There’s a lot of talk around among insiders to the internet and digital development about digitalisation’s future governance. This really matters, and not just to its insiders. In this blog, I’ll try to do three things:
First, consider different views of the direction things should go (I’m aware these will lack nuance but hope they’ll illustrate the range of what is being talked about);
Second, recall the changing context in which discussion is (or should be) taking place;
And third, suggest three principles against which ideas around the future governance of digitalisation ought to be tested.
Much current debate within the digital community (and especially the internet community) has followed from proposals in a series of documents that have emerged within the United Nations system (with diverse status and authority): the Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, the approach to rejuvenating the United Nations as a whole in his Common Agenda, his proposed Global Digital Compact and a policy brief which has been published recently concerning it.
The Compact’s seen by some as an attempt to update (or succeed) the settlement of digital governance that emerged from the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) almost 20 years ago. Particular kerfuffle’s followed the suggestion to create a Digital Cooperation Forum (DCF) – an annual gathering to follow up on whatever ends up in the Compact (which is yet to be negotiated). You can find what’s said about this on page 20 of the recent brief.
One thing that this debate has done is to encourage more reflection about digital governance in general (including the impact of digital development on other fields as well as the way technology itself’s developed and deployed; including governance for the future as well as that for past and present).
While some have doubled down on past positions, there’s also been fresh thinking. The debate’s at least important and, to be effective, should involve all who are impacted, not just those who’ve been involved to date.
An assumption and diverse perspectives
The underlying context – obvious in itself; acknowledged in documents emerging from the UN system and widely elsewhere – is that things have moved on since WSIS. In particular, digitalisation has become much more important, affecting (some would say ‘transforming’) almost every aspect of society, presenting (some would say ‘immense’) opportunities but also posing (some would say ‘existential’) threats.
These changes in the scale and scope of digital development, it is suggested, require some level of change – evolution, development or innovation – in the institutional framework for addressing them. But there are differences of view on what that means. Let me give three examples.
Some think that relatively little change is needed in underlying institutions. They argue that the current institutions for internet governance are successful, capable of evolving to address much wider issues of digitalisation (including those that aren’t essentially concerned with internet), and better placed to build on what has gone before than might any novel institutions.
An example of this view that has been widely shared is here. It’s protective of the legacy of WSIS and what were novel institutions in its day (such as the Internet Governance Forum), of multistakeholderism as it’s become established, and of the core role of the technical community in digital development. It is suspicious of multilateral institutions, including the United Nations, should they encroach on these established norms and mechanisms. Things aren’t broken, it argues in essence, but changing things might break them.
Others think that more substantial innovation’s needed to deal with the much wider range of issues and technologies, of opportunities and risks that have emerged since WSIS, especially their interaction with the economic, social, political and other fields in which digitalisation has become important.
What’s mostly been proposed within the discourse in the UN system, for instance, builds on the multistakeholder framework that emerged from WSIS’ second phase but also looks towards the UN’s broader goals such as those considered in the first session of WSIS as well as in the Sustainable Development Goals, UN and others’ work on climate change, and the future role of multilateral (intergovernmental) institutions.
(Like anything within the UN system, there’s a long road here between proposals and fulfilment. The details of how any new arrangements would work would have to be agreed through what could be tempestuous negotiations. Their outcome isn’t easy to predict, particularly with today’s uncertain geopolitics.)
A third, more radical position suggests much more comprehensive reshaping's required of both attitudes and institutions. This is driven by two particular concerns: the impact that digitalisation is having on every aspect of human development (not just what was hoped for, but also what was not); and the much greater potential impact that will emerge during the next decade from the next wave of digital innovation, especially AI.
An example of this is the Digital Reset report published this year by a European research network, which focuses on digitalisation’s impact on the environment but has more general relevance (for example on human rights, the distribution of resources, poverty reduction and conflict management). It proposes a much broader shift towards digital governance that is primarily concerned with achieving sustainability rather than enabling innovation, that prioritises “the common good” over commercial profit.
“Technologies,” it argues, “should be built according to regenerative designs and pursue system innovations that advance circularity and sufficiency, improve economic resilience and foster digital sovereignty and social equity.” “Sustainability" and "sufficiency” are key words here: to do with optimising, rather than maximising, the scope and scale of digital development.
Existing digital governance, the Reset authors claim, has failed to deliver sustainable outcomes or achieve many of digitalisation’s environmental aspirations, but has concentrated economic and policymaking power in powerful countries and corporations and appropriated public goods to private companies. Changing this will require much more fundamental rethinking of governance than either example I’ve set out above.
These are examples of broad strands of thinking, and there are many nuances within them and beyond them that there’s not space here to elaborate.
My view, expressed before now in this blog, is that technological innovation requires institutional innovation: that a governance framework appropriate for the early stages of digitalisation – when its scope and scale were limited – is inherently unlikely to be sufficient for a time when digitalisation’s generally considered ‘transformational’. The question’s how that institutional innovation should evolve.
I’ll come to three principles that follow from this at the end of this blog, but it’s worth recalling first the nature of the changes that have taken place since WSIS. I’ll pick out five.
First, the capabilities of technology are now immeasurably greater than they were back then, and are now implemented through very different structures and media. WSIS largely ignored the mobile phone and knew little or nothing of the cloud and platforms, the Internet of Things or of today’s large language models. Institutional frameworks designed for old technologies (like muskets) can provide some baseline thinking for how to govern new technologies (like assault rifles) but can’t do so successfully if they ignore the differences between them, especially the new capabilities that new technology has introduced.
Second, the reach of digital technologies is now near universal: profound in every country and, as or even more importantly, in every policy domain and every aspect of many (perhaps most) people’s lives. They are increasingly determining how government is done, business transacted, employment managed, relationships conducted – and their prevalence accelerates in all these areas.
Third, power within the digital environment has become concentrated with a small number of corporations located in a few countries having a very high level of economic power. This includes power over data, not just networks and consumers. It has made governance more unequal, shifting the balance in multistakeholder institutions towards those corporations; and it has also changed the balance of multilateral power within the digital economy.
Fourth, we now understand that digitalisation carries profound risks as well as opportunities. Both risks and opportunities are borne primarily outside the digital sector, but cost:benefit analysis of this has been extremely limited. Digital opportunities (promoted by technologists, data businesses, high profile consultancies and many governments) are being met with more scare stories than serious analysis. This is particularly important where environmental outcomes and risks are concerned but also across the board.
Fifth, and more generally, the place of digitalisation within broader global, national or individual goals has changed profoundly. The international community has many critical objectives that are not primarily digital but are fundamentally affected by digital technology – to do with climate change, for instance, with development, with poverty, with equality and equity, with peace and war. These are central functions of the United Nations and, of course, therefore, the United Nations needs to address the implications for them of what’s digital.
Three principles for considering all this
I said I’d end with three principles for considering all this – and therefore for considering positions such as those that I’ve described in summary. This needs engagement from all stakeholders, including those who’re not currently engaged in those discussions. Plus open minds. So here are those three principles.
The first is that digital governance needs to concern itself with the future, not the past. The digital governance that matters now is about how technologies that weren’t around two decades back are affecting lives today and how technologies that aren’t around today will affect the lives of future generations.
I’d suggest that sustainability, in its broadest sense of intergenerational equity and future viability, should be a guiding principle in this. What governance mechanisms do we need to secure a future that’s sustainable for future generations, rather than one that’s supportive of today’s commercial and political power brokers?
One way to approach this might be to consider the role of digitalisation in dystopian scenarios that could be outcomes of current trends in global development. How would digital technologies be used, for instance, in a world in which authoritarian governments have become predominant? Or one which has failed to limit climate change and must live with the consequences in environmental harm and conflicts that arise therefrom? This is at least as important as understanding the good things that might come if only things would stay the same.
The second is to recognise that digital governance should be primarily about its outcomes: what happens to people, where lies the “common good”?
To date, much digital governance has been concerned with the enabling framework for innovation: letting a thousand flowers bloom. What matters to people, though, is very different. It’s concerned with the quality of life they will enjoy – their incomes and employment prospects, their rights and their responsibilities, their access to public services (as well as private platforms), the quality of their environment, the education of their children, their health and their longevity.
It’s not sufficient for those who champion innovation to argue that there will be benefits (as clearly there will be) from innovations. If technology’s to support “the common good”, then factors such as environmental sustainability and human rights need to be considered at its design stage, not left to chance.
And if sustainability in its broader sense is humanity’s core goal, technological development needs to be understood within the context of its impact on society, economy and people’s lives – not just directly but also in the way it shapes future development (for instance, how digitalisation affects settlement and employment patterns, or global economic value chains).
And third, stemming from this, we need to rethink what is meant by “multistakeholder”.
The point of multistakeholder engagement in digital development was to enable expertise of different kinds to complement each other and thereby improve the quality (and roundedness) of decisions made.
It has, however, developed very much within the digital community. Go to any international digital event and you will find that there’ll be people there from government departments concerned with digital development; from businesses that run networks, make equipment and deliver platforms; from the technical community of computer scientists and developers; and from civil society organisations that have taken a particular interest in digital technology.
That may have been enough around the time of WSIS, but it is no longer so. What you won’t find at those meetings are those who understand the world from perspectives that aren’t digital: those whose domains and outlooks are determined by environmental change, or the public finances that deliver health and education, or maintaining peace where there is conflict, or coping with the needs of refugees, or struggling with the consequences of poverty and gender inequality.
Too many digital institutions discuss those issues without the involvement of those who understand them from a non-digital perspective. That’s not sufficient for good decision-making that affects those fields, and nor is it appropriate. So the final question is: Can digital governance really be multistakeholder if it doesn’t reflect the expertise and experience of the non-digital majority? Can it really engage effectively with the broader global challenges that face us if that wider range of stakeholders is not centrally involved in digital discourse?
And, with that said, Inside the Digital Society will now take its customary Northern summer/Southern winter break, returning in September.
Image: Children use a computer in Bhutan by Beyond Access via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)