Internet Governance Is At A Crossroads

Justin Hendrix / Jun 23, 2024

Audio of this conversation is available via your favorite podcast service.

In this episode, we explore a topic that sits at the heart of global digital policy: the contrasting visions of internet governance championed by the United States and its Western allies versus those promoted by China and nations in its orbit. This debate is playing out across various international venues and has profound implications for the future of digital rights, privacy, and the open internet.

I'm joined by experts at the Atlantic Council that study these issues from a variety of angles and across multiple geographies, including:

  • Rose Jackson, the director of the Democracy + Tech Initiative within the Atlantic Council Technology Programs;
  • Konstantinos Komaitis, senior resident fellow, Internet Governance lead, Democracy & Tech Initiative, Atlantic Council;
  • Kenton Thibaut, a senior resident China fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab; and
  • Iria Puyosa, a senior research fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion.

Justin Hendrix:

We're going to talk about what's going on in the field of internet governance, but I'm going to start by just maybe asking you, Konstantinos, step back up on the moon, look down at the planet over these last couple of three decades, what's been going on with regard to internet governance? How have we organized ourselves as a species around trying to govern this wild thing that probably is difficult to understand it in its entirety?

Konstantinos Komaitis:

The interesting thing about this question is the fact that depending on who you talk to, you will get different answers on when things started. So if you talk to governments, they will tell you that internet governance really started around about the beginning of 2000 with the World Summit on Information Society. Even though there was always chatter within the IT use plenipotentiary meetings about this new thing that was the internet.

But in reality, the idea of internet governance or better yet because this term also has turned to become a little bit problematic, the idea of people coming together to figure out how to manage some of those technical bits of the internet that an average user doesn't know they even exist or should know that we exist for that matter. Has been happening ever since the internet started getting out gradually of the US control, and being given to researchers and academic institutions and then later of course it was commercialized.

So we would say that internet governance, especially from the engineers, can be traced back to 1960s, 1970s and it was all about coming together, trying to figure out what the next step was in this idea of internet networking. So when we talk about the internet, I think I should start with that, we really need to be very specific. And even though it is an ecosystem that includes the cables and the architecture and then you move upwards and you have the applications, the World Wide Web and you have the Facebooks, all these are part of the ecosystem of the internet.

But really the internet is a technical tool with a very specific infrastructure. And in order to maintain this specific infrastructure, which is decentralized and it doesn't have any center of control, you have different institutions. So you will have the standards bodies like the Internet Engineering Task Force that create bottom-up, consensus based, market-driven standards. Then you have organizations like the Regional Internet Registries, which effectively they just assign addresses to the various regions and they are five spread across the world.

Then you have the organization, an organization like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which is responsible for the management of the domain name system. Domain names are those www.coca-cola.com. And then in the periphery you have other institutions and communities that support the work that all these organizations are doing. And all these people come together in a multi-stakeholder fashion or in a collaborative way in order to identify what the policies should be, what the rules should be, what is missing, what needs to be done in order for the internet to grow and continue to evolve.

Rose Jackson:

Konstantinos, one of the things that's been so fascinating to learn about from you was the degree to which when the first kind of beginnings of the internet governance conversation started that it seemed like it was all about domain names and registries, which was something that I certainly just allowed to happen in the background and not really focused on. But it feels like now that we're having conversations, so much of it does go back to that as a focal point. So I'm curious if you can talk a little bit about why that was such an important piece of a puzzle to launch a discussion on how you govern all of those different pieces that you just talked about.

Konstantinos Komaitis:

Domain names were at the front of the conversations during the 1999 plenipotentiary meeting in Minneapolis, and then they spread through to the World Summit on Information Society, two phases in 2003 in Geneva, and then in 2005 in Tunis. Simply because the US government at the time had just created the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which effectively was telling that the domain name system needs to become privatized, right? So yeah, it created this non-governmental body that was located in the United States, but it was really premised on the idea of bottom-up coordination and community-driven policy.

However, at the time, it kept this oversight role over ICANN, making sure that the community was actually able to deliver this model of privatization. And in 2000 that of course hit a nerve with a lot of countries that were experiencing the internet and everybody was telling them, "No, no, no. This is a global medium." Yet again, they were seeing the United States holding some sort of a democracy sword at the time over icon and the domain name system. So in 2014, and that was actually the original promise was that the US government at some point would be giving up this really important resource to the global community.

So in 2014, the United States government called for this, very now infamous IANA Transition. And right now the only thing that ICANN has in connection with the US government is the fact that it is located in California. However, for a lot of the emerging economies as well as countries in the Global South, that the domain names still constitute this very important resource that they need to have as well as IP addresses, they believe that, "They belong to me, so I want to be able and control them," in a way.

Rose Jackson:

There's so many different things to track when you start walking into the internet governance space, a lot of acronyms, a lot of new terms. It feels like the UN's involved in some ways and not in other ways. You just talked about the legacy of the US government itself unilaterally making decisions about what it would and would not control in the space. You used the term multi-stakeholder quite a bit. What is it that we should be paying attention to? And if you've talked about some of the standards bodies, what matters right now? What would the architecture be that you would describe as the internet governance sphere?

Konstantinos Komaitis:

I would say that things are changing, and there are multiple factors that things are changing and there's a shift to the way people are talking and even thinking about internet governance. The important thing about the World Summits of Information Society for the internet was two things. A, it gave the definition of internet governance and even though it never used the word multi-stakeholder it talked about this idea of people coming together from different backgrounds and collaborate.

And the second thing is that it gave birth to the IGF, the Internet Governance Forum. And interestingly enough, the Internet Governance Forum was a compromise solution between the United States and Europe that wanted this inclusivity and countries in the Global Majority that they wanted the UN to have a more prominent role. And for a long time, the definition and the IGF and this idea of the multi-stakeholder governance has really been strong in keeping the internet under this structure.

However, if we are to have a turning point, it would be the Snowden revelations. It was at that point where people and many governments, both democratic and not, started questioning whether this multi-stakeholder model is really appropriate, whether they need to have an increased role. And over the years, and of course, especially after 2016 with everything that's been happening, with election interference, disinformation and all the harms that are popping up in the internet right now, there is a clear message coming from them that, "We are going, not only to regulate." But for some governments they actually want to be very much involved in the way the architecture of the internet works, the way traffic goes around the internet and the way data moves from point A to point B.

Justin Hendrix:

You've mentioned that there was this compromise that was trying to balance Western and, or US interests with interests of other parts of the world, Global South, Global Majority, the UN was involved in the conversation. And now it seems like the UN's trying to reassert itself. What's the UN up to here and why are you concerned about it?

Konstantinos Komaitis:

Thanks for this question. It's a really interesting thing what is happening right now. First of all, next year I need to say that the World Summit of Information Society is going to be reviewed. It's 20 years and we knew that this was coming, so there was already, if you want a process that would be discussing many of those things. However, the Secretary General and after member states put a lot of pressure on how the UN needs to be more effective. And on this idea that multilateralism needs to be reformed, started a process called the PAC for the Future, which is happening in September. And identified a series of global challenges that he's hoping will bring member states together and collaborate, and digital and the internet is one of those things.

But it was a huge risk frankly, because the world in 2024 doesn't really want to collaborate and countries have really demonstrated that. So effectively what has happened is that this process opened Pandora's box, it created a renewed interest, and right now we see a big group of countries, mainly the G77 and the China group coming with proposals that at all those things that we, for the past 20 years, we were pushing back, we were taking for granted all of those things. And we see words state control, we see words like sovereignty, we see words like top-down, we see words like the UN needing to have a more prominent role in the management of domain name system and other critical internet resources.

We have started a conversation much sooner than most of the internet community expected because as I said, we were preparing for next year. And this conversation is going in so many different ways that it's really unpredictable where it will land frankly.

Justin Hendrix:

Okay. So we've got the UN reasserting itself, and then within the UN there are various actors and parties and powers that are vying for more input and more control over internet governance broadly. What countries are playing the biggest role? You've just mentioned China, but also I suppose Russia, Iran, others may be trying to influence this conversation. What are they proposing and how do you see them vying for position?

Konstantinos Komaitis:

First of all, we are seeing that the G77 Group in China are coordinated. Apparently throughout these GDC negotiations which are happening as we speak, they have been locking themselves in rooms in New York and they have been trying to coordinate and actually when they come out of it, they have a common position. And 78 countries coming together with a common position is not a small thing. So this is the first thing. The second thing is you've mentioned Russia, yes, Russia is going nuclear at this stage. Apparently in one of the interventions they did mention that internal governance is the most important thing that they need to spend on, and they are asking constantly for more time, even though they're supportive of the G77.

Of course, the United States and the WEOG Group as they call it, which is the Western Europe and France, they push back. But currently the positions are so far to two opposing ends that it will be interesting to see how they will be able to compromise considering that the process is meant to end... the GDC negotiations are meant to end on July 4th. The last thing I want to say, and really, Kenton should talk about China is that the additional player here, which we didn't have in the previous cases, if you want... more or less, we know where countries are going to go. But here also we have the office of the Secretary General and the Tech Envoy that they're participating in this process, they are facilitating this process and we know that one of the aims is to centralize many of those functions that we have been talking about within the UN.

And that adds another complexity and that adds another problem within all these conversations that are currently happening. Not to mention that of course they're happening in New York, which is very political and not in Geneva, which is where the expertise lies.

Rose Jackson:

Can I ask a quick clarifying question because, Konstantinos, before I walked into this process, I didn't know this. When you say Geneva's where the expertise lies? Is it just that there are more diplomats, there are technical experts, the difference between a negotiation in New York on internet issues versus processes and conversations in Geneva?

Konstantinos Komaitis:

Here in Geneva, where I am currently right now, there are the UN institutions. You have the International Telecommunications Union, you have UNICEF down the road, in Paris you have UNESCO, and all these institutions have been involved in the World Summit of Information Society. Diplomats often say that Geneva is where the food is cooked and New York is where it's served, and there is a reason for that because this is really where a lot of the diplomats come and they have the expertise specific issues because they need to follow various files in the different UN institutions.

Justin Hendrix:

Kenton, that's where we'll come to you and perhaps you can explain to us China's role in this discussion and what it's trying to accomplish.

Kenton Thibaut:

So China sees the GDC and the platform it represents as really an opportunity to push forward a number of strategic priorities and objectives in terms of internet governance, digital governance that it's been waiting for a while. This gets to Konstantinos's earlier comments about the past multi-stakeholder internet governance model. China's really been trying to push for a more multilateral approach, very much focused on government to government. And this is because China sees the multi-stakeholder model in general as the house that Western countries built that it has to operate in and one that kind of by design and by its structure disadvantages it in the international system.

So a lot of these kind of digital sovereignty debates actually started... its origin started with China in the 1990s and then later in the mid to late 2000s, where China felt like it was left out of a lot of the decision making that resulted in some structural disadvantages. There's lots of writings about how missed the boat on 3G, for example, and really influencing the standards for 3G, the rollout of 3G. And it also sees these discussions that were happening in the 1990s and mid-2000s and late 2000s around the internet and inherently democratizing force.

And so this really created a kind of urgency in China to have a sovereign internet or a very much internally controlled internet. One that was free from Western influence, one that could, in terms of content, in terms of hardware, et cetera, et cetera, could be completely controlled by the government and kept what is described as clean, a clean internet. And over the years it started to really try to push a number of governance initiatives that really pushes forward this idea of countries should have sovereign control over their internet.

And basically what that means in practical terms is that governance of the internet should be negotiated on a multilateral basis by governments and sidelining the communities that have been involved in this process for however long, because they see this as being controlled by Western interests. This is related to how China engages diplomatically across the world. So it really sees this as an opportunity to link domestic internet priorities with international development priorities as well as international governance priorities. So China's really pushing an agenda of promoting connectivity abroad through its Digital Silk Road initiative as part of what it calls this Community of Shared Future in Cyberspace.

And so it engages with other countries largely in the Global Majority... Global Majority countries, to really put forward these ideas of, "We can provide you with infrastructure. Here's the know-how to go with operating this infrastructure." And in doing that, coalition builds and gets countries on board with its priorities to promote its norms in platforms like the GDC. So along with these norms that it's been trying to promote are things like, as I mentioned, each government should have control over its own cyberspace. Inherent to that is this idea of a clean internet, which has troubling connotations of content control. Along with that are discussions of cybersecurity and a lot of times discussions of cybersecurity and a secure internet get lumped in with this kind of content control baked within China's pitch, a normative pitch in the GDC and among countries is this idea of a more controlled internet that is determined completely by government priorities.

And countries when they sign onto this or when they buy into this, it's not that all of them are seeking to have authoritarian control over the internet, cyber sovereignty, this notion that China pushes really gets to a lot of these real concerns about inclusivity, access, needing to connect your population to the internet in a real desire to deliver public goods. But baked within it are these really problematic entry points into a more China model of controlling the internet, which comes with it a host of potential negative impacts. And to have that be at an international scale is where the concern comes from.

Rose Jackson:

Just a quick question for Kenton on what you were just describing. Konstantinos spoke about in the GDC that China and had been coordinating with a lot of other countries about its negotiating strategy. And you just referenced a fair amount of language and framing and trying to shape a discourse from the perspective of both its domestic policy and its international engagement. I'm curious if you've seen elements of that strategy showing up in its negotiations in the GDC, whether in terms of specific language that you're seeing pop up in submissions or particular framing that's been resonant in this process.

Kenton Thibaut:

Seeing the most recent drafts of the submissions from the G77 plus China, it's very much just almost copy and paste language from China's public official statements on how they approach governance of cyberspace. And one thing about understanding China's approach here is it's not really difficult, you don't need to read the tea leaves. They're very active in putting forward the theoretical philosophical foundations for why they approach cyberspace in a certain way. In this text called Jointly Build a Community with Shared Future in Cyberspace, which is their pitch on why internet governance should be state-centric, government-centric. They really emphasize the need for sovereignty, for a secure internet.

And so, literally you see the principles laid out, there's five principles for Building a Shared Future in Cyberspace. And one of them is using this language like, "Secure, development as the basis for human rights." So there's these key phrases that have been part of the Chinese official vernacular in talking about cyberspace that you see just appearing over and over again in the documents from the G77 and China submissions. So this heavy emphasis on inclusivity, security, which security connotes, you're thinking cybersecurity, but actually cybersecurity means having a clean pure internet free from certain influences.

So those words, there are really the way to know that these are actually hooks from GDC language into China's internal documents talking about how to govern cyberspace. So that's where you see those links very clearly illustrated. And of course we know from talking to other folks behind the scenes, China's very active in having these coordination meetings and really pushing forward this language. For example, if you see in different documents that they sign on agreements for Digital Silk Road, different meetings that they have on digital issues in countries all along the Global South or in the Digital Silk Road. Language in these agreement documents that mirror the language in China's documents are internal documents about how to govern cyberspace.

They'll say, "Senegal and China and jointly pursuing this project to build a data center. Senegal supports the idea of digital sovereignty and the idea of each country having a right to determine the architecture of the internet in its own country." So just things like that, you see these threads. In a very intentional way China's diplomatic strategy, development strategy, coalition building strategy filters up into the GDC and is very much informed and fed by its domestic priorities and domestic approach to the internet.

Justin Hendrix:

So not to oversimplify, but it seems like we've got this sort of East versus West dynamic. We've got this China, Russia, GDC, UN approach that's formulating over here. We've got the US, European, perhaps other democracies approach that has essentially been in the prime position for the last few decades. What about other parts of the world, Latin America, Africa, how do they fit in here? And maybe, Iria, this is a place to bring you in.

Iria Puyosa:

In the case of Latin America, this conversation about the Global Digital Compact, the US's process is related with a most large issue of sovereignty. The idea of cyber sovereignty have been part of the conversation in most Latin American countries at least since 2010. And it goes on the idea of the internet as a space of circulation of political information, is goes as the importance of freedom expression in the internet and how that affects governments. So that is very political for Latin American countries.

It's more a political conversation is related with larger conversations coming during the last 25 years about the importance of sovereignty for national security, the importance of national jurisdiction over resources and the importance of no intervention in national legislations. So in that regard, the positions of Latin American countries form part of the G77 in the Global Digital Compact make completely sense from the political leanings of those countries over quarter of century. So it's nothing new and is current with all the political development which is not specific of the internet.

In the case of Africa, it's slightly different. For Latin America this is a more political discussion, more related with national jurisdiction. With national security. For Africa is more related with global development with the Sustainable Development Goals, and the idea of developing capacities with the idea of the needs of infrastructure. So they come to the idea of cyber sovereignty from different venues, from different ways. But they share a general understanding of this importance of state sovereignty over internet as well as other resources over other considerations as human rights or other the principles who have been part of the discussion in other space.

So they're coming together from different point of view and share a larger part or large in political. When Konstantinos says Geneva is the place for technical discussions and New York is the place for political discussions, it makes sense for Latin America to be in New York because for these countries it's political, it's not a technical discussion. Technical is completely secondary, sort of came after politics. For Africa, United Nation's involvement is important because for them internet is all about Sustainable Development Goals. It's all about building infrastructure. It's all about connecting more people, giving access to more people. So coming from different viewpoints, they cannot agree in the same overall umbrella or sovereignty.

Justin Hendrix:

And can you speak to NETmundial and the meeting that just occurred there in Brazil, were some of these themes present in the discussions that went on there?

Iria Puyosa:

Yes, of course. NETmundial was an event of reformation of the multi-stakeholder model. And this is an interesting part when we talk about countries, we are talking more about states and governments. But NETmundial was a lot about civil society. One thing is clear in both Latin America and Africa is they don't actually have the same positions. So a civil society Latin America and government in Latin America, a civil society organization in Africa and a government in Africa rarely see the situation in the same way. And that shows in these conversations. And that's why most of civil society organization in these regions will be up for the multi-stakeholder model. And that is showing in the NETmundial while the states are more into the multilateral control of United Nations control.

And this is a big difference between when we talk about regions, those regions are monolithic. So governments had one view and civil society had a different view. And in end it was the view of civil society, but came out as the dominant view because government were as involvement in that discussion as civil society was. So it made difference while we talked to different actors, different stakeholders in a specific country.

Rose Jackson:

Iria, I'm curious if you can speak to, there was a lot of discussion obviously over the last five to 10 years of this idea of the US versus China approach to technology. And certainly plenty of G77 countries truly approached in that dichotomy, right? Either take Chinese technology and you're bad, don't take Chinese technology and you're good or vice versa. That's obviously not particularly focused on the interests and needs of the people on the ground.

I'm curious if you can speak to, as in the GDC, just what is the state of play for most of... Whether you're talking about the government or companies there, innovators, just the regular population, how are they viewing a conversation on the internet today? What is it that the vast majority of these countries are actually looking at as things that they care about and prioritize?

Iria Puyosa:

Yeah, when the conversation is framing around China interest, United States interest, that really backfire in most of these countries. Particularly in Africa, is very contentious to talk about this in these geopolitical terrors. What I observed in most of these countries is both governments, corporations and even civil society seek more about who delivers, what is the benefit of the investments, resources, trainings, service? Most of the time China delivers well. You can't say the same about Europe or United States who tend to be less able to accommodate to the needs of these countries.

And that is something at play very strongly in the conversation in most of the country. Particularly in Africa which the concerns about building infrastructure is central is key for anything industry use. What the conversation is framing about, "China's authoritarian country, United States a democratic country, you should be aligned with a democratic country." That just doesn't make sense in terms of the needs for investment, the need for good services, the need for an infrastructure work, for the development or the service that the population need in any of those countries. It's never going to be a persuading argument for anybody in any place outside Europe.

Konstantinos Komaitis:

Kenton, one of the things that you have said, and really it has hit me, is this idea that China's foreign policy and digital policy are one and the same thing. Which means that in terms of any other country in the world, China perhaps has the most to win and the most to lose in any of these processes. I don't think that, because the way China least behaves in the UN, even diplomats do not get that because they don't see them behaving in any aggressive way. They do it via the G77.

Kenton Thibaut:

So I'll just highlight an illustration of the connectivity, pun intended, between this nebulous GDC involvement and China's foreign policy priorities. So I mentioned earlier about the Digital Silk Road. So the Digital Silk Road Development Forum was held April 2024. It was held under the auspices of China's World Internet Conference. And so this since 2014 has been the platform in China where China convenes different countries largely along the Digital Silk Road to come to China and to socialize an agenda for the internet. Last year, this is where China introduced its idea of cyber sovereignty as really being its sort of approach to internet governance and really socialize that among the attendees.

So the World Internet Conference is hosting the Digital Silk Road development. Inherent to this development forum is this idea that you're inviting a bunch of countries, you're going to sell Chinese tech products that will help to foster connectivity. In the text that we mentioned earlier, the Building a Community with a Shared Future in Cyberspace, China's number one listed goal is expanding cooperation on the digital economy. And the number one under that is construction of information infrastructure. So they see the construction of information infrastructure through the Digital Silk Road as being inherently linked to this idea of constructing a shared future in cyberspace, which is linked to its norms that it's trying to promote in the GDC.

The World Internet Conference as well is headed by the Secretary General of the Cyberspace Affairs Commission in China, which is responsible for content regulation of the internet. So we see this link between domestic institutions. The domestic institution of the Cyberspace Affairs Commission, which has a very deep connection with the World Internet Conference, which is hosting the Digital Silk Road Development Forum, which is a public facing thing for China's development offerings to Global South countries, which is also part of its pitch to the GDC.

So in its involvement in the GDC China talks about the Digital Silk Road, it talks about its contributions to bridging digital divides and advancing sustainable development. And the Digital Silk Road is part of its value proposition when it talks about the Global Digital Compact and why it deserves to have this leading role in shaping the norms of the GDC. A great outcome for China out of this whole GDC process would be that digital sovereignty, internet sovereignty becomes the defacto way that we start to operate and think about the internet, get more countries on board, not necessarily seeking to totally get rid of the multi-stakeholder process. But if China's able to create more of a center of gravity around GDC, then there's less attention, less bandwidth, less resourcing that can go to these traditional four, where these things have been negotiated.

So taking a little bit of the resourcing, the power, the agenda setting ability of the multi-stakeholder model would be an optimal outcome for China and why it's pushing so hard on the GDC, it really sees it as an opportunity to shift the center of gravity.

Justin Hendrix:

Rose, I think that leads me back to you. You're at the Atlantic Council, you're working on the Democracy + Technology Initiative. If folks don't know the Atlantic Council, it's synonymous with Atlanticism, the North American, European connection and certainly the ethos of a Western version of democracy and its merits. You have a dog in this fight, what are you worried about with regard to the machinations we're seeing play out right now around internet governance and what do you hope will happen?

Rose Jackson:

I run something called the Democracy + Tech Initiative and the reason we built it was born out of the strong belief that increasingly every aspect of modern life runs through in some way digital tools. And because the internet is systemic, this is what's the double-edged sword. As Konstantinos started off describing, it was designed to be inherently interconnected. That you couldn't in one country say, "This is my internet and my rules and no information from the outside can come in. And I can limit what someone outside my country sees." That's core to the internet, that also sounds pretty close to basic open societies and concepts of democracy, free expression and the free flow of information.

But because it's that linked, however you make decisions about governing it has impact on everyone. And our core mission in our initiative is focusing on looking at the ways technology is funded, built and governed and understanding how that impacts the long-term viability of democracy and human rights. Because the reality is if we don't have this free, open, secure and interoperable digital space as the foundation for all of this new innovation, you want to talk about AI, any other technology, it's the foundation. Then I don't have faith that we can reliably depend on these basic universal rights that the UN itself was built on, that every UN country agreed on. That is essential to every good story we want to tell about the innovation of new technologies, about the brave action of human rights activists pushing for freedom in their countries, about creative artists collaborating and sharing information.

All of those amazing stories rely on those basic human rights. And if we allow a vision of the internet that is entirely controlled by states to move forward, none of that is possible. And what's so sinister to me about this is that the things that make the internet great, that there's this community of nerds constantly working in the background to keep the shared space operational, is so invisible to the world that uses it and relies on it. That we find ourselves in this situation where that, someone else recently referred to this as that miracle is pretty brittle. And states have a real moment and role to play because a country like China has decided in its interest that it wants to advance a state-centric approach.

Unfortunately, we have to rely right now on other states to walk into that conversation and say that approach is not in their interest or in the interest of civil society, industry and the rest of the world. That's not ideal, but that's where we are. And so why we're focused on this is there's one internet period and that one internet will impact every person in the world who relies on the ability to communicate, express themselves, organize, and just exercise their fundamental rights. And to me that's a good enough reason to be focused on something that previously seemed pretty confusing and in the background to me.

But we're lucky to have people like everyone you just heard from to help us make sense of it and connect it, and to do that in partnership with everyone that has a stake in this, which frankly is literally everyone. So I know it can be hard to follow, but encourage people to really pay attention, because I do think the stakes are really high. And as Konstantinos tells me on a weekly basis, people take the internet for granted. And taking that for granted could result in this really wonderful resource disappearing for too many people in the ways we need.

Justin Hendrix:

You've already alluded to the fact that a lot of folks outside of Europe and the US regard the multi-stakeholder approach as just a sort of wolf in sheep's clothing for American power or for Western interests generally. But is there also, I don't know, some culpability amongst Western tech firms for creating the impression that the internet is ungovernable in this current form, that it's too much of a mess, that it's created lots of harms, lots of challenges to social cohesion and other types of issues. Do we have ourselves to blame for creating this sort of political opening?

Konstantinos Komaitis:

The short answer is, yes. And what I mean by that is that we are... right now, it's like everything has come together and they have created the perfect storm, right? We have 20 years that the internet community and governments, the Western governments had to use the multi-stakeholder model to listen to the countries in Africa and in the Global South in general and address some of those development issues, and we haven't done a pretty good job. Everybody's telling that when it comes to the Sustainable Development Goals and the Development Agenda in 2030, we're not going to meet them. That is the first thing.

The second thing is that, as you've said, the past 10 years, the past decade, we have seen this unbelievable concentration in the technology market, perhaps experiencing levels of concentration that we have never ever experienced before. And allowing these markets to use the internet or better get the scalability of the internet to become these massive, very powerful entities that frankly, and many of these countries in the Global South, they don't even pick up the phone. When you speak to policymakers, they will literally tell you, "We are trying to communicate some of these big companies and they're not even picking up the phone." Because for these companies living in the market in Africa is actually relatively easy and the cost, however, is going to be so much greater than for them making the decision to leave. So the bargaining power has shifted completely.

At the same time I will push back a little bit on this idea that the multi-stakeholder model is captured. We have done perhaps not a very good job at using digital tools in order to bring people, but the essence of the multi-stakeholder model is that anyone should go and if anyone cannot go, we need to identify opportunities to do that. Now, having said that, the model is not perfect. It is messy, but democracies are also messy. It is the best we have. All the other alternatives are pretty catastrophic, not just for the internet, but also of the idea of how we participate and how we make our contributions in this environment that needs to be collaborative.

Rose Jackson:

Yeah, I would just add, if you want a pretty crystal clear example of the ramifications here. Kenton just described this extremely coordinated, very intentional policy to, link is almost too weak of a word, to take domestic approaches and interests on technology and drive foreign policy to achieve those domestic intentions. In the United States, honestly, our domestic and international approaches to tech governance are just completely disconnected, they're incoherent. The result of that is in the context of what Iria was talking about, where you have a global population that wants access to the internet, that is the requirement of them participating in a global economy and their government services and everything else.

And when someone wags their finger at them and says, "How dare you use Chinese technology, it's unethical or they're bad." For the average person, there isn't a real difference in what they experienced between an American company that had extractive data policies through which they had no recourse and no protections, and a Chinese company that has extractive data policies with no recourse or protections. And we may know that at the global level, one is definitely feeding Chinese government RMD and the goals that Kenton laid out. But why would someone in the middle of Senegal care about that?

At the end of the day, it's the question of what are they getting out of it and how are they affected? And so there are real consequences to the lack of a conversation in the United States on what we think appropriate governance of our tech sector looks like, and those consequences go far beyond just the impact on billions of people around the world. It also impacts how ready we are as a country to cogently exercise our power diplomatically in these sorts of negotiations, to keep this resource that very much serves all of our interests and is necessary for those very companies to continue to thrive in the future.

So yeah, absolutely. And I think it adds to what I will say on the "G77 side." If you were to ask most of those governments, "Don't you think you should have more of a say right now in how the internet is governed?" Of course the answer is, yes. Of course the answer is, yes. And so a lot of this comes back to if we put off essential conversations on everything forever, eventually the conversation will happen and it will happen in a way that you don't love. And I'd say that is what we are seeing right now at the United Nations. So I would love to be talking about reforming some of these systems. Unfortunately, I think we need to be focused at the moment on protecting some of the foundational aspects and hope that it illuminates the ways that we could do a hell of a lot better, pardon the French, in driving forward a more inclusive approach to the internet that serves the modern world we have.

Justin Hendrix:

Konstantinos, Kenton, Iria, Rose, thank you so much for joining me.

Rose Jackson:

Justin, thank you as always for being willing to have really nerdy conversations about important things.

Konstantinos Komaitis:

I second that. Justin, thank you so very much. It was pleasure talking to you.


Justin Hendrix
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & ...