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This is my fourth blog on the impact which the corona virus is having on the digital society. This time I’ll comment on internet/digital governance. Is this the time for re-set?

Impacts of the crisis

Some of the impacts of the virus crisis are clear, others far from clear especially in the longer term – but it’s evident that they’re going to be profound. Here are four, of many:

  • Lost production and consumption are going to suppress economic activity. Global recession is likely, probably deeper than that following the banking collapse in 2008. A lot of people will lose jobs and livelihoods in the short term and the long term.

  • Inequalities within countries will become more apparent. Social distancing’s reasonably easy for the better-off but impossible for slum dwellers; homeworking’s fine for office workers but impossible for those whose jobs are not digitally doable. Society’s currently more reliant on the latter than the former.

  • The role of government is becoming more central again. Governments are rescuing businesses and keeping citizens afloat in lockdown. In a crisis like this, only governments, not market mechanisms, have the power to keep things going. That lesson won’t be forgotten by citizens or governments.

  • The digital society’s becoming more important more quickly than would otherwise have been the case – but its limitations are also evident. It can play a role in caring for the sick, enforcing lockdown, finding treatments and vaccines, but it’s an adjunct to human activity and not a saviour. There are lessons to be learnt about what’s possible and what is not.

These impacts are surrounded by further uncertainties

Four things to bear in mind:

  • This crisis is new in scale and the global response to it is new in scale as well. We don’t have any precedent for a sudden massive reduction in economic activity and social interaction. It’s hard to judge how it will affect human behaviour and institutions in the longer term.

  • Its impact is variable. It’s hitting some countries harder than others at present. Some of those where populations are likely to be most vulnerable, and health services are weakest, aren’t yet bearing the brunt. We don’t know what will happen there.

  • It may not be a one-stage crisis. Returning to normal social and economic life is going to be difficult before a vaccine is available. There’s a clear risk that recovery will be followed by a second wave of infections, lockdowns and recession.

  • Most importantly long term, post-crisis transition – normalisation, if you like – will be gradual, not instant. We won’t be looking at before and after, lockdown and a return to what we had before. Varying conditions in different countries, different sectors, different markets, and the risk of a return to crisis, will dictate the pace and terms of moving on.

An opportunity to rethink and reset

I argued last week that the present crisis was an opportunity for us to rethink and reset some of the ways we do things, not just digitally but generally.

In some areas this is inevitable. Recovery from recession requires different types of economic action. The crisis, for example, has obviously disrupted progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

In some it will be because system weaknesses and failures are apparent. More investment in public health, resilience and crisis management is needed, for example. Less reliance on just-in-time production models.

In others, recovery from crisis will present an opportunity to rethink and reset for a better future. Energy use ahead of climate change is an obvious example. The structure of multilateral institutions is another. More locally, employment patterns, payment systems and employment rights.

It’s far from certain, though, that rethinking and resetting will follow. They may be desirable, but there’ll be powerful vested interests – governments, businesses and others – wanting to return to business as before rather than taking opportunities to do things more sustainably.

Resetting digital governance

Digital governance is another area where there’s opportunity for a reset.

There’s been a crisis brewing in digital governance for some time. Rules and principles that were designed for a small community of geeks doing smart things with primitive computers have been increasingly unsuited to today’s digital environment: to managing the world’s most important communications infrastructure or the power of its biggest and most influential corporations; to addressing the potential for good and ill of radical departures in technology that can move fast and break things that have worked for generations.

That crisis of governance is evident in many of the debates and arguments that have festered since the World Summit on the Information Society in 2003/2005: about the role of governments and other stakeholders in internet governance, about cybersecurity, about data privacy and surveillance (by governments and corporations), about freedom of expression and its relationship with other rights and responsibilities, about the unity and integrity of One Internet, about the commercialisation of the one we have, about access and inequality and equity in use and governance of resources that are now ,critical to the lives of everyone.  These issues have become increasingly contentious as anxiety about the impact of innovations such as artificial intelligence has grown alongside enthusiasm for their potential.

Sure, there’s been evolution in digital governance over time, but also a reluctance among digital insiders to rethink from first principles or ask whether what worked once still works today. The present crisis is an opportunity, therefore, to reset our thinking about digital governance – and timely.

Three assumptions that challenge old assumptions

Let’s start with three assumptions.

  • What’s digital is going go be important much more quickly, but in a world that’s struggling to recover economically.

  • We need digital governance that enables us to shape the future of technology and society rather than allowing technology to shape our future for us.

  • Principles devised for the early days of the internet are unlikely to be suitable for a digital society transformed by big data, artificial intelligence and algorithmic power. No more suitable than, say, the rules of early aviation are for space travel, or the rules of swordplay for nuclear missiles.  Still relevant in some respects but hardly comprehensive or sufficient.

Rethinking digital governance means asking big questions about the ways in which it can and should be done. I’ll raise three out of many I could choose.

Three questions

Where does the balance lie between public and commercial interests in the evolution of a digital society? Access here’s an obvious example. For years there have been arguments about a right to access. The significance of unequal access now is becoming much more evident. In lockdown, those with access (and the right kind of work) can keep their jobs; their children can maintain their right to education; and so forth.

So should access be treated as a public good and governed as other public good utilities have previously governed - or still left to market forces? Should access to broadband become a right or remain dependent on commercial business models?

The digital world’s resistance to regulation has looked increasingly unsustainable in recent years.

Why, citizens as well as governments are asking, should digital corporations be allowed more leeway than those in sectors that are less crucial to the world economy or less intrusive when it comes to people’s lives? Why should there be fewer constraints to protect the public interest where digital innovation’s concerned than there are on energy or pharmaceutical companies, especially as we head towards the opportunities and perils of very rapid changes in technology? How does ‘permissionless innovation’ look in the age of AI, algorithmic decision-making and market dominance by data corporations whose record on data privacy is, let’s say, rather less than perfect.

Is multistakeholderism working? Since WSIS it’s been vigorously upheld by most within the internet community, but how inclusive has it really been? Digital discussion’s dominated by digital insiders. Meetings may be multistakeholder, but they’re multistakeholder within their own insider bubble.

There’s often lots of talk about the needs of the dispossessed, the unconnected, the users whose data are leveraged for digital advantage, but where are their faces or their voices? Has multistakeholderism, in practice, offered them a say or continued to exclude themfrom decision-making? There’s often discussion in meetings on the digital society about development, environment, potential benefits to different economic sectors, but it’s led by digital insiders, not by experts who really know those sectors.

A way forward

I raise these questions not to offer answers at this point but to say they need to be discussed and that the present crisis is an opportunity to do so.

Many of this year’s digital meetings are going virtual, for obvious reasons. There’s a risk, which needs to be addressed, that this will make them less, not more, inclusive. On content I’ll make three suggestions.

First, the lessons to be learnt from the current crisis should be high on the agenda of every digital discussion, including the IGF and ICANN. And this is not a time for spin about what digital technology ‘can’ do in future. It’s a time to learn lessons from what’s worked and what has not.

Second, digital governance fora should start to look at what types of governance would be most appropriate for shaping the future digital society according to the public interest – not their own interests or those of technologists, entrepreneurs or data corporations, but what’s in the interests of global society overall.

And third, to help them do that, they should welcome and invite input from people outside the digital establishment, give them the platform to say what they think about the future, ask them questions, listen to their answers, reflect on what those answers mean, and make them equal partners in developing the future.

It may not work, but at least it’s worth a try.

In recent months I’ve accumulated reports from many different sources on aspects of the digital society. For the next few weeks, this blog will look at some of the most interesting findings from these and what they mean in present circumstances.

Image: By @tomgruenbauer via

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.