Earlier this year, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres diagnosed what he called “strategic gaps in global governance arrangements” of the Internet. He prescribed treatment with an expansive Global Digital Compact and the creation of a new UN-run Digital Cooperation Forum and dispatched the UN’s Tech Envoy Amandeep Singh Gill to make the case.
The lobbying hasn’t worked, at least not yet. Many months and airline miles later, support for a new UN forum is non-existent. Sweden and Rwanda, the two governments designated to serve as co-facilitators for the 2024 Global Digital Compact negotiations, conducted a series of feedback sessions open to governments, the private sector, civil society, the technical community, and academia. Their three-page summary sent to Guterres notably avoids any reference to a new Digital Cooperation Forum.
If the Cooperation Forum is buried, it will be a victory for democracies. Authoritarian governments have long angled for the UN to impose their version of a censored net and had hoped to leverage the new UN forum. A decade ago, Moscow and Beijing teamed up with Arab authoritarians at a Dubai meeting of the UN’s International Telecommunication Union. The US, Europe, Japan, and others joined together to keep the present multistakeholder, decentralized Internet governance.
This time, democracies again have joined forces. The Advisory Network of the Freedom Online Coalition — launched by the US and the Netherlands and now counting 38 democracies — raised a host of procedural and substantive concerns with Guterres’ plans. They feared a new UN forum grounded in multilateralism would undermine the existing multistakeholder model of Internet governance that has protected free expression.
The Internet began as a bottom-up initiative and has always been governed by an informal coalition of the private sector, the technical community, civil society, and governments. Every year since 2005, these groups gather at the UN’s Internet Governance Forum. The Forum brings stakeholder groups together as equals, for discussions on public policy issues relating to the Internet. The annual meeting is now part of a broad ecosystem that includes a network of more than 100 national and 23 regional initiatives, as well as 35 youth groups. Events are open and multistakeholder.
At the latest forum held October 8-12 in Kyoto, 9,000 participants registered, and 6,279 attended in person. It was the largest gathering to date of government, private sector, technical community, civil society, and academic technology governance experts. High on the Kyoto agenda were issues of artificial intelligence, inclusion, cybersecurity, human rights, and of course, global digital governance.
Stakeholders raised questions and concerns with Guterres’s plans, in particular its rationale and the need for a new global forum. The IGF community sent a letter to the UN leadership calling on it to focus on strengthening and enhancing the existing Internet Governance Forum that enjoys broad global support. The message was clear: any follow-up from a UN Global Digital Compact should happen in the inclusive IGF environment.
The UN can benefit the Internet. It should focus on practical programs to connect the unconnected so that all the world’s citizens can benefit from the digital revolution. This is an appropriate task for the UN’s Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union. The UN leadership in New York should keep its hands off — and avoid giving Russia, China, or authoritarians room to undermine the Internet.
Supporters of a free and open Internet need to stand up and work together. This does not mean just governments. It means civil society, business, and academics. Over the next year, they should mobilize to ensure that the UN’s 2024 Digital Global Compact gives all stakeholders a voice and to prevent it from tilting digital debates to just government decision-making. A government-only structure might be good for authoritarian regimes. But it would be harmful to the Internet and our digital future.
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 US 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.