The UN High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation was convened a year ago to issue a report on the concept of “digital cooperation.” The panel includes some members from business, civil society, and government stakeholder groups. The well-known names include Vint Cerf, Melinda Gates from Microsoft, former ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade, Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma and a couple of other governmental representatives. This blog focuses on the usefulness of such high-level  panels and raises some substantive issues about the report.

What are UN high-level panels? Are they useful?

UN high-level panels are small groups of 20 or so members appointed by the UN Secretary General. They include prominent people from various sectors, focusing on major issues. They are supposed to make “actionable recommendations” that can be taken up by decision making bodies – bodies who might not even be aware of this group’s existence. But because the members of the panel are supposed to have authority or influence, it is believed that they can be more effective. In fact, they are not more effective, but the presence of important names gives one the impression that they are.

The high-level panel on digital cooperation had two public meetings to receive contributions. This was a good initiative, as some parts of the Internet governance community wanted to be heard during this process, although many people didn’t bother. The recommendations are more or less in line with Internet community values. There is a lot of emphasis on multistakholder participation, maintaining a secure, global Internet and (obviously) cooperation across sectors. But as we will elaborate in the following paragraphs, the recommendations might not solve the problems that we have when it comes to digital cooperation. 

The declaration of digital interdependence

The report invites stakeholders to collectively commit to a Declaration of Digital Interdependence. The first part of the declaration admits many of the problems that we have in the field of Internet governance such as: “dangerous adventurism among states, exploitative behaviour by companies, regulation that stifles innovation and trade, and an unforgivable failure to realise vast potential for advancing human development.”

The declaration, however, ends the commitment on not how we commit to undertaking digital governance considering our shared values, but how we use digital technologies to achieve a vision for humanity’s future:

“We declare our commitment to building on our shared values and collaborating in new ways to realise a vision of humanity’s future in which affordable and accessible digital technologies are used to enable economic growth and social opportunity, lessen inequality, enhance peace and security, promote environmental sustainability,  preserve human agency, advance human rights and meet human needs.”

A quick comparison of this text with “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” by John Perry Barlow demonstrates well that the UNHLP’s declaration is inviting us to commit to a vision that no one can dispute but is at the same time sufficiently vague and contradictory. Barlow talks about a bottom-up governance mechanism that enables freedom of expression and freedom of movement. He envisions a governance mechanism that overcomes problems without resorting to force and militarization. But the United Nations obviously cannot separate peace from security, or spell out what it means by lessening inequality because it has to respect the wishes of the Nation States. UNHLP declaration wants us to cooperate and achieve high level and sometimes contradictory concepts via digital technologies.

The report goes on to discuss three “digital cooperation architectures.” This is the most important part of the report and seems to be an attempt to provide “actionable outcomes” that should be quickly (yes, they used the word ‘quickly’ in a UN document)  implemented. It also sets up a milestone for 2020 at the 75th anniversary of the UN to present it in the form of a “Global Commitment for Digital Cooperation” enshrining goals, principles, and priority actions.”

Mechanisms for Digital Cooperation

Chapter four elaborates on the 3 mechanisms to improve cooperation. It recommends

  1. An “IGF Plus”
  2. A “distributed co-governance architecture”
  3. A digital commons architecture

In IGF Plus, the panel recommends invigorating the existing UN Internet Governance Forum by bringing more “multistakeholder and multilateral legitimacy by being open to all stakeholders and by being institutionally anchored in the UN system.” It is not clear how the various groups the panel is suggesting to convene or improve will improve the IGF. IGF falls short of providing a platform for collective action for numerous reasons. One is that the members of the advisory group (MAG) are appointed in a top-down manner by the UN Secretary-General and sometimes not even engaged with their own community to bring their issues forward. The other IGF sub-groups that the panel suggests to be formed at IGF will be mandated to work on issues that IGF is already supposed to be doing, for example, IGF Dynamic Coalitions are supposed to be doing what the Cooperation Accelerator is proposing. Why would convening the cooperation accelerator make any difference?

A distributed co-governance network is in charge of norm design, norm implementation, and norm enforcement. It will not have any authority but it can advise different Internet governance institutions. This is actually an interesting idea because norms are being produced in Internet governance organizations and should be focused on and documented. But what incentives are there for the community to get engaged with the distributed c0-governance network and to implement the norms? Especially because this is not a bottom-up initiative but a UN recommended network to be formed, it might be dead upon arrival. A research group can achieve what the distributed co-governance network is recommended to do.

A digital commons architecture “would aim to synergise efforts by governments, civil society and businesses to ensure that digital technologies promote the SDGs and to address risks of social harm.” The commons architecture would not recommend technical standards but technical models.  The question remains why the Internet community would participate in these discussions when there are already open source platforms for Internet standards development (e.g., the IETF). And not all technologies and Internet related matters are related to SDGs.

The panel tries very hard to avoid recommending a centralized system for digital governance, which is very much appreciated. But the recommendations to form various subgroups at IGF or form two more architectures that design norms and provide solutions for setting models for technical standards to achieve SDGs will not be effective without knowing why exactly IGF is not achieving what it is supposed to be achieving now, or why current discussions of norms have always faced a dead end. 

It seems like the high-level panel feels that if these architectures are convened by the UN in a multistakeholder fashion, then collective action miraculously happens.  It has also been proposed that the IGF Plus Secretariat be linked to the office of the UN Secretary-General to reflect its interdisciplinary and system-wide approach. This recommendation was put forward in a similar manner by Macron last year at the IGF. His recommendation was more vigorous – he recommended to have the IGF Secretariat attached to the United Nations.  But a stronger linkage to the UN does not reflect an interdisciplinary approach. It only makes IGF more entangled in and influenced by multilateral tendencies. It hampers participation by nonmember states and other stakeholder groups. After all, the UN is serving its member states and it is not the bastion of diversity and inclusion.

Strengthening cooperation with more commissions and groups

While the panel acknowledges that there are many commissions involved with digital governance and that there is no easy point of entry to the discussions, its recommendations mainly involve forming additional groups and commissions. Even if this is intended to enhance cooperation, we will not strengthen cooperation with more self-appointed commissions.

The impact of this report on Internet governance

It is true that there are areas of Internet governance where cooperation could be improved. But to be sustained and effective, the development of a process has to come from the community and be built by the community. Probably this report will have no impact on Internet governance. It might end up creating a couple of more groups to endlessly travel and discuss issues they cannot influence. While the idealistic notions of soft governance, cooperating before regulating or before making policies are great, the reality is that Nation States won’t be asking for permission to regulate the Internet, and their actions won’t be confined to sandboxes in their territories because of the UN. Moreover, the UN is not the most inclusive forum to lead this effort. These commissions and groups mushroom everywhere and as long as the request does not come through a neutral bottom-up, multi-stakeholder process, the initiative will not be effective.