We’re coming to the end of another year along what once was called the ‘digital superhighway’, our accelerating trek towards an increasingly digital society. Time to take stock and think about what’s next.
And, this year, year’s near-end has coincided with the latest annual IGF, the Internet Governance Forum that is one of the lasting outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) and each year brings together online folks to talk about their hopes and fears, aspirations and controversies.
This year’s was the sixteenth, and the first that’s been held physically that I’ve not personally attended. There’ll be few folks left that have been to all of them. Last year’s was online, this year’s was hybrid, in Katowice, Poland and online. A challenge to technology, and a challenge to the ways in which we are still learning how to interact.
In those sixteen years I’ve seen the IGF evolve. Some history, some thoughts about the challenges it faces, and some questions for next year.
The IGF today
What is the IGF today? Looking at it from my desk, on my PC, what did I see? Two things:
a) a series of discussions, some more online than off, some interesting some not, some challenging and controversial, others repetitive and serving vested interests – a mixed bag, in short; and
b) a gathering of the clan, an opportunity for networking, meetings of minds in corridors and coffee bars and eating places that cuts across stakeholder barriers and maybe inches forward to consensus.
The former was easier in a hybrid format than the latter.
The hope – expressed in UN resolutions and by participants – is that a) and b) can come together to bring about outcomes of substance. Not decisions, for that’s not its role and it has not that authority. Principles, perhaps; ideas that can be taken forward into the places where decisions fall.
This year’s theme was ‘Internet United’, and for many that spelt out an idea of what the internet has (maybe) been and (they feel) should stay: universal, unfragmented, the same technology delivering the same services to people everywhere.
There’s a growing sense that this is challenged, by geopolitics and maybe also, now, by technology aligned with geopolitics, by the contest for techno-dominance that’s developed between the United States and China, by the contest between universality – and the power it grants to those with the resources to go big – and national or communal identities. I caught a deal of talk about that challenge during this year’s sessions.
And famously, of course, the IGF is multistakeholder: mixing governments and businesses, geeks and civil society campaigners, from North and South. Of which more later.
How has it travelled over sixteen years?
Most of those who now attend the IGF do not recall its origins. And, as with the origins of much about the internet – including TCP/IP and WWW – origin myths have aggregated round them.
It’s worth remembering that the IGF was born in compromise at WSIS, part of a plan cobbled together from different ideas to get around apparently intractable disagreements over ‘who did’ or ‘who should’ ‘run’ the internet way back in 2005.
There was no clear idea at WSIS of exactly how the IGF should work, and no sense when it first met of whether it would work at all. But the first meeting, in Athens in 2006, was a success. People who had gone into it fearing failure came out of it more optimistic; and so the form that first meeting took in hope became the form from which it has evolved.
Looking at it since, we can see both momentum and inertia. The IGF’s progressed as the internet has grown, it’s extended reach, and there’s a will to give it greater substance and enable more substantive outcomes. At the same time, there’s powerful pressure to keep it as it’s been, not to change its role or its relationships with (for instance) the United Nations and other multilateral agencies, with governments, with new stakeholders on the block.
Those tensions have long underpinned discussions on the future of the IGF. They were evident in proposals for improvement made by a working group of the Commission on Science and Technology for Development a decade ago, and more recently in proposals for an IGF+ (IGF Plus) that emerged from the UN Secretary-General’s Panel on Digital Cooperation.
They’ve resurfaced – sometimes acrimoniously – regarding new plans that have emerged from the UN for an IGF ‘Leadership Panel’ that could reconfigure links between it and other decision-making fora.
What are the challenges?
The IGF’s mandate is up for renewal (or for non-renewal) when the UN General Assembly reviews WSIS outcomes in 2025, so discussions about its future are likely to become more significant during the run-up thither.
Issues raised in the UN Secretary-General's Roadmap for Digital Cooperation and institutional changes that may follow it will obviously be important here – including ways of building more substantive outcomes and stronger engagement with the growing multiplicity of other (multistakeholder and multilateral) fora concerned with digital governance.
But so will other issues. Here are five more themes that need to be considered when considering the future of the IGF.
First, whether the IGF should be an annual event or a continuous activity, with more emphasis on intersessional work. It currently has ‘best practice fora’ and ‘dynamic coalitions’, and has instituted policy networks on the environment and ‘meaningful access’ . There are more than a hundred national and regional IGFs that now take place during the year between the global meetings.
Second, how to engage those who don’t, won’t or can’t engage. Many of the debates this year had an insider feel: participants and panelists knew one another, discussions built from common understanding, shared perspectives, often expressed in language that insiders know and others don’t. But a global internet belongs not just to its insiders; it belongs also to those who have joined only recently, who don't have the time or money to spend at IGFs, whose voices are inadequately represented. This is partly an issue of geography, to some degree of gender, certainly of language, and substantially of class.
Third, how to engage with policy issues beyond the internet that don’t belong to it. There’s a lot of talk on rights at IGFs, and much about digital equality, some about developmental applications or at least the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). But the further discourse reaches beyond issues that are internet-specific (such as access) towards issues that are more fundamental (such as poverty) or sector-specific (such as health), the fewer non-insiders are engaged and the less discussion is outside the tent.
Fourth, how to engage with digital technology that’s not the internet. The most pressing issues of digital policy in the future aren’t internet-specific, but to do with artificial intelligence, algorithmic decision-making, the digitalisation of conflict and so forth. Governance questions that concern these are different from those affecting the internet per se. Mission creep on the part of IGF is not necessarily a good way to address them. More engagement between the IGF and other fora is essential.
Fifth, how does it handle the relationship between those parts of the internet that are universal – say, its underlying technology, so long as that remains its underlying technology – and the services and usage patterns that are not. The idea that the internet, including both technology and services, will be the same in, say, California, Sweden, Chad and China is clearly unsustainable: it never has been and it never will be.
The blog next year
Some issues there with which this blog will grapple next year. There’ll be others too that I’ll explore.
Some will follow events out in the world that are not just about the digital. COVID-19’s been the biggest global story for two years now. As the omicron variant spreads across the world, the trajectory and impact of the pandemic are again uncertain. Geopolitics is looking dangerous, climate change becoming more dramatic. The relationship between the world of digital and these other issues is surely going to feature.
Some will follow developments in the UN and other international fora. There’ll be more discussions there about AI and ethics, about the management of cyber-conflict, about content management, about the power of digital corporations, about the ways in which digitalisation is affecting trade and education, equality and equity, the powerful and the marginal. These too will surely feature.
I also mean next year to look at some of the classic texts on ICTs – how right, how wrong, how useful now – as well as new reports on new adventures at the edge of cyberspace – what’s going right, what’s going wrong, what to hope for, what to fear.
As always, in this blog, I’ll aim to look at issues from a different angle, and pose questions that seem to be worth asking, especially when it doesn’t seem they’re being asked enough. I hope you’ll join me again when the new year has begun.
Inside the Digital Society will now take its annual Northern winter/Southern summer break, and will be back in the second week of January.
Image copyright: Polish Press Agency (PAP)