A moment of change is coming in the internet governance system, with a key 2025 event attracting growing attention as an opportunity to re-found internet and technology governance for the 2030s and beyond.
This post explores the United Nations (UN) led review of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) being held in 2025 on the twentieth anniversary of the original WSIS, and explains why it matters to Australia.
The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was held almost two decades ago, culminating in the agreement of a concluding document, the Tunis Agenda, in 2005. The WSIS aimed to build a people-centric, inclusive and development-oriented information society and facilitate the implementation of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. However, issues related to the Internet, its governance, its role and functions were captured in the discussions at WSIS.
Among the most enduring innovations of the WSIS was the creation of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which was designed to be a non-decisional forum to discuss internet related public policy issues under United Nations auspices. However, an enduring point of contention is the non-decisional nature of the IGF, and the role of states in the internet governance system.
The IGF has changed considerably in its eighteen years, particularly in its format, discussion topics and participation levels. A broad push of a decade ago to see the governance of critical internet resources assigned to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) seems to have receded. However, recent and anticipated discussions in the UN and in other fora appear to indicate that governmental involvement in internet governance remains a topic of interest, while strategies to address this appear to have changed.
A live debate
A recent example of this was the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference (PP-22) held in Bucharest, Romania in September and October 2022. Countries that wish to see greater government involvement (such as China, Saudi Arabia, Russia among others) in charting the internet’s future were curiously non-confrontational. It is likely that this could in part be due to Russia, a leading member of that country group, being under significant diplomatic pressure arising from its invasion of Ukraine. There is also a broader pattern of a more general deflection of contentious debate to other more targeted opportunities and fora.
The main such forum is the upcoming WSIS+20 review which seeks to assess the implementation of the WSIS outcomes twenty years after they were agreed, including the IGF. Another such forum that readers should monitor – the forthcoming Summit of the Future, a UN gathering instigated by the Secretary General aimed at re-invigorating the global multilateral institutions for the 2030s and beyond. As part of this process, a Global Digital Compact is proposed, due for negotiation in 2023 and 2024 (and currently seeking input from stakeholders through the newly minted Office of the Secretary General’s Envoy on Technology).
From a timing perspective, the Global Digital Compact may comment upon the governance of technology in the global public interest, and will lead into the WSIS+20 review which is expected to happen in 2025. It is no coincidence that Russia is seeking to host the IGF that year, and it can be foreseen that that year marks a potential turning point, where those seeking to change internet governance will make their play.
Why is the debate still alive?
It is a truism that the internet is having an increasingly broad impact on all aspects of modern life. At the same time, it is also creating several challenges, such as cyber security, DNS abuse, inequities of digital access, the changing future of work and more – all of which need to be addressed.
These challenges are both national and global. Tackling them effectively requires both national and global action. As the foundation for such action, there is a need for deeper understanding of the contexts in which policy and regulation are made while taking account of all the impacts of technology.
The international community is notoriously slow at responding to such challenges and there is no effective global framework of any variety to tackle this effectively. Neither are these challenges easily solved on a national basis. Yet, as the world continues to grapple with potential solutions, the challenges continue to grow.
Some see the effective engagement of all those who can help solve these problems, through the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance, as being the only possible way to solve them effectively. Others think that governments alone can and must solve these problems, and that the governance of the internet needs to change to deliver control to governments, leaving them able to do so.
This is the nub of the debate.
The challenge for the ‘multi-stakeholder model’
We hold the view that an internet governance model genuinely built on the expertise, experience, insight and perspectives of stakeholders is the best way to shape the internet’s future. It means decisions are made by those who deeply understand the issues and can effectively implement outcomes once made.
This model of multi-stakeholder governance also lends itself to dealing with difficult policy elements that arise from the internet. This is because many of these challenges lie beyond national borders, or the effective control of national legal systems. Additionally because they are complex problems, best solved through bringing together a wide array of perspectives to build workable responses.
The WSIS+20 review in 2025 could mark a turning point where the technology community and broader social forces come together to shape a new, updated agenda for digital governance. A process of renewal that builds on the success of the multi-stakeholder model that serves the critical internet technologies so well, and builds effective approaches to solving the difficult problems the internet gives rise to and, in doing-so, protect the promise of the internet. An approach that builds on the strengths of the approach already in place, and extends those strengths to the problems and challenges the internet faces today.
Alternatively, 2025 could mark a push to extinguish this model, and possibly replace it with one where diplomats remote from and less knowledgeable about technology put themselves in the policy driving seat of the internet and shape what it will offer into the future.
These are stark alternatives, and there is no doubt which side we are on.
So what next for Australia?
To see the right choices made, Australia – the country, its government and organisations across the internet community - has to continue to be an active participant in shaping the debate in all of these interconnected processes.
We all need to continue to encourage and ensure that the existing multi-stakeholder internet institutions – ICANN prime among them – work effectively and expeditiously on their core roles.
We need – here in Australia and more broadly – to continue to paint the picture of the sorts of innovations we want to see in internet and technology governance, and build broad support in other countries in favour of the same.
We need to continue to encourage those institutions, particularly ICANN and the Internet Society (due to the resources they command and their profile and standing) along with the other internet governance related bodies to be involved with these discussions in a proactive and constructive, way.
We need to pay attention to the Global Digital Compact, and raise our voices in favour of innovations in internet governance that will give the ability to effectively tackle the tough problems, while protecting what works well today.
We need to be involved with the Summit of the Future, to help ensure that the reform agenda for the world’s multilateral system that is at the heart of that work does not set governments apart from stakeholders, and continues to encourage meaningful stakeholder involvement.
We need to engage in the coming WSIS+20 negotiations, so that we can work together across government and the broader community to make sure it is an opportunity for improvements to how we protect the internet’s potential, and solve the challenges it creates.
Sticking with it
Doing this will take time, focus and resources – people, and their ability to focus, to travel to and participate within institutions and processes to assure an Australian voice and to shape what happens.
This isn’t something we can, as a country, pick up in the months leading up to 2025. The countries that want a different settlement – to shut stakeholders out – are putting resources, focus and time into this work. So must we. 2023 is the year to set that in motion.
auDA will play its part in bringing stakeholders together to encourage these discussions, and will be monitoring and participating in a range of forums itself.
NetThing, the Australian IGF, will create a national meeting point to discuss our agenda together later in the year.
We ask you to consider - what can your organisation do? What can you do to lend your support? These are questions we need to think about individually, and share our plans with each other – so we can be more effective as one Team Australia, and to shape the internet we need for the future.