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Reinvigorated IGF discusses the existential threats to the internet

2019-12-05 Blog

Blog post by Polina Malaja and Peter Van Roste, CENTR - Last week, thousands of participants gathered in Berlin for the annual global Internet Governance Forum.

Across 5 days, they discussed essential issues that will affect the lives of billions.

While no material outcome or decisions are to be expected from an IGF, its value can hardly be overestimated.

IGF has matured into a well-organised platform that allows a broad range of stakeholders to engage and build networks.

Here are some key lessons we took from IGF.

Cybersecurity should be everyone’s priority

While debates often got a little confused over the scope of cybersecurity (criminal activity using the internet vs. criminal activity targeting the internet infrastructure), the consensus seemed to be that the protection of the infrastructure needs to be our priority. There is no single entity that can address cybersecurity on its own. It is not a mere technical issue, but it has social, cultural and political aspects that will need to be addressed. Local IGFs should continue to bring together all stakeholders, including end users, and provide a platform to coordinate responses and resources.

A few highlights:

  • A new element (for IGF at least) was the regular references to the need for formal diplomacy. At the same time, it was pointed out that current diplomatic norms and language are often misaligned with the realities of a cyber incident.
  • An interesting concept was the need for attribution of cyber-attacks. While technically perpetrators can often be identified, those behind the attacks regularly go unidentified and unpunished.
  • The Internet of Things is turning into the main vulnerability as it can be used as an attack vector. A coordinated approach, global standards and proper cost allocation (vendors!) will be crucial.
  • Splinternet is a worry. While closely linked to sovereignty, it also impacts the cyber-security debate. National initiatives to protect the internet are bound to fail.

Education breaks deadlocks

Events such as IGF or EuroDIG benefit from the presence of global experts on issues like cybersecurity or access, and this allows for properly-informed discussions. But it is essential that all stakeholders cooperate and synchronise their efforts to provide training and education outside the walls of these meetings. Across dozens of panel discussions, ‘education’ is probably the topic we heard mentioned most as the crowbar to break a deadlock. On a regional level, events such as EuroDIG could play an essential role. Local IGFs could pick it up as a renewed raison d’être. Uninformed regulation is a threat to the internet.

Internet standards are vital

A session on internet standards included a debate on 5 interesting and not entirely uncontroversial recommendations:

  • Create a (positive) business case for the deployment of internet standards;
  • Incorporate internet standards into law, that is regulated actively, so they can be deployed successfully;
  • Build internet standards into products, so that they can be deployed successfully;
  • Make standards and their effects on internet security better known;
  • Make ICT and internet products more secure through education.

While the internet has so far mainly relied on the voluntary, incentive-based implementation of standards, the call for regulatory enforcement could be a game changer.

Digital sovereignty is a multistakeholder model

The opening ceremony of the IGF included a speech by Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel. She stressed the need to define “digital sovereignty” as a means for us as a society to determine ourselves digitally. Digital sovereignty does not mean protectionism. It does not mean censorship either, according to Merkel. What it means is standing for a free and open internet, according to a common understanding between different parties. Governments cannot shape the internet alone, and we can only speak of global standards when all stakeholders are taken on board and can participate in an equal way, including civil society and private businesses. Finally, technology has to serve people: human rights, rule of law and democracy are as equally important online as they are offline.

CENTR’s role

CENTR continues to support IGF by actively participating in discussions, engaging with other stakeholders within and outside the DNS industry. Our contributions this year included participating as panellists on the Day 0 High-Level Meeting Panel on Cybersecurity and industry espionage, and in the Workshop on tackling illicit content through the DNS organised by CGI.br. We hold regular meetings at each IGF with our regional counterparts in Africa, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region to exchange practices and share experiences. We also coordinate a more common approach in the interest of the global community of ccTLDs within discussions in other fora like ICANN and the Internet & Jurisdiction Policy Network. We discussed the future of internet governance in Europe together with our members and institutional partners, clearly identifying the need for continuous and increased support of EuroDIG and national IGFs in order to strengthen and promote the IG efforts on the global level, in the true meaning of multistakeholder model.