APC's reflection on the Options for the Future of Global Digital Cooperation on Recommendation 5A/B of the UN High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation

Detail from the cover of the Secretary General’s Roadmap on Digital Cooperation Detail from the cover of the Secretary General’s Roadmap on Digital Cooperation
Author: 
APC

The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) welcomes the opportunity to provide our comments and reflections to the Options for the Future of Global Digital Cooperation paper prepared by the governments of Germany and the United Arab Emirates as “Champions” to facilitate the follow-up process on Recommendation 5A/B of the final report of the UN Secretary General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation (HLPDC).

Following up on the HLPDC process, the launching of the Secretary General’s Roadmap on Digital Cooperation marks the UN’s 75th anniversary as a moment to enshrine shared values, principles, understandings and objectives for improved global digital cooperation infrastructure, which have the potential to revitalise commitment to the UN’s core values while accounting for the immense impact that digital technologies have had in the recent year, made even more evident in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

APC’s view is that global digital cooperation should aim to improve and democratise the governance of the internet at all levels, not only to establish more equitable influence for and among sovereign states, acknowledging that multilateralism and multistakeholderism are mutually reinforcing. Central to progress on this issue is recognition that:

  • Multilateralism is key. There are, however, real imbalances in the status quo of internet-related policy making processes, with countries in the global South having less influence and access.

  • Multistakeholderism is essential. There is a difference between an approach to global digital cooperation as more equal multilateral cooperation solely among states, and an approach which sees it as more effective and inclusive policy making involving all stakeholders.

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

With that in mind, we are pleased to see the Champions’ suggestion in the options paper, based on previous consultations, to give preference to the Internet Governance Forum Plus (IGF+) institutional framework.

We also acknowledge the Roadmap’s indication that reinvigorating the IGF would be the way forward. The IGF can serve as a key piece of the UN system as well as the internet governance and digital cooperation ecosystems, and 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.

We believe this model is the one with better conditions to establish truly accountable, inclusive, participatory and effective global digital cooperation among all stakeholders, building on the IGF’s strengths and achievements, such as gender balance, multistakeholderism and decentralised structure with the organisation of national/regional IGFs. We believe that a more empowered IGF should be at the centre of digital cooperation in the UN system and more widely. The IGF was never just an event, but a process.

Celebrating and acknowledging the IGF's achievements is important, but it is also important to acknowledge that change is needed to build on those achievements. Clearly, progress at the level of leadership is essential, based on evolving and improved capacity of the IGF, aimed at ensuring that there is truly effective collaboration between the IGF and the various other dimensions and layers in which decisions are made.

The IGF model should also be enhanced through measures to increase the political commitment of all stakeholders to participate in and support it, particularly governments and private sector actors. Strengthened cooperation mechanisms between the global IGF and the national and regional IGF initiatives (NRIs), as well as cooperation with other policy spaces, should also be a priority. These, of course, require strong leadership, dedicated resource mobilisation structures and revived and more coordinated IGF intersessional work.

In this sense, we make reference to the Response to the paper on “Options for the Future of Digital Cooperation” (version of 29 September 2020) prepared by the IGF Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) Working Group on IGF Strategy and Strengthening. We believe it provides concrete suggestions that should now be the subject of robust discussion with different stakeholders and direct consultation with the IGF community in order to define the way forward, with participation and transparency. 

We welcome the Options Paper’s concrete suggestions in relation to the concerns above, but encourage further attention to the following:

Stronger leadership for strengthening cooperation and coordination

The MAG is a representative body that has played a central role in the consolidation of the IGF. It focuses, however, on organisational tasks. An empowered body that could ensure a more outcome-oriented process, building on a stronger thematic focus during the sessions and enhanced intersessional work, sending clear messages to inform and feed other internet policy and internet governance processes, would be an important development. This body could better bridge the gap between deliberative spaces and decision-making processes.

That said, we worry about the format, composition and attributions to be defined for such a body. It is key to ensure that the lessons learned from years of MAG operation feed into this process of strengthening leadership in digital cooperation. Multistakeholderism, transparency, inclusivity and dialogue are key aspects to be safeguarded. 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 not carefully designed. It is important to ensure that this new body will not be disconnected from the IGF community. Clear accountability lines should be proposed right away, and extensive multistakeholder discussions should guide any developments.

In relation to this same point, it is important to engage in more open and meaningful discussions concerning consensus building, power dynamics and conflict of interests. There is a need to think outside the box, adopting fresh and innovative approaches in order to get buy-in and support from UN member states and other stakeholders. If sufficient consensus is not established early on with regard to points of disagreement, the impact of the mechanisms suggested may be compromised in the long run.

Strengthened leadership at the IGF is also key to place digital cooperation issues at the top of the political agenda. As indicated by the UN Secretary General’s Roadmap on Digital Cooperation, an Envoy on Technology will be appointed in 2021, and it is expected this person will fulfil a tripartite function: as advisory, advocate and focal point. It is crucial that explicit linkages of communication, cooperation and feedback are established between the IGF leadership and the Envoy, so as to establish coordination from the outset.

We consider that the IGF has been successful in establishing trust and reliability. A recharged and continued mandate within the UN could build on that stability to establish more effective leadership within the internet architecture. This leadership should also bridge technical and policy knowledge.

As noted above, there is a need for greater political commitment of all stakeholders to participate, particularly governments, but also the private sector, especially technology companies. The integration of technological and policy and norm-building expertise could provide an interesting platform for further engagement by all stakeholders. 

We recommend the establishment of a platform for intergovernmental dialogue on internet-related policy, as a discussion space, linked to the IGF in a way that relates to the thematic focus of the IGF in terms of policy issues and topics, as well as to the outcomes of intersessional work. Such a platform could:

  • Facilitate government-to-government discussion on internet-related public policy issues.

  • Enable governments to have access to cross-cutting internet-related public policy debates, challenges and opportunities.

  • Brief them on what issues are being dealt with by various policy forums around the world.

  • Support information sharing in a systematic way to facilitate coordination and collaboration between existing institutions and processes, particularly to link national and global processes.

  • Strengthen government participation and engagement in the IGF itself.

The IGF should also strengthen mechanisms for cooperation between the global IGF and the NRIs, while ensuring the latter remain autonomous and independent entities that reflect the priorities and particularities of the realities in their different countries and regions.

Concrete outcomes and links between discussion and decision-making bodies

As regards the criticism – and consequent call for action – in relation to the IGF outcomes, we consider that it is important to recognise that the forum has had significant impact throughout the years, including on policy. If any other or more targeted outcomes are to be expected, this should be clearly defined beforehand, in consultation with the IGF community, and resources and time should be allocated to this goal.

That said, the IGF would also greatly benefit from a more structured and intentional mapping and documentation of activities and impact. Evidence-based research could lead to a renovation of the important intersessional work already underway, in order to make it more coordinated and linked to other processes and decision-making spaces. The Dynamic Coalitions and Best Practice Forums already produce best practice recommendations and proposals and could serve as the foundations for the proposed “policy incubator”.

In its 2019 edition, the IGF signalled the creation of some interesting efforts aimed at linking discussion and decision-making bodies, for example, with the launching of the parliamentarians track. In Berlin, for the first time in IGF history, parliamentarians were brought into this debate in a comprehensive and focused way. At the end of the meeting, a call with recommendations to national parliaments was launched. Further ideas on how to follow up with national level institutions could continue to be matured.

Another important step in the direction of more policy-oriented outcomes has been the adoption, since 2017, of key forum messages at the end of each annual session.

Other outcomes could be mentioned that are substantive and reflect the evolution of the internet governance agenda. It is of course crucial to discuss ways to optimise the use of those inputs.

Greater visibility

Linked to the above, improved documentation of ongoing activities would provide relevant material for the preparation of a robust communication strategy that would allow increased public recognition of the role played by the IGF in global digital cooperation. Professional services should be hired for carrying out these communication efforts. We welcome the idea of regular “state of digital cooperation” addresses by the UN Secretary General at the IGF, and consider that the chair of the MAG (or of the new body under discussion) could present annual forum outcomes in other UN spaces, such as the UN General assembly or the sessions of the UN Human Rights Council.

Inclusivity

APC considers that further inclusivity could be generated by both strengthening the modalities of remote participation and investing resources to enable the participation of diverse stakeholders. As mentioned above, increased research efforts should be dedicated to better document pluralism and diversity in participation in order to provide a clearer picture of where additional measures are needed. 

Ultimately, digital inclusion is a sustainable development and social justice challenge, rather than just a connectivity challenge. Therefore, a more inclusive agenda should also be the focus of additional discussion, especially as it relates to the mainstreaming of sustainable development concerns. No improved digital cooperation at the global level can take place without a clear commitment to this agenda.

Funding

It is key that, looking forward, the IGF is equipped with a dedicated resource mobilisation structure. Ensuring predictability and reinforcing the Trust Fund is an essential step towards the sustainability of the IGF process and the strengthening of the institutional capacity and political leadership of the IGF MAG and the IGF Secretariat.

It is important to highlight, however, that the IGF in its current form already has a more robust mandate than it is able to fulfil due to chronic underfunding and lack of institutional capacity and political leadership. The HLPDC final report, for example, mentions that the IGF Trust Fund would be a dedicated fund for the IGF+, to which all stakeholders would be encouraged to contribute. However, voluntary funding has proven woefully insufficient to support the IGF. It is difficult if not impossible to imagine the IGF Plus model succeeding unless a radically different approach to funding is pursued.

Guidance and transparency in a complex system

On the proposed idea of an observatory, we call attention to the need to, again, build on the many experiences already underway. We recommend, as an initial step, the mapping of such experiences and the launching of a structure in the form of an Observatory of Observatories. As regards the point raised in the Options Paper concerning the need for systematic guidance to navigate through the various layers and platforms of the internet, we recommend further attention be given to capacity-building issues within and beyond the IGF. The important role played so far by Schools of Internet Governance should be recognised and expanded. As part of this effort, it is important to provide and publicise definitions and promote further clarity in relation to roles, responsibilities and relationships.

Additionally, the IGF should be seen as 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 to respond to the persistent and emerging challenges in the digital age, including the environmental crisis.

About APC

APC is an international network of civil society organisations founded in 1990 dedicated to empowering and supporting people working for peace, human rights, development and protection of the environment, through the strategic use of information and communication technologies (ICTs). We work to build a world in which all people have easy, equal and affordable access to the creative potential of ICTs to improve their lives and create more democratic and egalitarian societies.

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