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Digital Governance Discussion Group (DGDG): One World, One Internet, Many Voices

On February 12–13, 2024, the first round of the final consultations for a Global Digital Compact (GDC) took place online and offline at the UN Headquarters in New York City. Around 50 governments and 50 speakers from non-governmental institutions took the floor. It was not really a dialog; it was a formal presentation of three-minute statements. A second round of intergovernmental and multistakeholder consultations will follow on February 29 and March 1, 2024. Written contributions can be sent to the UN secretariat until Mach 10, 2024. A Zero Draft of the GDC will be available in early April 2024. The draft will be negotiated by governments only in three rounds until June 2024. The plan is to adopt the GDC in the form of an Annex to the “Pact for the Future” at the forthcoming “UN Summit on the Future” scheduled for September 22–23, 2024 in New York.

The GDC is expected to outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all. The UN Secretary General’s “Common Agenda” , which proposed the GDC, suggests issues that it might cover, including 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.

From the Dotcom-Boom in the 1990s to the AI Debate in the 2020s

The digital future has been the subject of discussion for more than three decades. It started in the 1990s with the Dotcom-Boom, culminated in the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) from 2002 to 2005 and continued in numerous WSIS follow Ups, UNCSTD Working Groups, Global Commissions, UN High-Level Panels and, in particular in the annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF), a great marketplace for the exchange of ideas and information which brings together every year thousands of experts from all stakeholder groups around the globe.

All these meetings have produced numerous reports, recommendations, resolutions and declarations which reaffirmed basic principles, as laid down in the “WSIS Geneva Declaration of Principles” (2003) or outlined plans for the future as in the “Roadmap on Digtal Cooperation” (2020). With new emerging technologies such as IoT, AI, and Quantum, the discussion will not end and will keep the global multistakeholder community busy beyond 2030.

The issues under discussion are complex. New technologies have political, economic, and social implications. And in the digital age, new political problems have a technological component. As the “UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation” has stated in its Final Report in 2019, we live in the “Age of Digital Interdependence.” Everything is connected with everything. It needs a holistic approach and the involvement of all stakeholders to find sustainable solutions.

The GDC and the forthcoming WSIS+20 Review Conference can make a constructive contribution to enhancing digital cooperation, deepening our understanding of the digital future, and updating and adjusting existing programs, action lines, and mechanisms. The UN describes both processes as primarily intergovernmental processes with multistakeholder participation. The problem is that even 20 years after the beginning of WSIS, which finally introduced the principle of multistakehoderism in international digital policymaking, it is unclear how the interaction among state and non-state actors is organized in practice. Consultations are good, but consultations are not “shared policy developments and decision-making procedures,” as envisaged in the Tunis Agenda for the governance of the Internet. The open question both for the GDC and WSIS+20 is how stakeholder input will lead to real impact. Non-state actors are excluded from the final intergovernmental GDC negotiations. And there are no plans to open the GDC Zero Draft for public comments.

DGDG as an Evolving Open e-Book

Against this background, a group of engaged academics and civil society activists came up with the idea of producing independent input into both the GDC and the WSIS+20 processes. The plan is that an open “Digital Governance Discussion Group” (DGDG) will invite recognized experts from all stakeholder groups to write analytical articles on issues relevant to both the GDC and WSIS+20 and comment on progress and problems of the intergovernmental negotiations processes.

The core group of the DGDG will function like an “Editorial Team” for something that could be seen as an evolving open e-book. The plan is to have 20+ articles until September 2024 and 40+ articles until December 2025. At the end of 2025, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) will decide on a WSIS+20 Resolution and the future of the IGF. This DGDG input is designed to be a serious source of inspiration for the GDC and WSIS negotiators. The editorial team is composed of recognized academic experts and civil society activists such as Amrita Choudhury (India), Anriette Esterhuysen (South Africa), Bruna Martins dos Santos (Brazil), Peixi Xu (China), William J. Drake (USA) and myself from Germany/EU.

The papers will be published on the DGDG Website under https://dgdg.blog/. The first paper was published on February 9, 2024. It is written by Anriette Esterhuysen under the tile “The Global Digital Compact we Want”. Everybody who wants to make a serious contribution can send her or his article to [email protected]. In the coming weeks, the editorial team will reach out to experts from all stakeholder groups, including governmental and parliamentarian experts, and invite them to contribute.

Below is my statement from the February 13, 2024, GDC consultations.

GDC Consultations Statement

Mr. Chairman, in yesterday’s governmental statements, I recognized a growing consensus around three main issues: First, a GDC has to contribute to the SDGs; Second, a GDC has to support the multistakeholder approach; and Third, a GDC has to strengthen the IGF. A majority of governments wanted to avoid duplication and to make use of existing frameworks and mechanisms, as WSIS and the IGF. This should be supported by non-governmental stakeholders.

A GDC should reaffirm the Geneva Declaration and the Tunis Agenda, identify needed adjustments and bring WSIS and SDGs closer together. Until 2030 SDGs and WSIS could be combined under one umbrella as “Comprehensive Development Goals (CDGs)”. The world beyond 2030 will be a digital world, and it would make no sense to have two parallel processes.

The use of existing language makes sense also with regard to the governance of the digital space. In 2003, the WGIG got a mandate to define “Internet Governance”. I was a WGIG member, and I remember endless discussions about a “narrow” and a “broad definition,” which included not only technical but also emerging political issues. The Tunis Agenda adopted the broad definition. The essence of that definition is that governance in the digital space needs the involvement of all stakeholders, and related processes have to be open, inclusive, transparent, bottom-up and human-centric.

Since 2005, new issues emerged. Now we discuss data governance, AI governance, ICT governance, IOT governance, digital governance, cyber governance etc. Some propose to use the existing definition only for the technical aspects and to reinvent the wheel for new issues such as cybersecurity, AI, and platform regulation.

This makes no sense. The broad Tunis definition is also relevant for AI, cybersecurity, data, IOT, and other emerging Internet-related issues. To ignore its essence will be counterproductive. It will be impossible to find sustainable policy solutions without non-governmental stakeholders. And policies will fail if they are done behind closed doors, exclusivity, and top-down.

Certainly, there are specifics that have to be recognized. And it needs fine-tuning. But at the end of the day, it is the governance of the whole digital sphere that has to be multistakeholder, open, transparent, inclusive, bottom-up and human-centric. What we need is more innovation in digital policymaking.

Finally it would be good if the GDC would pick the IGF as its landing place. The IGF is the best multistakeholder platform we have. The GDC could invite the IGF, together with the UNCSTD, to prepare an annual report on “The State of Digital Cooperation.” Such a report could document progress, identify weaknesses, and recommend concrete steps on how to move forward.

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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