This week, as the IGF 2020 was wrapping up, The Economist proposed a grand tech bargain, understood as a new set of rules, arrangements, and organisations for managing the digital world. The IGF was only briefly mentioned, rather than described as a space where a grand tech bargain may occur or materialise.
This is not an exception. The IGF barely registers in the global public space. No news agency reported on IGF 2020 this week. The IGF is not prominent on the global digital policy radar beyond the relatively limited circle of a few thousand people that regularly follow the forum. Widespread ignorance of the IGF is a major missed opportunity for those who see the Internet as a vehicle for human development, economic growth, and societal progress for the following reasons.
First, the IGF is the only digital governance space with an official mandate by the UN General Assembly. At a time where trust and legitimacy are not in great supply, the IGF’s mandate is highly relevant across stakeholder groups. Second, it is the only major policy space where digital issues are addressed in a holistic way. This year, the traditional coverage of development, human rights, and security issues was extended to also include the interplay between digital issues and the environment. Third, unlike many other digital fora, at the IGF, there are participants from developing countries; of course, not enough, but much more than, for example, the G7, ‘the technology alliance’, or other spaces where a grand tech bargain may happen, according to The Economist. Finally, the IGF is also a place where governments, the private sector, and civil society each feel equally (un)comfortable. In IGF lingo, it is truly a multistakeholder space.
Why are all the achievements and potentials of the IGF not reflected by global buy-in? There are many reasons, however the main one can be traced back to the IGF’s origins in 2005, when after gruelling November negotiations in Tunis, it emerged as a compromise between Western actors and businesses who did not want to have Internet issues addressed at the UN and, mainly, developing countries who wanted the UN to have a bigger role in digital matters. The Western actors got a multistakeholder and non-negotiating policy space while developing countries got, for the first time, a space for Internet policy discussions under the wider UN umbrella. That being said, the Tunis compromise made the IGF a policy orphan at birth.
Later on, when then Secretary-General Kofi Annan – the main promoter of the Tunis compromise – ended his mandate, the IGF became an orphan in the UN system as well. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs accepted the two-year old IGF and helped it survive. It was only with the arrival of Secretary-General Antonio Gutterres that the now 15 year-old IGF has more political visibility and organisational support. Guterres has addressed the last three IGFs: In 2018, in Paris together with President Macron, and last year, in Berlin together with Chancellor Merkel, and this year via a video statement.
It is time for the IGF to move into a new phase – in particular through the IGF Plus proposal – and start emerging as a digital home for humanity where governments and businesses, with the participation of civil society, tech developers, and academia, can make a grand tech bargain or develop a digital social contract.
It is an interest – to some extent – of all major actors involved to make the IGF the place where a global tech bargain could happen:
For the UN, it is a matter of survival. If digital governance finds a home in other fora, the UN would lose its ability to contribute to a future shaped by data, AI, and other digital issues.
For the business sector, the IGF Plus can help them regain legitimacy and global trust. The IGF Plus policy incubator could contribute to globally harmonised digital policies that would help ensure that the Internet remains a place for innovation and connection for all. An enhanced IGF would be the best bet for preventing potential challenges like a splinternet.
For small and developing countries, the IGF Plus would likely be the only way to be involved in global digital policy development in an impactful way. An effectively organised IGF Plus can help them to keep abreast of hundreds of digital policy processes that they cannot follow due to limited human and institutional resources.
For citizens, civil society, and academia worldwide, the IGF Plus can facilitate inclusive and transparent policy discussions. It could serve as a public square where digital concerns are voiced and addressed in constructive ways.
For China and the USA, the world’s strongest digital powers, multistakeholder and multilateral solutions may – on first glance – not appear like favourable solutions. It is much easier for them to project digital power in bilateral negotiations and business deals. That being said, without global digital solutions, they may end up losing a lot due to the creeping disintegration of the Internet. For example, their businesses would have limited market coverage if Internet fragmentation were to accelerate over the coming years.
Hopefully, these real-politik interests align around the IGF Plus architecture. The foundation for the IGF Plus is endorsed by the UN Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, and includes a high-level segment, help desk, co-operation accelerator, and policy incubator. He also has a mandate from the World Summit of Information Society (Article 72 of Tunis Agenda) to make these changes a reality. This week, in his concluding address to IGF 2020, he said that he intends to move quickly on actions that are within his mandate. He has a building permit, so to speak, and the building blocks to make a digital home for humanity a reality. The world urgently needs a space where countries, companies, and citizens can come together to address their digital issues in informed, impactful, and inclusive ways, and the IGF Plus can be that space.
* Editor’s Note: This Editorial, a part of the IGF 2020 Final Report was prepared by the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP) and DiploFoundation, with the support of the Internet Society.