the Global South, they overlook their transgressions, as evident in France’s recent actions. This double standard betrays a realpolitik approach to Internet Governance, where powerful states maintain their hegemony, bending principles as needed. f nations wield overwhelming power in digital realms, where does that leave the voices and interests of these other crucial stakeholders? Where is the commitment to the rights of citizens by the states?

These actions should not be viewed in isolation but within the broader context of international relations and realpolitik. Governments use Internet shutdowns as a control tool, much like how states use political or military power to establish dominance.

Does this signify a world where the state reclaims its preeminence in the digital domain? The ripple effects of such a shift could be profound.

Considering these potential trajectories, we must ponder the future we envision for the Internet. Will it remain the open frontier of innovation, communication, and shared knowledge? Or will it morph into a realm heavily controlled by state interests, limited in scope and potential? The actions and decisions made in the present will inevitably shape the answers to these questions for future generations.

By Thobias Moura, PhD Student (Law and Security) and Researcher at WhatNext.Law

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Our Common Standard Klaus Stoll  –  Aug 9, 2023 12:52 AM

Dear Thobias

Thanks for a thoughtful article and I am looking forward to more.

When you are talking about “...about the interpretation and application of the foundational principles that guide the functioning of the Internet.”, we need to remind ourselves that all human culture, economy and innovation is based on standards that are common and equally applicable to us all, under any circumstances at all time. The majority of governments have committed themselves to the standards of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and they would do well to act upon them. When it comes to internet governance we all should remind ourselves that they and not our specific stakeholder interests are the foundation for what we do. If its not, our policies and commerce will only be sustainable in the short but not the long run.

Our Common Standard Thobias Moura  –  Aug 9, 2023 11:24 AM

Dear Klaus

Thank you for your insightful comment,

You’re right in highlighting that the bedrock of our collective actions, policies, and governance—digital or otherwise—should be grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This declaration represents humanity’s consensus on the foundational rights and freedoms everyone should enjoy. The robustness of our digital future hinges on our collective commitment to these principles.

It is deeply concerning and glaringly evident that when state interests overshadow other considerations, the foundational principles of the Internet get undermined, and so do the tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

My intention in discussing this issue is to underscore that you’ve drawn attention to the foundational principles of the Internet and the protection of human rights are inextricably intertwined. An assault on the freedoms and neutrality of the Internet is essentially an assault on our fundamental human rights. Whether it’s curbing political rights, increased state surveillance, threats to personal safety, or other breaches, compromising the integrity of the Internet paves the way for these violations.

In this digital age, it’s more crucial than ever to recognize that an open and free Internet is a bulwark against eroding our fundamental human rights.

The sidelining of multi-stakeholders is symptomatic of a broader situation, where the might of state power threatens to overshadow the collective consensus on human rights. If governments act without consideration for other stakeholders, it is a slippery slope that may lead to the violation of human rights by the state itself.

Thus, as we ponder the trajectory of the Internet’s future, it’s crucial to reiterate that the foundational principles rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should remain unyielding against transient political agendas.

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