The UN Wants More Say Over the Future of the Internet. That’s Not Necessarily A Good Thing.Konstantinos Komaitis / Mar 27, 2023
Konstantinos Komaitis is an Internet policy expert and author, and a non-resident fellow and a senior researcher at the Lisbon Council.
As if Internet governance discussions were not already convoluted, the United Nations has recently launched a process that attempts to place the UN at the heart of Internet governance discussions. While it may seem like a good thing that the nearly 80-year old intergovernmental organization is concerned about the future of the Internet, its initiative raises critical questions for the future of multistakeholder collaboration.
The Merits of Decentralization
In George Orwell’s allegorical novel, Animal Farm, the animals conspire to seize control of the farm, establishing ‘animalist’ rules to prevent oppressive behavior by humans. They succeed in their endeavor, until the pig, Napoleon, decides to change the final rule: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others,” he commands. In its simplicity, Orwell’s message is compelling: all power can ultimately be abused.
If there is one system that, by design, can resist such an abuse of power is the Internet. The original promise of the Internet was meant to reflect a structure where power would be dispersed, making room for more democratic and fair participation. A decentralized technology, the Internet was supposed to negate any center of control and reject any attempt at concentrating power. And, for the most part, this design choice ensured an open technology, where voluntary participation and open standards would be core to the way it would eventually evolve. Over the years, however, experience has shown that the Internet’s decentralized architecture is not a panacea: as the Internet’s ecosystem evolved and innovation led to new systems and applications, the market appeared to demand a certain degree of concentration.
Power concentration, while perhaps necessary to perform certain functions, such as reduced costs and fast decision-making, has the tendency to corrupt and ossify, undermining the benefits of decentralized, collective wisdom. Over the past 25 years or so, global Internet adoption has allowed certain companies to benefit greatly from network effects; as more users joined their systems, the value of these companies increased exponentially while it was harder for users to switch to competing services. Network effects would end up discouraging users from exiting certain services, resulting in high barriers for new entrants; Ben Thompson refers to this as the ”aggregation theory.”
It is for this reason that the early decision to adopt an inclusive, multistakeholder model of governance for the Internet has been fundamental for its evolution and growth. Emerging out of the two phases of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS), in 2003 in Geneva and, then, in 2005 in Tunis, the idea was that the future of the Internet should be tied to a collaborative approach that would allow a multitude of stakeholders to shape its future. In this respect, the “Tunis Agenda for the Information Society” acknowledged that “Internet governance is the development and application by governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programs that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.” And, for almost two decades, multistakeholder governance has sustained the Internet through some key milestones, including the transition of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) from the US government to the wider Internet community in 2016.
Enter the UN's "Common Agenda"
After almost twenty years of multistakeholder governance, however, this inclusive model might be hanging in a balance.
In 2021, António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary General, released a report on “Our Common Agenda.” Declaring that the world is at “an inflection point,” he pointed at two options: “a breakdown or a breakthrough.” The global COVID19 pandemic, the effects of climate change, conflicts within and between states, poverty, discrimination and violence, increasing negative levels of trust and solidarity, all indicate that we are running against time. In this regard, the United Nations is hoping through “a common agenda” to “accelerate the implementation of existing agreements, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)” and reintroduce a renewed globalized and cohesive international order.
The vision promoted by the Secretary General is premised upon a “more networked and inclusive multilateral system, anchored within the United Nations.” It spans across twelve commitments, amongst which there is the improvement of digital cooperation. For this to be achieved, the proposal centers around a “Global Digital Compact,” which would cover topical issues, including connectivity, Internet fragmentation, data protection, human rights, content moderation, and the regulation of artificial intelligence. The choice of these themes does not seem accidental considering they occupy the digital agendas of most countries around the world. Depending on how we respond to them, they could determine the future of the Internet as an open, inclusive and global network of networks.
In the meantime, the timing of this initiative is compelling, with deglobalization creating seismic geopolitical shifts and national Internet regulation reaching an all-time high. The Internet is gradually becoming less global and less open. On paper, therefore, the Secretary General’s initiative has the potential to bring states together and help them shape a better future for the Internet. In practice, however, the “Global Digital Compact” may constitute the beginning of the end for the Internet’s collaborative, multistakeholder model.
The hope is that the United Nations can play a role similar to the one it played nearly twenty years ago when the World Summit on Information Society process legitimized the creation of a wide community of actors to resolve issues pertinent to the information society. In 2005, despite some resistance, states managed to find a way to get to a place of consensus regarding the multistakeholder model. The hope is that, twenty years later, governments will find a way to get to that place once again.
This is easier said than done, as the reality of today is nowhere near the reality of the early 2000s. In today’s political realm, protectionism and industrial policy are consuming the way states approach foreign relations. The division amongst otherwise allied countries is growing wider, creating the conditions for competing and, often, conflicting policies that do little to advance the open Internet. If the United States and the European Union cannot find an effective solution for cross border data flows, what are the chances for less aligned countries like India or Brazil? Moreover, China has become more competitive and now influences the way technology is deployed internationally. In 2005, China was a country that was majorly consuming technology, supplied by the west; today, it is a noteworthy competitor, a leader in standards’ development and a major exporter of technology globally.
Even if we disregard these concerns as ephemeral and believe that the global order is going through a phase of existential crisis, the fact that the Secretary General aims to channel Internet policy issues through the UN’s multilateral system is alarming. When looking at the issues the “Global Digital Compact” will seek to address, one cannot help but wonder whether the ultimate goal is to create a centralized system where the UN sits at the top. For example, the point about connecting all people to the Internet, including schools, is pretty much what the ITU’s and UNICEF’s GIGA project aims to do. Similarly, the item on introducing “accountability criteria for discrimination and misleading content” happens to be the issue that UNESCO is seeking to address through its “Guidelines for regulating digital platforms”. Both the ITU and UNESCO are having separate tracks around artificial intelligence; and, the UN already has a data protection and privacy group. It feels like the mechanisms and organs are in place for Internet governance to move substantively under the auspices of the UN’s multilateral system.
Despite any verbal assurance that the “Global Digital Compact” is meant to be inclusive, placing Internet governance under the UN is a big gamble. The multistakeholder model is already under pressure and scrutiny and it will not survive any attempt at undermining it. In a statement, delivered at the First Informal Consultation with Member States on the Global Digital Compact, Cuba, on behalf of the G77 and China group, said: “While we acknowledge the relevance of stakeholder inputs in this process, the Group strongly emphasizes that this should remain a Member State driven process throughout and should respect States’ ownership over their own development pathways.” At the same time, in 2025 WSIS is up for review and stock will be taken on whether it has managed to deliver on its promise. The IGF, WSIS’ main outcome, will be scrutinized. Nothing, and no one, can guarantee that consensus will be reached regarding its future. And, the fact that Russia, a strong adversary of the multistakeholder model, is pitting to host the IGF that year may be seen as the ironic epilogue of the multistakeholder chapter.
The Road Ahead
With this in mind, here is what is in front of us.
On the one hand, the Digital Compact could, in theory, be seen as an attempt to re-energize a community that, for some time, has been sitting comfortably in the fuzziness of multistakeholderism. The term, in itself, has been used (and abused) so much that it has become empty of substance. At the same time, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), multistakeholderism’s quintessential body, has suffered from fatigue, complacency and a lack of vision. There is an opportunity for the Internet community to come together and rethink what the model means and what they want out of it. For this to happen, however, the UN must not only commit but further ensure that the modalities around the way the Digital Compact will be negotiated adhere to an inclusive, collaborative framework.
On the other hand, there is a probable scenario where, gradually, the UN takes over Internet governance; should this happen, the fate of the Internet is pretty much sealed. In this scenario, we should anticipate an environment with limited participation for civil society, the Internet’s engineering community, academia and businesses, lack of checks and balances, bureaucracy and long negotiations. Think of the recent historic deal to protect international waters, which has taken two decades in the making, and you start to get the picture. Only, unlike oceans that are generally static, the Internet cannot sit around for two decades as states negotiate a framework for its future.
What is key to consider is that the multistakeholder model is important not because of the transformative results it has produced. In fact, it has not managed to do that. The importance of the multistakeholder model should otherwise be calculated. The model has been key in legitimizing multi-actor participation without requiring permission from governments; this is crucial as an increasing number of states try to silence opposing voices and create echo chambers in order to justify their inward-looking digital strategies. Another way to think about the multistakeholder model is through transparency; the model has proven capable to shed light on the actions taken by different actors and how they may conflict with the Internet’s established norms and principles.
The Internet community has fought long and hard for its right to be part of the conversation on the future of the Internet, and to hold governments accountable for actions that are against its openness, global reach and interoperability. If we don’t pay attention, these crucial qualities may disappear on a whim.