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Illustration: Matías Bervejillo

The current rapid digitalisation of all aspects of life has been exacerbating structural inequalities and digital divides. It has also led to the unprecedented and growing power and influence of the largest internet and technology companies. [1] In the context of the global pandemic, the publicness of the internet has become an even more critical issue. We now face a breaking point, which will lead to either the consolidation of the corporatisation of the online space and authoritarian ways in which governments control it, or to the strengthening of the public character of the network.

The internet contributes in many ways to the exercise of human rights, online and offline. It has democratised communications and contributed to promoting increased gender and social justice, as well as sustainable development. The opposite is equally true. The harmful, unequal and biased deployment of and access to information and communications technologies have impacted on social cohesion, curtailed dissent and diversity, increased discrimination and exclusion, and led to silencing.

How does the digital space serve as an enabler of rights? Only with an open, interconnected and interoperable internet that is safe for all. Fragmentation and centralised control by public or corporate forces threaten this goal and dilute the public core of the internet. That is why global digital cooperation, based on both multilateralism and multistakeholderism, is a crucial agenda.

Multilateral and multistakeholder global digital governance are not mutually exclusive concepts. They are mutually reinforcing – both are needed to respond to the different and distributed ways and spaces in which global digital governance is undertaken.

Global cooperation on digital issues must be grounded in the adoption and operationalisation of the principles established at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in relation to multistakeholder participation: it must be people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented.

In this context, APC considers that the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is a platform for identifying viable ways to shape, sustain and strengthen global digital cooperation, not only for universalising digital inclusion, but to mobilise collective intelligence and the potential of multistakeholder collaboration and action to respond to the persistent and emerging challenges in the digital age, including the environmental crisis. It is a key piece of the UN system, as well as the internet governance and digital cooperation ecosystems.

We believe the IGF continues to be the only multistakeholder process that can establish more accountable, inclusive, participatory and effective global digital cooperation among all stakeholders, building on its historical strengths and achievements, such as gender balance, multistakeholderism and decentralised structure with the organisation of national/regional IGFs (NRIs).

Celebrating and acknowledging the IGF's achievements is important, but it is also essential to acknowledge that change is needed to build on those achievements. A new body, or a reinforced Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) that could provide progress at the level of leadership, would be an important development. This progress should be targeted to improving the overall institutional capacity of the IGF, and promoting truly effective collaboration between the IGF and the other different dimensions and layers in which decisions are made.

The current IGF MAG is a representative body that has played a central role in the consolidation of the IGF. It focuses, however, on programmatic tasks. An empowered executive body, parallel to or within the MAG, that could build on a stronger thematic focus during the IGF sessions and enhanced intersessional work, sending clear messages to inform and feed other internet policy and governance processes, would be an important development. This body could also focus on increasing the IGF’s visibility and could assist in bridging the gap between deliberative spaces and decision-making processes.

That said, APC has concerns about the format, composition and attributions to be defined for such a body. We believe there is a risk, with the creation of a new structure, of creating a top-down approach to digital cooperation that could undermine the IGF’s legacy if it is not carefully designed. 

It is crucial to ensure that the lessons learned from years of MAG operation feed into this process of strengthening leadership in internet governance as a key component of digital cooperation. It is also important to guarantee that a new body will not be disconnected from the IGF community and the other institutions and processes of the internet governance ecosystem.

We know that a number of the challenges faced by the IGF result from lack of capacity, which is caused mainly by a sustained lack of resources. Therefore, any new structure could drain even more from the reduced funds and personnel available. We consider that any new body must therefore be considered only after a careful cost-benefit analysis; unless additional commitment in terms of resources exists, priority should be given to overall institutional strengthening measures, and the creation of any costly new structure should be avoided. Another crucial consideration is the political cost of creating such a body, given the risks highlighted above.

If any new structure is to be considered, it should aim at strengthening and raising the profile of the IGF within the UN system, working hand in hand with or possibly even as a part of the current MAG. No such structure should be created outside of the IGF infrastructure.

Additionally, no new body should be created to take decisions on behalf of the IGF, nor should it be conceived to become a policy-making body. The Tunis Agenda should continue to determine the boundaries of the IGF mandate, as well as any new structures within it.

Any attempt to create a new structure should not be considered as a substitute for the needed overall strengthening of the IGF’s institutional capacity.

For all the above reasons, extensive multistakeholder discussions should guide any further developments.

The IGF has been and continues to be a key space to tackle the ways in which regulation should happen towards effective digital cooperation, and to sustain policy dialogue around the current and future challenges to shape genuine and effective democratic global digital governance.

[1] See, in this regard, our policy explainer on Platform responsibility and accountability.