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Some Thoughts on Internet Governance and the Global Digital Compact

1 July 2024

Along with others in the Internet technical standards community, I have today signed an open letter the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, and the Secretary General's Envoy on Technology, Amandeep Singh Gill, expressing concern around some aspects of the development of the Global Digital Compact relating to Internet Governance.

The Global Digital Compact is intended to outline shared principles for an open, free, and secure digital future. It contains much that is commendable and desirable. The focus on achieving the sustainable development goals, closing the digital divide, fostering an inclusive, open, and safe digital space where human rights are protected and diversity is encouraged and supported, and where new technologies are developed to benefit society as a whole, is important. The desire to understand and mitigate the risks of artificial intelligence (AI) is laudable.

The support, in the current draft text, for the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance—an open and inclusive governance model that involves academia, civil society, governments and international organisations, the private sector, the technical community, and end users—is also welcome.

However, despite the claims to support multi-stakeholder governance, the current draft text has been developed in a distinctly multi-lateral manner, by interested governments, with only very limited opportunities for input from the broader community. The commitment to multi-stakeholder governance, following the principles recently reaffirmed in the outputs of the NETmundial+10 discussion, feels weaker than ever.

A key strength of the Internet is that it is a decentralised network that has been developed in an open and consensus-driven manner, by those interested in its use, that provides a flexible, application and policy neutral substrate for communication. Similarly, the web, as one of the many applications that runs on the Internet infrastructure, has evolved in a bottom-up manner to support a range of uses. The voluntary technical standards supporting both the Internet and the web, developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and similar organisations, and the open processes they use that let any interested party participate in developing those standards, are essential in allowing the Internet and the web to effectively and rapidly evolve to meet new needs and support new use cases.

Importantly, given increasing concerns about the dominance of certain technology companies, the Internet standards development process, as an essential component of Internet governance, is both open and increasingly inclusive.

For example, as an academic researcher, I'm proud to see my input and ideas reflected in many core Internet standards. The number of IETF standards written by academics each year is comparable to those written by employees of Google and Huawei combined, and many of these standards are extremely widely used. The Internet Research Task Force (IRTF), that I chair, plays an important role in making the connections to support such academic involvement in technology standards.

Other groups also play their part. And there is increasing geographic diversity in the community, with the number of authors from Europe and Asia both more than doubling over the past decades to now write a majority of standards. There is more to do, of course, especially to encourage participation by women and those from the global south, but there is awareness of the issues, and an openness and effort to try new things to address these concerns.

And, crucially, while the process, like any other, is imperfect, the principles of diversity, inclusion, and consensus-based decision-making, underpinned by a deep understanding of what is technically feasible to implement, are foundational to the multi-stakeholder approach.

Fundamentally, the Internet works because of the expertise brought by the technical and academic communities, by civil society, and by others, participating in a voluntary and bottom-up manner, to balance the voices of business and governments, and ensure that concerns are broadly considered and that solutions can feasibly be implemented.

A multi-lateral approach, disconnected from the broader communities involved, that might attempt centralised solutions to the problems of a fundamentally distributed network, risks destroying the very factors that make the Internet and the web a success.

Going forward, it's essential that proposals for digital governance remain consistent with the multi-stakeholder Internet governance model that has brought us the robust, and critically important, Internet of today. The involvement of governments is clearly needed to help deal with abuse on the Internet, but if the success of the Internet is to be maintained, such involvement must be part of the bottom-up, inclusive, and collaborative model of Internet governance.

Link: The open letter to the United Nations (PDF)