The Narrative is a twice-monthly survey of key developments in Internet governance. This time we assess the impact of the U.S. Presidential election on IG, and assess the results of the first virtual UN Internet Governance Forum.

A new U.S. President

The United States has elected Joe Biden, and this will certainly alter the country’s and the world’s course when it comes to Internet governance – but the devil is in the details.

The 2020 Democratic Platform states, “We will recommit the United States to the principles of an open internet… and vigorously oppose efforts to digitally silo off countries and populations from the rest of the world.” This is a good principle, and would seem to contradict the Trump Administration’s Clean Networks initiative. But evidence indicates that Biden will not reverse the main thrust of US attacks on trade with China. Though the Trump administration was a lot noisier about it, the attack on Huawei dates back to 2010 at least, and was originated by intelligence agencies under Obama. Trump’s Tiktok ban is in limbo and may be abandoned due to court setbacks in the lame duck period. Most likely the new administration will not follow up. But there are no indications that Biden will call off the damaging chip war. In July 2020, Biden reacted to the Hong Kong National Security Law by threatening new economic sanctions on China if he was elected, and has vowed to prohibit U.S. companies from “abetting repression and supporting the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state.” Biden believes we should confront China by forming alliances against it, rather than relying on the unilateral action favored by the Trump administration.

A Biden administration will prioritize domestic policy, and the top priorities listed on Biden’s website were covid-19, economic recovery, racial equity, and climate change. Insofar as technology policy is mentioned, the focus is on expanding broadband internet. Biden has claimed that he will “restore” net neutrality but this is really a dead issue in the US and is unlikely to become a priority.

A Biden administration will probably have more amicable relations with the big US platforms. As a reaction to Trump’s overt hostility, internet companies were among his campaign’s top 10 donors, and VP Kamala Harris’s political base is in California, where she has long-standing ties to Silicon Valley. But Biden has been critical of Section 230, and has called for it to be “revoked.” The Republican/conservative view that the platforms were hostile to them made platform regulation and Section 230 a stronger priority for them than it is for Democrats. But others have written that the Google antitrust lawsuit will probably continue under Biden, and perhaps be expanded.

It is unclear whether a Democrat Party administration will soften the attack on encryption that is coming from various parts of the U.S. government. Biden has criticized end to end encryption, but the ITIF report comparing Trump and Biden claims that neither one of them has a well-developed position on encryption ITIF is clearly wrong about the Trump administration, as its Attorney General has made his position clear. We suspect a Biden administration will not be pushing against encryption as strongly, but could go either way.

Whatever happens on the policy front, a Biden administration will improve the tone of US government interactions with the rest of the world, particularly Europe. Biden will also be much better on policy regarding the movement of people, if not packets, across borders. He is likely to allow more H1B visas, and will be much less likely to threaten arbitrary or discriminatory travel bans.

The first virtual IGF

The United Nations Internet Governance Forum (IGF) has successfully pulled off the first virtual forum. This turned out to be an interesting experiment, in that the IGF normally converges thousands of people into a single city for a week of face to face sessions – not to mention intensive receptions and parties outside the formal proceedings. In this pandemic-stricken year, IGF activities were all virtual, and spread out over 3 tracks (roughly from 07:00 – 18:00 UTC), in 12 days. Altogether the “event” spanned almost three weeks, and there will still be a November 25 “open mic and feedback session.” The secretariat claims there were 5,900 registered participants and over 1,000 speakers. In all there were 250+ sessions, most of which were proposed by participants – definitely living up to its billing as the most open and inclusive international forum for Internet policy.

Due to the stimulus provided by the pandemic, the world of conferences is undergoing a profound techno-economic transformation, which can be described as the globalization of the attention economy. A larger and larger number of people – on both the supply side and the audience side of events – are learning how to use the online tools effectively. Although time zones and language are still important constraints, every event can attract an audience from anywhere in the world, intensifying competition for eyeballs. This also transforms the economic exchanges associated with travel, lodging and the parties and social events associated with them, as well as the barriers posed by visas and other legal restrictions.

At the IGF, it was clear that the virtual format enhanced attendance in some ways by crushing the barriers posed by travel, borders, and lodging. Some Day 0 events, such as the Giganet Symposium for academics, enjoyed much higher levels of attendance than before. Time zone differences still served as a problem for many, however. Virtualization also made it difficult for people with day jobs to focus on IGF as a collective “event,” particularly when it was spread out over such a long period. Furthermore, the event overlapped with several other virtual events related to IG, such as the conference of the Hague Program for Cyber Norms, and the Taiwan IGF, not to mention single-issue focused virtual events in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.

Although the IGF Secretariat’s handling of the logistics generally drew praise, one common complaint was that the audience could not see who else was attending the sessions they were in, or even how many there were. Simple visual cues like these are critical for understanding shared or conflicting interests.

The UN this year introduced a new notion, “voluntary commitments,” into the IGF, based on experience with other UN conferences and summits. These are voluntary actions or pledges to forward the goals of Internet governance and digital cooperation from any stakeholder. By putting panel participants on the spot to take concrete actions, this was a good idea, but most of the panels we saw did not press for them.

At the Civil Society Coordination Meeting there was a discussion on the values and characteristics that define a “public interest” Internet, and the challenges and opportunities for civil society in defining the “public interest.” A YouTube video of the discussion can be found here. Members of the Global Encryption Coalition came together to provide a background to the formation of the coalition and share a vision for the future. The full video of the discussion is available here.

Our IGF 2020 workshops

IGP organized or co-organized three workshops. Brief summaries are below

Overcoming the U.S.-China Digital Cold War.

Over 120 participants attended this IGP-led workshop, co-organized with Professor Xu Peixi of Communication University of China, Beijing. The panel featured Stephen Anderson of the US State Department, Guo Feng of China’s Ministry of Information Technology, and Charles Mok, an elected member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. (18 hours after the event, Mok and 14 other pro-democracy Legco members resigned en masse in response to the mainland government’s arbitrary move to disqualify four of their colleagues.) In addition, perspectives on the global implications of the US-China contention were shared by Joanna Kulesza of Poland, Jyoti Panday of India and Iginio Gagliardone of South Africa. Our efforts to promote a constructive give and take over tense US-China-Hongkong relations drew widespread praise from observers, but sometimes led to awkward silences and some question-dodging. Asked to make concrete proposals for improving the situation, the US representative addressed only Europe, saying that their disagreements were mere “irritants” implying that they could be overcome. Asked what China would offer in return if the US called off its chip war, the Chinese govt representative said “buy lots of chips,” provoking laughter. A Youtube video of (most of) the session can be found here. A more complete written report on the substantive interactions will come later.

DNS over HTTPS (DoH): Human Rights, Markets, and Governance

Encrypted DNS is here, we need to accept that and understand the implications. This was the overwhelming sentiment of the panel at a well attended workshop (90+ attendees) on DNS over HTTPS (DoH), one variant of several protocols that are bringing confidentiality and integrity to how we use domain names. The panel included an ISP from Russia (where there is a proposal to outlaw the technology) that reiterated 1990s telco arguments about the threat of over the top (OTT) applications, IETF/ISOC technologists and civil society privacy advocates, and one of the main global providers (Cloudflare) of open DNS resolution, which continues to see growing demand, especially from users in authoritarian countries. Despite the varying perspectives, there seemed to be agreement about some key points. 1) Local network choice in resolver selection should be preserved (discussions are occurring in the IETF Adaptive DNS Discovery WG). 2) We should separate the problem of technological centralization – which can raise valid concerns about resilience but can also bring dramatic innovations – from the problem of market concentration. The market [for DNS-related services] includes application-level resolvers, network-level recursive resolution, as well as complementary products and services. Measures of concentration must be based on a clear definition of what is being bought and sold and which players have which share. 3) Foster more competition in DNS recursive resolution and policies. It was also clear there is a need for clarification of the relationship between DNS data flows and national sovereignty, and which data access legal regime(s) apply to DNS data especially in light of recent privacy decisions like Schrems II. A Youtube video of the session can be found here. A more complete written report on the substantive interactions will come later.

The Interaction of Platform Content Moderation & Geopolitics

This panel brought together experts and regional perspectives to discuss how platforms content moderation standards, business practices, and its relationships with nation states effectively arbitrate which narratives can reach the global public. Pratik Sinha, Founder of AltNews, and Marianne Diaz, Derechos Digitales, highlighted how constantly evolving and malleable standards and the lack of investment in local resources by global platforms can contribute to differential treatment of problematic content and behaviour in emerging markets in South Asia and Latin America. Amelie Pia Heldt, Leibniz Institute for Media Research, Hans-Bredow-Institut made the case for more transparency and accountability by platforms when complying with national speech laws. Varun Reddy from Facebook, India talked about how local context shapes development and enforcement of content moderation policies. Tarleton Gillespie, Microsoft Research reflected on the limitations of platforms to respond to different contexts and cultural values. The panel was in agreement that we are experiencing issues with content moderation since platforms are in their adolescent years, and having grown in scale and complexity have adopted an industrial approach to content moderation. Panelists also drew attention to how uneven enforcement of community standards can reinforce or magnify existing power disparities and  eroding trust of users. With over 80 participants, the discussion was well attended and a Youtube video of the session can be found here. A more complete written report on the substantive interactions will come later.