In UN-speak, it’s called the Global Digital Compact. UN Secretary-General Guterres has made a series of suggestions to answer “strategic gaps in global governance arrangements” of the Internet.

Problem is, no strategic gap is visible, and Russia and China are angling to leverage Guterres’s Global Digital Compact as cover to undermine the free and open digital world. 

Authoritarian countries have long militated for the UN to impose their version of a censored net.  A decade ago, Moscow and Beijing teamed up with Arab authoritarians at a Dubai meeting of the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU). They aimed to give the UN agency the power to regulate the Internet and to push a repressive agenda that banned anonymity from the Web, permitted governments to justify censorship of legitimate speech – or even cut off Internet access.  Fortunately, the US, Europe, Japan, and others joined together to keep the present multistakeholder, decentralized Internet governance.

But the authoritarians have not given up. Despite Moscow’s status as an international pariah, it made a recent new bid for top-down internet control in a proposal submitted for an upcoming ITU meeting. The Russians seek changes “to prevent” what they call “the fragmentation of the Internet.”

How ironic. Russia and China, with their Great Firewalls and repressive censorship, are the ones trying to fragment the Internet. Russia itself actually benefits from the Internet’s current governance system. After its invasion of Ukraine, the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) rebuffed proposals to cut off Russia’s Internet access because it wanted to protect a single global Internet. Russia’s Internet users were better protected by the current Internet governance ecosystem than they would have been if decisions were made by the UN.

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What’s most surprising — and disturbing — is that the UN Secretary-General Guterres seems to support this authoritarian bid. His Global Digital Compact includes a call to establish a new UN-run Digital Cooperation Forum. It would have 26 objectives, ranging from establishing and meeting connectivity targets, upholding net neutrality, globally adopting European-styled privacy protections, and establishing an AI high-level advisory body. Under Guterres’s plan, UN members are being asked to organize the forum as an annual gathering in New York.

Although some of Guterres’ goals are laudable, his plan to achieve them looks dangerous. The UN already runs an Internet Governance Forum, which brings together governments, the private sector and civil society, and, importantly, the technical community. The ITU, now under the leadership of American Doreen Bogdan-Martin, does good work to advance connectivity and address the digital divide.  It has helped the world manage radio spectrum and wired and wireless telephone networks, bringing much-needed investment to the developing world.

A new UN forum, particularly as outlined by Guterres, is unnecessary. His plan downplays the role of the technical community, despite ICANN’s effective management of the web’s underlying infrastructure. And while the Secretary-General gives lip service to the importance of multistakeholder cooperation, he puts governments in charge at the expense of the private sector, the technical community, and civil society. If implemented, the Digital Cooperation Forum would center discussions on Internet policy in New York, a venue mired in politics, not solutions.

Other organizations already cover hot Internet policymaking issues such as artificial intelligence. The ITU has, for the last six years, organized an annual AI for Good Summit, while the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) adopted AI principles in 2019. Taken together, these efforts could be used to accomplish many of the activities proposed for a new UN high-level AI Advisory Body.

The position of the Biden Administration and European allies on Guterres’ Global Digital Compact proposals remains unknown. They should step up and demonstrate clear opposition. Time is pressing. If ministers reach an agreement in September, Guterres’ mistaken ideas will become difficult to derail.

That would be dangerous. Russia and China should not be given any room to hijack the UN to impose their authoritarian vision on the Internet.

Fiona M. Alexander is a Non-resident Senior Fellow with the Digital Innovation Initiative at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). She is both a Distinguished Policy Strategist in Residence in the School of International Service and Distinguished Fellow at the Internet Governance Lab at American University.  For close to 20 years, Fiona served at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the U.S. Department of Commerce.  She represented the United States at a variety of fora, including the UN World Summit on the Information Society, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and ICANN.   

Bandwidth is CEPA’s online journal dedicated to advancing transatlantic cooperation on tech policy. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

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