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The start of every new year’s time for reflection on the one that’s gone and for anticipation of the one to come.

The issues of the day

There are short-term issues I could focus on where last year is concerned – the impact of the conflict in Ukraine (a conflict that has been less digital than might have been anticipated); the continued impact that COVID-19’s had on digitalisation (in some ways substantial, in others less lasting than expected); the purchase of a leading “free speech platform” by a wealthy maverick with a personal agenda; the crisis of cryptocurrency.

And there are long-term themes that I could focus on, concerned with the relationship between digital technologies and the future of economy, society and culture, indeed the future of the planet – climate change and digital pollution; tensions between governments and digital/data corporations; changing power structures within societies and the relationships between individuals and the societies in which they live.

All these will come to the fore in this blog during the year to come. But this week some thoughts on governance, provoked by two things:

  • the seventeenth annual meeting of the Internet Governance Forum, the IGF, held in Ethiopia at the end of 2022,

  • and the development of the UN Secretary-General’s Global Digital Compact, the GDC, scheduled to be agreed this year, on which views are currently invited.

Those two events might be considered bookmarks. The IGF’s an outcome of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the blockbuster event that kicked off the digital governance debates that have lasted these last 20 years. The GDC’s an attempt to move things forward into a new age of (hoped for) digital cooperation.

The changing world of digital governance

When the IGF was first established, after WSIS, the internet was the new(ish) big thing on the block: poised to grow fast, with the potential, it was hoped, to be “transformative” (and in a good way).

The internet encapsulated, at the time, the coming digital society (then called the ‘information society’). The IGF was one way of defusing intractable debates at WSIS about who, if anyone, should be in charge of it. But times have changed, in three ways, as digitalisation has evolved.

The internet’s become pervasive. It affects all aspects of society in most societies, economy in most economies, our daily lives for most of us in many countries.

The governance issues that matter where internet’s concerned are no longer primarily about how the internet itself is governed, what makes it work – the role of technical bodies such as ICANN – though these remain important. They are about how it affects the ways in which society functions and develops. This is public policy and at its heart lie the responsibilities of governments and the ways in which citizens relate to and are affected by them.

Transformation has become less positive a theme. There was a great deal of naivete about the internet and digitalisation twenty years ago. People hoped through them to find solutions to problems that had seemed intractable, including poverty and inequality. Far too little attention was paid to potential risks, to ways in which transformation could leave people behind or leave them harmed, and therefore to the ways in which such outcomes might be mitigated.

The internet and digitalisation are indeed proving “transformational” in many ways, and ways that are accelerating, but that transformation has been across the range of human activity. New technologies are transforming modalities of behaviour but they don’t change underlying human motivations, which a glance at human history shows aren’t necessarily benign. Digital governance today is therefore – or should be – just as much about alleviating risks as achieving aspirations.  The importance now attached to cybercrime's an illustration of this happening.

The internet’s no longer digitalisation’s cutting edge. It is now mainstream, for most folks in many societies and many in almost all: as mainstream as telephony, radio and television were last century.

The internet continues to evolve but its evolution, as the internet, is now primarily about its effectiveness and scope: faster speeds, more services, etc. The cutting edge today – and the scope for “transformation” – are primarily elsewhere in the digital environment: in the ways that data (much but not all internet-derived) are manipulated by different actors in pursuit of different interests; in the evolving applications of machine learning and artificial intelligence; at intersections of the analogue and digital like cybercurrencies; in “visions” of alternative realities (or dystopias, if you prefer) such as the “metaverse”.

A global digital compact?

The UN Secretary-General’s proposal for a Global Digital Compact responds to this evolution of the digital environment since WSIS, but it doesn’t stand alone.

It’s part of a broader initiative to revitalise the UN’s response to the challenges the world community faces in the 21st century, an initiative that he hopes will bear fruit in a Summit of the Future to be held in 2024.

That Summit is, the UN says, “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reinvigorate global action,” the chance to “forge a new global consensus on what our future should look like, and what we can do today to secure it.” Ambitious, clearly, at a time when geopolitics are increasingly polarised.

What’s to be in this Compact?

So what are the issues that the GDC is meant to cover (the issues on which comment’s been invited – before the end of March – from the wider world, readers included)? Seven are listed in the official consultation guide, to:

  • connect all people to the internet, including all schools

  • avoid internet fragmentation

  • protect data

  • apply human rights online

  • introduce accountability criteria for discrimination and misleading content

  • promote regulation of artificial intelligence

  • digital commons as a global public good

I won’t go into those in detail. They provide broad scope for consultation inputs, which will be used within a drafting process, but the final outcome will be the result of text developed in UN intergovernmental meetings, which are usually protracted, depend on compromises and trade-offs wrought through fraught negotiations, and impenetrable to outsiders.

Its value

One value of this proposal is that it recognises that digital governance requires revision. The broad-brush principles set out in the WSIS outcome documents some 20 years ago may still be workable as principles, but the application that was then envisaged no longer meets today’s digital environment which is entirely different in character and reach.

A wide range of international fora – some only involving governments (or multilateral), some multistakeholder – has emerged since WSIS, dealing with issues arising from digital development since then, often in silos.

There is no overarching global vision statement that encompasses that new environment as a whole, or sets out aspirations for the future (what to achieve, what to avoid, what and how to regulate) in the way that WSIS – which was itself a compromise – could claim to do two decades since.

A twofold challenge

The underlying challenge for achieving such a Compact seems to me twofold.

First, it is unclear how the Digital Compact will intersect with other goals established by the UN system – including the Sustainable Development Goals and those concerned with climate change – or the wider goals anticipated for the Summit of the Future, including peace, security and global governance.

These are immensely difficult challenges, and it’s clear that digitalisation will profoundly affect prospects for their delivery. The GDC’s main elements seem to me too narrowly digital for this: to be concerned with the future of the digital rather than the wider range of topics covered by the Summit, to which digital development might well be thought subordinate. (This includes the reference to digital public goods, which tend to be defined as digital more than they’re defined as public goods.)

Second, it will be hard to reach consensus on a forward-looking vision in today’s polarised geopolitics. Very different visions of the digital future are held by different major powers, and (increasingly) by governments and data corporations. These include different perceptions of human rights, data governance, cybersecurity and cyberconflict; the roles of government, markets and business; and the involvement of non-governmental stakeholders in digital decision-making.

It should be possible to reiterate established UN agreements in a negotiated text, but it will be hard to move beyond these or agree new institutional arrangements for international governance.

That does not mean the effort’s not worth trying. To the contrary: it’s important that we try, and even limited success would be of value, not least in clarifying options for ways forward. But there is a risk that meaningful steps forward won’t be found. How might the chances be improved?

Moving forward

To a large extent the outcome's likely to depend on factors of the time: the state of play in global geopolitics as debates on the GDC and Summit reach their respective climaxes. But there are ways in which those concerned with promoting positive outcomes for digitalisation and for international governance can increase the chance of better outcomes. I’d suggest three ways in which this might be done.

First, it’s important to look forward rather than back. There’s been a tendency in international discourse in this field to look back at what has been achieved and what has not. That’s likely to be prominent again as the UN reviews outcomes of WSIS over the next three years, but it’s insufficient. Future goals require us to reflect first and foremost on the needs of future governance: including how we handle technologies and services that are just coming onstream and those we can envisage doing so ahead.

Second, it’s crucial to recognise that digital transformation cuts both ways: that it is constructive and destructive; supportive of and harmful to human rights and sustainability; that it enables surveillance as well as offering autonomy; that it can increase inequality as readily as more equality. Recognising the diversity of outcomes that might arise is the best way to shape those outcomes along the lines of other public policy objectives.

Third, it’s vital to extend discussions about digital governance beyond those that are currently involved. Multistakeholderism is not enough for this. Too much of the current policy debate – both multilateral and multistakeholder – is conducted amongst digital insiders, and that’s reflected in the themes identified as priorities within the Compact process. This deficiency is multifaceted, but two aspects are specially important:

Power over the future of technology is located primarily in the supply side of the digital economy – in those countries and corporations whose businesses dominate infrastructure, service platforms and digital innovation. Digital development needs to pay much more attention to the needs of countries, communities and individuals that lie outside these power structures. This includes the vast majority of developing countries (an argument that, with colleagues, I first advanced in a report called Louder Voices at around the time of WSIS).

Digital governance also needs to be multisectoral as well as multilateral and multistakeholder. Sectors that increasingly rely on digital development, or are profoundly affected by it, remain largely absent from international policy discourse.

The digital society should not be shaped by digital insiders, by those who make the internet and other digital resources, but by dialogue between them and those on the demand side (users and potential users) and the communities of expertise in other fields that are affected by their ideas and their innovations. Discussions about our digital future – from the IGF to the GDC and many fora – need to engage the expertise within those sectors, from finance to health and education, transport and the environment, much more fully and more centrally if they are to shape a future digital SOCIETY rather than just a society that's DIGITAL.


Image: UN Secretary-General António Guterres speaking at the 17th Internet Governance Forum, via Twitter.  

David Souter writes a fortnightly 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.