In April 2023 we shared a blog post on the Global Digital Compact (GDC). This post provides an update on recent developments and shares a critique of the Policy Brief related to the GDC issued by the United Nations Secretary-General.
What has happened since April?
Parallel to the open consultation process on the GDC that generated hundreds of submissions, an intergovernmental process, led by co-facilitators Rwanda and Sweden, kicked off early in the year. Through to the end of June, the process explored key topics through a series of thematic ‘deep dives’ which included internet governance.
The input from the intergovernmental and submission processes will be collated into an Issues Paper for further discussion leading up to a ministerial meeting preparing for the Summit of the Future in New York alongside the United Nations General Assembly sessions in September 2023. The meeting will set the direction for the Summit, including for the GDC and will set the scene for detailed negotiations between member states in 2024.
May 2023 saw an unexpected development - the UN Secretary-General release a Policy Brief that outlines his vision for digital cooperation and for the GDC. The Policy Brief references to a report prepared by the “High Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism” (the HLAB Report), which takes a broader look at what a renewed multilateral system for the world would look like.
The Policy Brief will sit alongside the Issues Paper informing deliberations by member states in 2024. Given the timing of its preparation and release, it was not possible for the Policy Brief to have been informed by all the contributions shared through the open consultation process, nor by the deep dives mentioned above.
In this post, rather than engaging with the policy topics that the Policy Brief discusses for consideration in the GDC, we are focused on the governance related aspects of the proposals.
What’s in the Policy Brief?
The key proposals in the Secretary General’s Policy Brief are:
- The GDC would be a global framework to ‘advance’ multi-stakeholder ‘cooperation’ on the broad set of digital governance issues, being initiated and led by member states.
- The GDC would ‘facilitate’ ‘collaboration’ among existing ‘digital cooperation processes’ (e.g. the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the Internet Engineering Task Force, etc.), and take the lead on establishing new governance arrangements and implementation initiatives across various key digital themes including connectivity, Sustainable Development Goals, human rights, security, data protection, AI and emerging tech.
- A primary implementation mechanism for the GDC would be a proposed Digital Cooperation Forum (DCF), which would meet annually. The agenda would be set by a tripartite advisory group drawn from a representative group of state, non-state and UN participatory stakeholders, rotating every two years.
- The DCF would address the need for a ‘networked multilateral arrangement’ that would bring together diverse threads of digital governance and establish a focal point to support converging agendas, communication and the alignment of norms and standards across the various work streams and diverse actors in the digital space.
- An annual report provided by the UN Secretariat, based on stakeholder contributions, would inform the agenda of the DCF. ‘Non state actors’ are broadly defined as private sector and civil society. In its discussion, the Policy Brief omits any reference to two other key players in internet governance - the technical community and academia.
- The DCF would be linked in some to-be-determined way with another innovation – the ‘Global Commission on Just and Sustainable Digitalisation’ proposed by the HLAB Report mentioned above. The HLAB Report suggests amongst other things that the IGF, along with the proposed DCF, could potentially be integrated by the work of the proposed Commission.
Commentary on the Policy Brief
Some interesting and thoughtful commentary on the Policy Brief have been published in recent weeks. Key articles of interest include:
- ICANN published a detailed critique of the Policy Brief proposals, with a focus on correcting many errors of fact or interpretation contained in the document
- Wolfgang Kleinwächter provided some thoughts as part of a longer analysis of the pressures facing the internet today
- Fiona Alexander, a former United States government official, published a critique of the Secretary-General’s proposals
- Konstantinos Komaitis, a European internet governance scholar, explained some of the risks of the UN-centric approach set out in the Policy Brief.
The challenges are real…
The Secretary-General’s goal of improved global governance is understandable, given the state of the world today. Ways to improve collaboration and coordination to tackle the social and economic challenges technology brings should be developed, so that more people can realise more benefits from technology, and the challenges better managed.
… but are they solved by the proposed solutions?
The approach sidelines the existing multi-stakeholder internet governance arrangements in favour of a state-led approach under the guidance of the United Nations. In place of the open, inclusive, collaborative multi-stakeholder internet governance system that has supported the productive growth of the internet over the last 3 decades, the proposal will see internet governance processes hidden in the inter-governmental politics of state-to-state processes.
Another note of concern is the proposed removal of the technical community as a stakeholder category in decision-making aspects of digital governance at the global level, by implementing the above mentioned ‘tripartite’ advisory group structure for the DCF. This approach would limit the multi-stakeholder internet community to the implementation phase of decisions - decisions made without their input.
This would also risk internet related decision-making being led by governments with individual nation-based political interests that could undermine the overall open, seamless operations of the internet.
auDA posits that efforts should instead be focused on shaping digital technologies in the broader public interest. This should then be followed by discussion on how to further these aims in the WSIS+20 review, which should conclude in 2025.
Preference for a multi-stakeholder approach
The existing IGF could fulfil many of the aims proposed for a DCF, with suitable resourcing and engagement from governments and other stakeholders. After all, the IGF already discusses the issues proposed for consideration.
The missing link lies in the IGF’s current working methods (which do not aim to drive policy convergence) and the full inclusivity of its participation (which needs to do a better job with governmental, less-developed country and business engagement).
Evolution and improvement of existing institutions (like the IGF) is a lower risk way to tackle the broader challenges facing the world from the use of technology and digital services today and into the future – and ensures such work remains inclusive of all stakeholder groups. Such an evolutionary approach has shaped today’s IGF (think about the IGF+ reforms of recent years, including the creation of the Tech Envoy role and the development of the IGF Leadership Panel).
To be clear: the status quo models of global technology governance may not by themselves be adequate for fresh challenges. Existing internet governance institutions that make decisions and resolve problems (ICANN, for example), often have clear and focused remits, to ensure their attention does not stray from their essential missions – and none of them are designed to deal with the breadth of issues facing digital governance today.
Where specific challenges do need new gatherings of stakeholders to solve them, targeted approaches should be trialled to address them – working with and building on the foundations of the existing internet governance system. If the process of generating a Global Digital Compact can lead to improvements through evolution, that will be a positive outcome.
The discussion continues – add your voice to the mix
The next few months will see more analysis and discussion of the proposals in the Policy Brief, and in the development of the GDC by member states at the United Nations. It will be important for organisations and participants in this discussion to go beyond critique. There are some additional moments in the next few months where these topics will be on the table.
Some of the forums where debate will happen in an inclusive fashion are:
- NetThing – Australia’s national IGF initiative – on Monday 28 August.
- Asia Pacific Regional IGF – a hybrid event taking place online and in Brisbane, Australia on 29–31 August.
- The global Internet Governance Forum – being held 8-12 October in a hybrid fashion.
We encourage readers to read the proposals in the Policy Brief, consider their own context and ideas, share their thinking in the forums noted above or with the auDA team directly. We’ll keep developing our thinking and sharing it here from time to time. On these or other issues, we’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.