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From Connectivity to Sustainability: The Role of Internet Governance in Realizing the SDGs

In the digital era’s transformative landscape, the intersection of Internet Governance and Sustainable Development emerges as a focal point for global discourse. It is widely recognized that the Internet, in its vast potential, holds the key to unlocking solutions for many of the challenges we face. However, this potential could be significantly underutilized, or worse, lead to adverse effects without a robust governance framework. Such a framework must not only navigate but actively direct the digital landscape towards a future marked by sustainability, equity, and inclusivity. As the Agenda 2030 deadline accelerates towards us with alarming velocity, and with the pace of progress on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) distressingly slow, the scrutinizing lens on internet governance has intensified. The question at hand is whether it will serve as a catalyst or a hindrance to these global ambitions.

The urgency of harmonizing Internet Governance with sustainable development was spotlighted at the Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)79 Community Forum in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in March 2024. A pivotal At-Large Advisory Committee (ALAC) plenary titled “Internet Governance for SDGs” alongside the preparatory roundtable by the European Regional At-Large Organization (EURALO), unveiled a profound discourse on this theme. Moderated by Pari Esfandiari, these platforms illuminated the intertwined fate of internet governance and the SDGs. Yet, amidst the constructive dialogues, a contentious undercurrent emerged: Is the current trajectory of internet governance adequately aligned to catalyze the SDGs, or are we at a crossroads, necessitating a radical overhaul?

During the EURALO roundtable, the discourse sharply turned to ICANN, as a quintessential institution in Internet governance where policies wield substantial influence in achieving SDGs. The ensuing dialogue among the panelist from the ICANN stakeholders community, dissected their constituencies’ approaches to sustainability, revealing a landscape rife with divergent strategies and shared concerns. Maarten Botterman from the ICANN board emphasized ICANN’s pivotal role in ensuring a stable and secure internet infrastructure, alongside initiatives such as Internationalized Domain Names (IDN) and DNS security enhancements. Pierre Bonis from AFNIC (the French registry for .fr domain names), highlighted strategic efforts towards carbon footprint reduction and the imperative of green supplier selections, suggesting ICANN could pioneer in advocating for eco-friendly internet technologies. Philippe Fouquart, former chair of ICANN’s Generic Name Supporting Group (GNSO) Council, emphasized the selective relevance of SDGs to the sector and advocated for a pragmatic approach towards their realization, suggesting an initial environmental impact evaluation by ICANN. Vesna Manojlovic, from Regional Internet Registry for Europe, Middle East and Central Asia (RIPE NCC), shared the organization’s dialogue on sustainability and initiatives for greener meetings, including local hubs to enhance inclusivity and lower carbon emissions.

A critical divergence amongst the roundtable panelists emerged when discussing strategies to mitigate ICANN’s ecological footprint. Botterman’s discourse on operational efficiencies and various meeting models, including regional hubs and hybrid meetings contrasted with Bonis’s argument for prioritizing the reduction of the internet industry’s carbon footprint. Fouquart’s advocacy for shifting focus from procedural to substantive efforts further compounds this debate. Esfandiari, highlighting the broader impact of internet governance and technology on achieving sustainable outcomes, called for a holistic approach, and warned against undermining the multistakeholder (MSH) model of governance.

The argumentative pivot becomes even more pronounced as the discussion transitions to the ICANN79 plenary panel, focusing on the broader internet governance context. The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)2003 is underscored as a seminal moment in internet governance history. Ambassador David Gross delved into the geopolitical complexities that once loomed over the WSIS’s goals, highlighting the defense of ICANN’s independence, and the establishment of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) as a multistakeholder (MSH) model as the key victories achieved in WSIS2005. The narrative underscores the essential role of diverse stakeholder engagement in shaping internet governance. With the shadow of the geopolitical landscape looming large and threatening the MSH model, the urgency for dialogue, collaboration, and a shared commitment to addressing the digital divide, especially for voices from the global south, becomes a rallying cry. The critical role of internet governance community was underlined with Botterman highlighting ICANN’s initiatives like the Coalition for Digital Africa aimed at promoting digital inclusivity and Chengetai Masango, the head of the United Nations Secretariat for the Internet Governance Forum (UNIGF), pointing out to Internet Governance Forum (IGF) initiatives on fostering global awareness and engagement through its growing local networks, especially in global south.

The prospect of technology’s future is viewed with considerable optimism for its ability to catalyze transformative change. Ana Cristina Amoroso das Neves, serving as the Chair of the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (UNCSTD), extends this optimism by highlighting the MSH model’s critical role in adeptly navigating the uncertainties introduced by burgeoning technologies. She champions a governance structure that is inclusive, adaptable, and conducive to fostering worldwide digital collaboration. This sentiment is echoed by Jorge Cancio of the Swiss Federal Office of Communications (OFCOM), who stressed the importance of ensuring inclusivity within the model, particularly in amplifying voices from the global south. WSIS gatherings are emphasized as pivotal in narrowing the digital divide. Elizabeth Oluoch of the ICANN organization notes the challenges non-governmental entities face in engaging effectively in multilateral processes such as the Global Digital Compact (GDC) and the WSIS+20 Review. Nigel Hickson, from the UK’s Department of Science, Innovation, and Technology (DSIT) underscores the evolving necessity for internet governance institutions and the issues they confront. Amidst this dialogue, there’s a growing consensus on the need for a unified approach that seamlessly integrates the action lines of the WSIS and SDGs. This calls for a comprehensive strategy that bridges the gap between these parallel processes.

The essence of the argument, as articulated by panelists, lies in the urgency for a revised approach that not only preserves but also amplifies the multistakeholder model’s efficacy. The WSIS+20 Review, set for 2025, is highlighted as a defining moment, and events leading to it as presenting golden opportunities to engage and shape the conversation. WSIS+20 Review is potentially informed by the Global Digital Compact (GDC), which aims to codify shared principles for an open, free, and secure digital future for all. This compact, slated for adoption at the 2024 Summit of the Future, will significantly inform the WSIS+20 Review and IGF+20 consultations, and will contribute to the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda’s review. Other events playing instrumental roles in shaping the dialogue are Net Mundial+10 and the WSIS+20 Forum, also known as the WSIS+20 Forum High-Level Event.

In conclusion, the Internet governance community is at a crossroads, faced with the decision to mobilize for decisive action or remain ensnared in procedural inertia. A human-centric digital future, aligned with the imperatives of sustainable development, demands a concerted, collaborative approach to harness the internet’s full potential in service of humanity’s most pressing goals. The actions and decisions of today’s internet governance leaders will indelibly shape the sustainable development landscape for decades to come, underscoring the imperative of maintaining the Multistakeholder model amidst the challenges ahead.

By Pari Esfandiari, President at Global TechnoPolitics Forum

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