Internet Governance Revamped? Global Digital Compact and NETmundial+10

Blog 23-05-2024

Internet governance is experiencing an eventful period. In April, the United Nations published the zero draft of the Global Digital Compact (GDC), aiming for “an inclusive, open, and secure digital future for all” with a first revised draft published mid-May. Concurrently, the NETmundial+10 process crystallised into an ambitious Multistakeholder Statement aiming to “strengthen Internet governance and digital policy processes.” Although these documents were drafted by different stakeholders and processes, both documents will influence internet governance for years to come.

Global Digital Compact: movement around the UN System?

The final version of the GDC will be adopted during the Summit of the Future in September 2024 as part of ‘A Pact for the Future,’ which will guide international cooperation in the fields of sustainable development, peace and security, and UN system reform, among others. Thus, the envisaged changes extend well beyond digital cooperation, with the GDC being only one stream within the overall Pact for the Future.

The revised GDC outlines a series of thematic clusters and related commitments around five objectives to be achieved by 2030, focusing on issues such as closing the digital divide, expanding inclusion in the digital economy, fostering an inclusive, open, safe and secure digital space, advancing responsible and equitable international data governance, and governing emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI).

Closing the divide under the multistakeholder model

The GDC proposes twelve guiding principles that are crucial for achieving its commitments. Among them is a principle explicitly acknowledging the technical community as integral to the multistakeholder model of internet governance. This is a foundational principle that has allowed the internet to grow to the form it takes today. Additionally, the GDC is guided by international human rights law. The GDC shall help advancing all human rights and fundamental freedoms both online and offline. Both principles are key in fostering an inclusive and equitable long-term development of the internet, and as such are aligned with CENTR’s Principles for the Next Digital Decade.

The first objective of the GDC, “[c]losing all digital divides and accelerating progress across the Sustainable Development Goals”, seeks to make tangible improvements in global connectivity, digital literacy and digital public goods and infrastructure. CENTR's feedback to the GDC highlighted the necessity of unhindered access to domain names as fundamental online identifiers used to establish an online presence, which in our opinion can help with the GDC target to achieve "universal, reliable and meaningful connectivity", beyond broadband goals.

Steering clear of internet fragmentation

The GDC also aims to ensure the internet remains a truly global resource. With the objective of “[f]ostering an inclusive, open, safe and secure digital space that respects, protects and promotes human rights”, it emphasises the need to promote an "open, global, interoperable[...] internet" for the benefit of all.  In addition, the GDC draft recognises the importance of the, "open-source software, platforms, data, AI models, standards and content that can be freely used and adapted” for the empowerment of societies and individuals. “These goods support the development of digital public infrastructure that can deliver services at scale,” according to the GDC draft.

Human rights and sustainable development are framed as “interdependent enablers for closing digital divides”. Any internet access restrictions need to comply with international law, including human rights. Furthermore, the GDC's objective on “[a]dvancing responsible and equitable international data governance” calls for transparent and secure data collection, storage and processing, as well as empowering individuals through “legally mandated protections for data privacy", in line with the CENTR submission. According to the draft, further data and metadata standards preventing “bias, discrimination and human rights violations” should be developed. Lastly, the draft wants to enable cross-border data flows based on “interoperable and inclusive mechanisms" that respect data protection and privacy.

GDC and internet governance

To address emerging technology concerns, the GDC proposes to establish new institutions within the UN system as part of its fifth objective to “Enhance international governance of emerging technologies", including AI. This includes AI being studied by a new International Scientific Panel on AI and funded through a Global Fund for AI and Emerging Technologies for Sustainable Development. In addition, a UN Digital Human Rights Advisory Service, as well as a specialised office "to facilitate system-wide coordination and cooperation” within the UN Secretariat shall also be created.

The proposed UN Secretariat's coordination and cooperation office raises questions about its interplay and potential overlap with existing multilateral bodies and multistakeholder fora dealing with internet governance, such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum or the Internet Governance Forum (IGF).

Within the context of established internet governance institutions, the GDC draft particularly focuses on the IGF and its key role as the central forum for “multistakeholder discussion on public policy issues related to the Internet”. As such, the document suggests providing financial support to IGF and to further diversify its participation. This is a positive development as explicit support for IGF’s financing was not present in the zero draft.

NETmundial+10 Multistakeholder Statement

Amid the GDC deliberations on the future of internet governance, the tenth anniversary of the NETmundial discussions was taking place in parallel. This bottom-up process, open to all stakeholders – individual or institutional – aimed to address one of the lingering internet governance questions: "how to help all actors to contribute to a multistakeholder process to create the networked global governance architecture that is people-centred, sustainable and development-oriented, as the networked society demands”.

The resulting non-binding NETmundial+10 Multistakeholder Statement recommends strengthening the multistakeholder model by improving consensus-building mechanisms and developing tangible guidelines and recommendations within multilateral processes.

The São Paulo Multistakeholder Guidelines

In 2014, the NETmundial discussions introduced ten internet governance Process Principles, advocating for a multistakeholder, open, participative, and consensus-driven governance model. The 2024 Multistakeholder Statement operationalises the initial Process Principles by introducing the new São Paulo Multistakeholder Guidelines.

The Guidelines “shall help sub-national, national, regional, and global communities to build trust, and to establish and implement multistakeholder collaboration processes" that are such not only by their name. To that end, São Paulo Multistakeholder Guidelines suggest improvements for multistakeholder collaboration and consensus-building, by explicitly acknowledging the power and capacity asymmetries among stakeholders, as well as their different needs and vulnerabilities. Further emphasis is placed on enhancing transparency, accessibility, and accountability throughout the multistakeholder process.

NETmundial+10 feedback to ongoing processes

The Netmundial+10 Multistakeholder Statement emphasises avoiding further fragmentation or duplication of multistakeholder governance fora. New institutions can burden stakeholders by stretching their resources thin across multiple processes. Therefore, multilateral processes should be more inclusive, particularly to stakeholders from the Global South.

To achieve better results and consensus-building, the process should empower all stakeholders to contribute in a meaningful way to all stages of the decision-making process. Improvements on transparency, participation and evaluation methods, are also needed. Finally, the accountability mechanisms with “clear steps and deadlines for the implementation of recommendations” should be present in all parts of the process.

Similarly to the GDC draft, the NETmundial+10 Multistakeholder Statement also recognises the importance of the IGF as an “effective space for Internet governance and digital public policy debates and coordination”, despite insufficient funding.

The IGF’s open nature, inclusivity and connections with local, national and regional initiatives can strengthen coordination and information-sharing among the stakeholders. This makes it a suitable venue for following up on multilateral digital policy agreements, with the Multistakeholder Statement consequently suggesting extending IGF’s mandate for at least ten years.

As further feedback to the ongoing negotiations of the GDC, the Statement cautions against creating new structures or processes that would duplicate existing efforts. Instead, the Statement calls for a better coordination across governance spaces.

Multistakeholder model on its way to WSIS+20

While the GDC and the NETmundial+10 have different purposes, their drafting processes highlight the contrast between multistakeholder and multilateral models. As much as countries are willing to consult the stakeholders, as shown in the changes made to the zero draft, the drafting of the GDC still remains primarily in their hands. On the other hand, the directly approachable NETmundial forum enabled all types of stakeholders to weigh in and share their opinions, in true spirit of multistakeholderism.

While the targets of the GDC and timelines to achieve those goals are laudable, the potential creation of new internet governance regimes outside of the existing institutions raises concerns. The open drafting and the ambition of the São Paulo Multistakeholder Guidelines should inform the GDC drafting process as well as the WSIS+20 Review Process next year. WSIS+20 will decide whether the current internet's multistakeholder governance model, including the IGF, can live up to emerging challenges. On both counts, the technical community shall play a key role by being actively involved and providing its necessary expertise to support and deliver free and interoperable internet of the future.

Published By Filip Lukáš
Filip is the Policy Advisor at CENTR, advising members on relevant EU policy and liaising with governments, institutions and other organisations in the internet ecosystem.