Inside the Digital Society: Eight challenges for internet governance

The global Internet Governance Forum (IGF) has begun its preliminary sessions online. This week’s blog is a keynote presentation that I gave to the official opening of its 'preliminary and engagement phase’ on November 1st.

Introducing eight challenges

At the IGF we often concentrate on specific themes which might be technical, like the domain name system, or more generic such as access or cybersecurity. The eight challenges I’m going to raise today are more fundamental issues that affect the internet as a whole and its place within the wider framework of digital governance and the governance of societies in general. But first, let’s ask a different question:

What, actually, is the internet?  

Is it a technological phenomenon – a set of rules and protocols, software and hardware – or is it a social, economic and cultural phenomenon – something that’s defined by its services, the businesses that run them, the people that make use of them? 

I ask this because our answer profoundly affects the way in which we think about its governance.

Most books and lectures on this start with the technology – the protocols, the domain name system, the layer model that is often used as illustration.  

Obviously the technology’s important, but what matters to most people and most stakeholders in practice – and so what defines the internet for them – is the impact that it has; on them, on their societies, economies and cultures; on equality and rights, politics and the environment, the way we live and what we care about.

If we think about the internet primarily as a technological phenomenon, we’re tempted to look for technological ‘solutions’ – as they’re often called – and put the needs of technology before the interests of society. If we think of it as a societal phenomenon, we’re more likely to prioritise its impact on human relationships and mainstream governance. We need at least to start from both.  

‘Narrow’ and ‘broad’ governance 

This is not a new dilemma. Twenty years ago, we talked of “narrow” and “broad” governance of the internet. These terms are now unfashionable but they encapsulate an important dichotomy:

  • between governance that concerns the internet itself – the narrow side;

  • and governance that concerns the impact of the internet – the broader view.

What the World Summit said

I’d say this stretches back to the World Summit that gave birth to the IGF.

Here’s the ‘working definition’ of IG that was agreed there:

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 programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet. 

That’s primarily concerned with technicalities – with the development and application of the internet, rules, norms and decision-making processes. The reference to ‘use’ in it is essentially contingent on these.  

I’d contrast that with the opening lines of the Summit’s Geneva Declaration, which sought:

a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life.

That’s much more concerned with the outcomes of the internet than how it works – with empowerment, sustainable development, human rights and so forth. It is about shaping the information society, and governing the internet, with those in mind.

The evolution of the internet

What are the implications of thinking about the internet from a societal rather than a technological perspective?

My view of internet governance today – and the challenges it faces – rests on the changing nature of the internet.  

Public policy goals have become much more important as the internet’s evolved. From being on the margins, it now has massive social impacts, many of them unexpected. Those impacts occur too fast for established governance mechanisms – outside the internet – to adjust to them.  

Many challenges to internet governance today derive from this, and from the ways in which online services and power structures have evolved. Three in particular:

  • First: The growing significance of the internet makes the interfaces between technological and social impacts increasingly important. Because far more people are online, and far more is done online, the digital environment is much more influential and the opportunities and risks are greater.

  • Second, the commercialisation of the internet and the emergence of dominant companies with a high degree of market power mean that many decisions concerning the internet’s development and impact are now made by them.  

  • Third, the proliferation of international policymaking spaces has made participation in governance more difficult, particularly for smaller countries and stakeholders with limited resources.

Governance arrangements need to evolve along with what they govern if they’re to be effective. The governance arrangements that are needed for the world’s most important communications platform today are obviously different from those that were suited to the internet that was; and they need to be oriented more towards its outcomes than its origins.  

Focus areas for this year’s IGF

I see this emphasis on broader social, economic and cultural themes reflected in the focus areas for this year’s IGF. All of these are primarily concerned with the societal impact of the internet and the interface between this and technology.

They include areas that require policy intervention by governments – such as universal access and emerging regulation; by business – on environmental sustainability and cybersecurity; and by civil society – such as inclusion and human rights. And indeed all stakeholders need to be engaged in each of these.

They require cross-cutting engagement, in which public policy responds to the opportunities and risks of new technology, and technologists respond to the needs of public policy.

They are relevant at both national and international levels.

And they will change over time as circumstances change – new services, new ways of doing things, new impacts (desired and undesired), new externalities.  

Eight challenges for the future

If those are current challenges, I want to place them in a broader context of underlying changes that affect the internet and governance.

Each of these eight challenges, it seems to me, requires rethinking of parameters that we’ve put around internet governance to date.  

  1. 1. The pace and changing nature of the internet

First, the internet today is simply bigger and more diverse than it used to be. Its range of services is far greater and continually growing. It’s been transformed by massive growth in the capacity of networks and devices, mobility, the internet of things and cloud computing. All this continues and accelerates.

Governance mechanisms aren’t always scalable. Ways of governing the internet that worked when it was smaller and less complex won’t be sufficient now it’s larger and more complex.

I’m often surprised by the resistance there is to changing governance modalities. The internet began by radically disrupting governance and business models in communications.  It’s required other sectors to transform their models wholesale. The same logic of disruption applies to the internet’s own governance arrangements.

  1. 2. The internet as part of digitalisation

Associated with this is the changing nature of the digital environment.  

The internet’s no longer at the cutting edge of this. The most important technological advances – the most important issues for digital governance emerging now – are not to do with the internet as a communications medium but with other digital developments – in data management, machine learning and artificial intelligence, algorithmic decision-making, robotics and autonomous vehicles, virtual reality, quantum computing.

Internet governance does not provide adequate models for governing those new digital phenomena, which is why there is so much discussion now, for instance, about the ethics of AI.  

  1. 3. The concentration of digital power

My third issue concerns the concentration of power online.

Technologists stress the decentralising force they see inherent in the internet’s packet-switched technology and protocols. Power on the internet, they tend to say, lies with end-users; there is no centre to it.

But economic logic differs from technology. Networks give powerful advantages to big players that can maximise numbers of users, achieve economies of scope and scale, and leverage data to maximise value to consumers and themselves. 

The result has been the concentration of online power in a few large companies with global reach, that can act effectively unchecked by the majority of governments. These have become the most powerful actors in internet governance today, and their decisions are decidedly not subject to the principles of multistakeholderism.

  1. 4. Digital geopolitics (and the environment)

At the same time, there have been shifts in global geopolitics. Three things.

First, those dominant online businesses that I’ve just mentioned are almost all located in two countries. Twenty years ago, the fear in many countries was that the internet was dominated by America. Now China’s as important, and leads in some new digital technologies.  

Between them, China and the United States have 90 per cent of market capitalisation in the 70 largest digital platforms. Africa and Latin America between them have just 1 per cent.  

We should be thinking of what that shift in digital geopolitics implies – not just for governing technology, but in areas like human rights. And about its implications for the universality or unitary character of internet governance; how realistic is it that that will be sustained?

Second, the thirty years in which the internet’s evolved have seen the world divided much more than it was. To a considerable degree, authoritarian nationalism has superseded liberal internationalism.  

Achieving digital cooperation – a key aim for the UN Secretary-General – is becoming harder. That really matters in areas like cybersecurity. And governments are much more capable of interfering with each other’s internet environments for political and economic gain, and more inclined to do so.  

And the biggest challenge of all facing international governance is climate change. Like everything else, internet governance is going to evolve in a context redefined by climate change, by the success or failure of steps to mitigate it (not least this week and next), and by the conflicts that will follow likely failures.

  1. 5. Shaping the digital future

I mentioned earlier the opening sentence of the World Summit eighteen years ago – which called for ‘a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society.’

That means shaping the digital future in ways that work with other goals we have rather than letting technology shape the future for us.

In previous work I’ve characterised that goal as meaning three things:

  • preserving what we value

  • promoting what we want

  • and preventing what we fear.

There’ll be disagreements about what those mean. But achieving them requires governance that is consistent with other goals the international community’s agreed. In particular, I’d cite the international human rights regime, the sustainable development agenda and the need to reverse climate change.

  1. 6. The future of regulation

Point six follows from this.

The internet community – and businesses – have been keen to avoid regulation and sought what they’ve called ‘permissionless innovation’ as distinct from the ‘precautionary principle’ that’s generally applied in other economic sectors.

That’s the principle that we should assess potential hazards before giving free rein to new inventions. It’s the norm in industries like chemicals and pharmaceuticals and in other new technologies such as genetics. It’s at the root of environmental audits and has been fundamental to building public trust in COVID vaccines.

There’s growing anxiety amongst the public, not just governments, about the risks of what Mark Zuckerberg had in mind when he called for Facebook to ‘move fast and break things.’  

  • Part of that’s due to experience: for example, the way that corporations have exploited the lack of rules governing data privacy.  

  • Part’s due to concern about potential impacts of artificial intelligence and algorithmic decision-making, which could have profound and irreversible effects on society before mainstream governance can take account of them.

These concerns are going to require rethinking the relationship between innovation which has been permissionless and the precautionary principle. Few people outside Facebook think the ‘metaverse’ should be unregulated.

  1. 7. Multilateralism and multistakeholderism

Multistakeholderism has been an important part of the way the internet’s been governed, from its early days. But the model of it that emerged from the World Summit is looking tired and worn.

First, the standard stakeholder groupings are insufficiently disaggregated.   

  • there are huge differences between government departments that manage communications and those that use them to deliver public services.  

  • between businesses that supply the internet and those that use it.  

  • between different groups of users, with different interests, different resources, different capabilities, not to mention those who aren’t yet on the internet but whose lives are affected by the way it’s changing their societies. 

Representation in internet decision-making is skewed towards internet insiders; to the supply side of the internet rather than to the demand side.

Second, the stakeholders themselves have changed, and so have their resources. Global corporations can throw huge sums at influencing outcomes. Many decisions are made in boardrooms or through negotiations between businesses and governments.

And the internet itself has changed. Many issues require both multilateral and multistakeholder involvement. The UN Secretary-General has stressed that governance should be multisectoral and multidisciplinary as well: bringing economists and social scientists to the table alongside technologists and communications specialists.  

  1. 8. Participation in decision-making

Lastly, and related to this, lies the challenge of equitable and inclusive international governance.

Twenty years ago, I wrote a report on developing country participation in international communications.

Countries in the North could put money, personnel and resources into attending meetings, planning initiatives, making deals and influencing outcomes. Most in the South could not. As a result, decisions reflected the interests of wealthy countries from the North, not those of developing countries in the South. Technical standards were affected by this, because they were set by what was possible in high-income countries rather than those with limited resources.

This hasn’t changed, and the proliferation of decision-making fora’s made it worse. Can internet governance become more inclusive of those who currently lack power and, if so, how?

In conclusion

Those are my eight challenges for internet governance going forward. But I’ll end by repeating that which is most fundamental because it addresses the key goal of the World Summit that gave birth to the IGF: how to achieve a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented information society – or, as I’d put it now, how to shape the digital society. 

That’s no easy task, and it’s one that requires broad-based and inclusive dialogue. Which is something for which the IGF is especially appropriate – both globally and nationally, as my own national IGF demonstrated a couple of weeks ago. I hope this year’s hybrid global event takes forward this agenda.

Image: IGF 2021 - Katowice.

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.


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