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Internet Governance and End-User Engagement

As the digital landscape continues to evolve at an accelerated pace, the role of end-user participation in Internet governance has never been more crucial. With the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) +20 Review on the horizon, it’s time to critically evaluate the progress made and the vast terrains yet to be charted. This topic was recently discussed at the EURALO round table moderated by Pari Esfandiari with panelists Sandra Hoferichter, Olivier Crépin-Leblond, and Lucien Castex, delving into the intricacies of fostering a user-centric, inclusive, and development-oriented information society since the inaugural WSIS meetings in 2003 and 2005. As we approach the 2025 review, the effectiveness of this model in integrating end-users—the very core of the internet’s ecosystem—into the governance framework is under scrutiny. The early ethos of internet governance was marked by a collaborative spirit and community-based approaches. However, today’s digital complexities necessitate more robust frameworks.

During the round table, Pari Esfandiari highlighted the journey from informal governance to today’s complex landscape, underscoring the ongoing relevance of multi-stakeholder processes as an innovative governance model. Sandra Hoferichter argued for enhancing user engagement through effective representatives and refining existing platforms. Olivier Crépin-Leblond called for bridging the digital divide and enhancing digital literacy, highlighting the role of experts in translating governance complexities for the broader public and policymakers. Lucien Castex shared insights on practical ways to enhance meaningful user participation. From the audience, Frederic Taes raised concerns about upcoming elections in Europe, noting some politicians’ shallow understanding of the internet and their tendency towards heavy-handed regulation that could undermine the multi-stakeholder model. Roberto Gaetano used his experience from Net Mundial to discuss the challenges of ensuring balanced stakeholder representation.

As the digital divide persists, especially in developing regions, WSIS+20 Review provides a critical opportunity to reassess how inclusive our Internet governance efforts have been. Are we merely expanding connectivity, or are we ensuring that digital empowerment is accessible to all? This involves not only bringing more people online but also equipping them with the tools and knowledge to participate effectively in governance processes.

Looking back at the achievements and shortcomings since the last WSIS Review in 2015, it becomes clear that while we have made strides in creating frameworks and dialogues, the end user’s voice is still not as prominent as it should be in shaping the Internet’s future. The upcoming WSIS+20 Review must not only be a time of reflection but also a stage for renewing commitments to an Internet that is truly governed by those who use it. It is also time to redefine what meaningful participation means in the context of Internet governance. Ensuring every discussion, every forum, and every policy decision resonates with the needs and aspirations of the global community of Internet users. This is not just about preparing for a review; it’s about setting the stage for a future where digital technologies are leveraged for the betterment of all, not just a privileged few.

The upcoming events collectively will shape the discussion at the WSIS+20 Review, offering the stakeholders and end-user representatives the opportunity to present their assessments of past actions, discuss current challenges, and propose new solutions. Net Mundial, which is focused on the evolution of Internet governance principles, will offer insights into challenges in maintaining the Internet as a globally connected, open, and resilient resource despite geopolitical tensions and rapid innovations. The WSIS High-Level Forum and the Summit of the Future that includes the Global Digital Compact (GDC), will likely focus on integrating digital strategies with sustainable development goals, thus influencing how Internet governance aligns with broader global agenda like the UN’s Agenda 2030. It is critical to ensure that these events incorporate a broad range of perspectives, particularly from end-user representatives.

As we move towards WSIS+20, let us redefine what meaningful participation means in the context of Internet governance. It’s about making every discussion, every forum, and every policy decision resonate with the needs and aspirations of the global community of Internet users. This is not just about preparing for a review; it’s about setting the stage for a future where digital technologies are leveraged for the betterment of all, not just a privileged few.

The discussions and outcomes of WSIS+20 Review will have a profound impact on the future trajectory of global Internet governance. Let’s ensure that this path is carved with the voices of the end users echoing at its core, guiding it towards a more inclusive, equitable, and user-focused Internet.

By Pari Esfandiari, President at Global TechnoPolitics Forum

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