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The Future of the Internet From the Perspective of a NextGen@ICANN 78

This year, the 25th anniversary of the creation of ICANN was celebrated. The date carries a commemorative meaning, highlighting the trajectory of this institution that has been fundamental in the coordination and administration of Internet resources. However, this milestone also highlights the growing challenges facing Internet Governance in the current global landscape.

This was my first ICANN meeting, having participated as NextGen. These brief reports are a provocation, but they also seek to contribute to the search for possible paths that protect the Internet Mode of Connectivity.

During much of the panels, the community’s concern was observed with the processes of the Global Digital Compact and the Summit of the Future. These are two examples of platforms and initiatives that not only seek to influence the future of the Internet but also of ICANN itself. Additionally, the increase in the influence and interest of national states in Internet governance is evident, as we can see in documents such as the Contribution from the Russian Federation to the ITU Council. This document, in particular, signals the efforts of Russia to have a more decisive role in decisions related to the Internet in a multilateral way outside the multistakeholder approach.

In the speeches of the ICANN78 Welcome Ceremony panel, the evocation of trust was observed as a central pillar in the evolution of the Internet. The Internet, by its nature, depends on a system of mutual trust between parties to function efficiently. This trust, cultivated over the years, has allowed the network to grow in a decentralized and shared multistakeholder governance. In addition, it also ensured that its development is carried out by the community, with its technical infrastructure outside the state powers of a nation-state.

This trust was also very well exposed in the Declaration of Principles of the World Summit on the Information Society, guaranteeing the central role of the technical community within Internet Governance, establishing the fundamental difference between the approach and the traditional multilateral model commonly used by international institutions. Here, following the sayings of Hannah Arendt, without trust in its members and institutions, a community can disappear from starvation.

However, trust is being put to the test. Global challenges, such as economic and social crises and the feeling of under-representation of some parties within the multistakeholder approach - and within the current ICANN structure - have questioned the effectiveness and legitimacy of the current model. It is necessary to recognize that there is a problem for us to find paths.

In this sense, one of the justifications that has been gaining increasing strength is the so-called digital sovereignty. There is no single notion of digital sovereignty, which makes some people reluctant to discuss how it directly affects ICANN. However, even without a more in-depth debate, it is essential to recognize that States and private entities are increasingly using it, directly affecting the Internet Mode of Connectivity and the open network structure of the Internet.

For example, the report “Navigating Digital Sovereignty and its Impacts on the Internet” emphasizes that centralization and excessive monitoring can compromise the resilience and reliability of the Internet. Additionally, policies that restrict and direct connectivity can limit the openness and global character of the network. In their words: “Policies to restrict and direct reachability on the network, including by interfering with DNS and routing decisions, limit the resources available to users to only those permitted by the government. There are indirect consequences; new operational requirements and increased compliance costs raise barriers for network operators and intermediaries, ultimately limiting the Internet’s ease of access.”

To address these challenges, the ICANN community must strengthen its collaborative and inclusive approach. This does not mean isolating or ignoring actors who advocate a different vision but rather integrating them into the dialogue and decision-making process.

The WSIS + 20, marking two decades since the World Summit on the Information Society, offers an opportunity to revisit and renew collective commitments to Internet Governance. Still, it also puts the multistakeholder approach to the test, as there is clear pressure from nation-states to migrate to the multilateral model. Therefore, it is necessary to act; the community needs to take the lead and respond to these attacks.

This does not mean these actors should be excluded from discussions and decision-making, but precisely the opposite. It is necessary that now more than ever, we strengthen collaboration and consensus processes, it is also necessary to give voice to actors who feel excluded since, by acting on the margins, these actors work unilaterally, which impacts the critical properties of the Internet.

Trust is built in these processes, in constructive dialogue and in the debate of proposals and actions. However, there needs to be more recognition of specific spaces as appropriate. In this sense, as I have already shown before, we see the Russian declaration, which advocates for a more multilateral model, but we also see the Chinese initiative of the World Internet Conference, in clear opposition to the Internet Governance Forum. This movement reflects a desire of certain actors to have a more dominant role in defining the future of the Internet, which could potentially threaten the openness and inclusiveness that the Internet has always promoted.

Reviving the NetMundial process could help to recapture its spirit of collaboration and inclusion. Such a revival could serve as a platform to reinforce the commitment of all stakeholders to an open and inclusive Internet and to address the concerns of those who feel marginalized or dissatisfied with current processes. Additionally, this renewed effort could also reaffirm the importance of the multistakeholder approach and, in turn, restore trust that is at risk.

Connecting the diverse actors of Internet governance is crucial for its future. With the landscape constantly changing and new challenges emerging regularly, all stakeholders must continue to dialogue and collaborate. Trust, once lost, is difficult to regain. Thus, it is imperative to act now to preserve and strengthen the Internet ecosystem.

In conclusion, we are at a critical juncture for Internet governance. The multi-stakeholder approach must be strengthened and adapted to new realities to ensure an open, inclusive, and global Internet for all.

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

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