The Internet was launched in 1983, and it has become vitally important for billions of people since the invention of the World Wide Web (WWW) in 1990. Today, economic, and political opportunities and the potential risks of the Internet are clear. Most of us access it daily, not only in our modern way of life. This is true before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Internet has proven to be an almost indispensable tool for people and businesses during the crisis and will certainly be so after the pandemic. It’s not a surprise that in the sphere of such a mighty global system like the Internet, massive political, economic, social, ecological, ideological, power, and control issues are based. Due to the origin of the Internet and historically, the USA had a special role in the aforementioned issues. But China, Russia, India, Africa, the Arab world, Latin America, and the EU have a greater say now. This is partly a result of the tremendous innovation power of the Internet ecosystem itself and partly the consequence of international cooperation following the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) in 2003 (Geneva) and follow-up event in 2005 (Tunis). The design of Internet Governance has been a crucial global issue since then. The UN enables the necessary framework conditions for a worldwide inclusive exchange in this context.
What is the UN IGF?
The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is a multi-stakeholder dialogue platform established by the United Nations in 2006. Annual meetings have taken place all over the world since then. Government, private sector, civil society, technical and academic community representatives come together on an open and inclusive process to address current legal, political, social, and technical aspects of the Internet. Just to name a few issues: Internet connection, access and usage, broadband expansion, technical standards, human rights matters, freedom of expression, network neutrality and zero-rating, data protection, and privacy, the impact of digital technologies on everyday life and business sectors, and opportunities and threats arising for economic, social, and sustainable development. The IGF is also an important event for connecting young people interested in shaping our avenue towards a future in the digital age. “Internet United” The headline of this year’s IGF hosted by the Government of Poland from 6th to 10th of December 2021 is “Internet United”.
Due to the Corona restrictions, the IGF 2021 is organized as a hybrid event to achieve the goal of making it as inclusive as possible: The program is built around the six IGF 2021 issue areas and will include about 300 activities such as workshops, open discussions, group, and networking sessions, as well as celebrations:
1. Economic and Social Inclusion and Human Rights
2. Universal Access and Meaningful Connectivity
3. Emerging Regulation: Market Structure, Content, Data, and Consumer Rights and Protection
4. Environmental Sustainability and Climate Change
5. Inclusive Internet Governance Ecosystems and Digital Cooperation,
6. Trust, Security, and Stability
- Economic and Social Inclusion and Human Rights
“The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on existing and growing inequalities around the world. People and institutions from all sectors and stakeholder groups need to work together to design and implement enabling environments to foster inclusive, resilient, and sustainable societies and economies. In doing so, meaningful access and inclusivity need to be achieved at all levels, from access to infrastructure to online education, digital literacy, and skills, to equal opportunities regardless of gender, race, disability, as well as adequate protection of workers’ rights and access to digital health information and services.
Human rights need to be at the center of inclusive digital societies and economies, and technologies and policies alike need to be designed, used, and implemented in a human rights centered manner. The protection of civil and political rights and economic, social, and cultural rights in the digital space should remain a priority for all actors. Adequate regulatory frameworks need to be put in place to provide rules and boundaries for the private sector.
Governments need to be accountable for respecting and promoting these rights and for ensuring that others, including companies, also do so. Global companies that operate across borders need to be accountable for their practices and uphold international human rights standards, and users need to be more aware of how to demand respect for their rights. This holistic awareness and integration of human rights can only be achieved through collaboration, learning and capacity development, and open and constructive dialogue among all stakeholder groups.”
2. Universal Access and Meaningful Connectivity
“Ensuring that all people everywhere have meaningful and sustainable access to the Internet is a priority, as the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated. The concept of universal access has evolved, from referring to the availability of a payphone within walking distance in the 1990s to the widespread availability of either fixed or wireless broadband Internet connectivity from the mid-2000s. However, evidence increasingly indicates that access to connectivity is not sufficient on its own. People and institutions from all sectors and stakeholder groups should reflect on connectivity in a holistic way that considers how people can make use of connectivity once they do have access.
This requires considering links between digital equity, social and economic inequalities, and adopting a user-centric approach that combines access (in terms of availability of affordable connectivity and devices), adoption and ability to use (digital skills and readiness), uses driven by content and applications (e.g., education, economic development, health, agriculture) and equity/diversity (e.g., gender, race, language, disability, geographic location, ownership, and control). There is a need for creative and accountable approaches to policy, regulation, enabling financing solutions, infrastructures/content platforms, partnerships, and business models that can help achieve meaningful access.
Examples include public and private partnerships; local access provision, though, for instance, community networks; use of universal service/ access funds in financing access; infrastructure sharing; decentralised approaches to infrastructure development; and use of emerging technologies and sustainable energy solutions. Other factors that can contribute to advancing ubiquitous and affordable Internet access range from developing the capacity of regulators and service and content providers, to incentivising the development and use of local language content and locally relevant content. Last, but not least, we should also examine why many of the policy solutions which are already known and proven to be effective are not being widely implemented.”
3. Emerging Regulation: Market Structure, Content, Data, and Consumer Rights and Protection
“Recent years have seen increased discussions on regulating many aspects of the Internet, be it in the form of national and international regulations by governments and intergovernmental organisations (IGOs), or private sector-led selfregulation and co-regulation initiatives. At least four areas stand out within this trend. First, there are ongoing regulatory efforts to address anticompetitive practices and monopolistic behaviour by large tech companies, prevent excessively concentrated market structures, and ensure a more pluralistic and level playing field between large and small market players.
Second, various jurisdictions are discussing whether new regulations are needed to clarify the liability of Internet intermediaries concerning the content they host, as well as their role and responsibilities in tackling issues such as online misinformation/disinformation and the spread of violent content and hate speech. Related to this is the issue of minimum standards that Internet platforms should embrace in their content moderation policies to ensure alignment with human rights frameworks (concerning freedom of expression), and the role of governments in influencing private sector policies in this area. Concerns about the transparency and coordination of content moderation decisions need to be at the center of the debate to prevent capture by powerful actors, and to ensure these decisions are transparent and accountable.
Third, discussions continue multiple data governance-related issues, including (a) how data governance frameworks could enable the responsible and trustworthy use of personal and non-personal data; (b) what transparency standards need to be put in place when it comes to personal data processing; and (c) how privacy rights and protections are interpreted and imposed, or not, within and beyond national borders. Additionally, the issue of cross-border data flows remains high on the international agenda, as countries have different approaches towards the extent and the conditions under which they enable data transfers or require data localisation. At the same time, there are calls for unified data governance frameworks that enable rightsrespecting data flows.
Fourth, there is an increasing interest to enhance consumer protection regulations to foster a more balanced relationship between users and Internet companies, provide a meaningful remedy for individuals whose rights have been violated, and avoid unfair and deceptive commercial practices, while also building consumer awareness around issues such as tracking and targeted advertising.”
4. Environmental sustainability and climate change
“Mitigating climate change, addressing waste and pollution, and ensuring environmental sustainability are among the world’s most pressing issues. The Internet and other digital technologies can pose challenges to the environment (for instance, through energy consumption for data production, storage, usage, and transfer, and the production of devices and disposal of e-waste), but they can also be leveraged to advance environmental sustainability. Policies and actions are therefore needed to ‘green’ the Internet, reduce the environmental impact of new technologies (including artificial intelligence and big data), and facilitate their use to address environmental challenges.
Examples include improving the circular economy for digital devices (e.g., enabling reuse and recycling), extending the lifespan of software and devices, reducing the energy use associated with the Internet, and promoting technologies that help reduce carbon emissions and energy consumption. Also important is to develop and put in practice adequate governance frameworks that enable the sharing and reuse of environmental data. At the same time, more focus needs to be placed on promoting environmental education and building awareness on environmental sustainability within Internet governance and digital policy spaces.”
5. Inclusive Internet governance ecosystems and digital cooperation
“The Internet’s contribution to social, cultural and economic growth and opportunity is recognised, but with its increased role and importance to societies, individuals and economies – well illustrated during the global pandemic – come key questions of governance, accountability, misuse, and access. When approaching the governance of the Internet, most institutions, including governments, tend to turn to models they understand or are familiar with rather than thinking about what might work in the future. Coordinating and consolidating collaborative and inclusive Internet governance is increasingly challenging.
Recent discussions about the roles and responsibilities of governments and international corporations have raised issues relating to digital sovereignty, data localisation, national security, economic growth, the governance structures of a borderless Internet, cross-border business transactions, and human rights. In consequence, the precise nature, scope, and modalities of digital sovereignty have become pressing topics in a wide range of contexts. Nevertheless, there has not been any organised and fully inclusive global debate about the reasons for and manifold consequences of digital sovereignty initiatives.
The IGF could be well placed to foster such a dialogue. There is also a need for further engagement on the evolution of the IGF itself as a widely distributed and inclusive platform for deliberating on inclusive Internet governance processes and ecosystems. What opportunities are provided by the current focus on digital cooperation resulting from the UN SecretaryGeneral’s Roadmap for digital cooperation? How to strengthen the capacities of policymakers, businesses, and citizens to stay abreast of the rapid technological developments and adequately engage in Internet governance discussions to respond to the challenges these developments present? What is the future of multistakeholder Internet governance, and who will shape it? Another question to address touches on how the technical governance of the protocols and procedures that underpin an interconnected Internet relate to the ongoing Internet public policy discourses.”
6. Trust, security, and stability
“The borderless nature of the Internet, the digital economy, the increased cyber-physical interdependency through the Internet of things, and the increased use of the Internet in processes such as elections and the response to global crises such as the pandemic paint a complex policy, legal and operational picture for cybersecurity and stability. Almost all sectors utilise ICTs and rely on the Internet for anything from the simplest to the most strategic tasks. Global supply chains are increasingly interconnected, and the ICT systems supporting them comprise numerous internal and external devices and applications. Managing these issues, mitigating cybersecurity concerns, and addressing risks require cooperation between the public and the private sectors, the technical community, the academic and research sector, and civil society.
Collaboration is needed to build awareness of vulnerabilities and increase resilience. An Internet that is trusted by its users requires combatting online gender-based violence, child safety online, cyberbullying, and misinformation, among other challenges. Discussions on trust, security and stability of the Internet should cover norms, voluntary standards, guidelines, best practices, and capacity building to manage cybersecurity-related risks and foster collaboration between countries, institutions and stakeholder groups.”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Prime Minister of Poland Mateusz Morawiecki, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Vinton G. Cerf (“One of the fathers of the Internet”) and many other national and international high-level decisionmakers and thought leaders from government, business and civil society will be attending the IGF 2021 in Poland. The goal is to identify synergies between different views and to promote international cooperation, for overcoming COVID-19, recovering economic and social progress, and fostering global sustainable development.