We are gearing up to participate in the meeting of the 17th Annual Internet Governance Forum, which will be held online and in Ethiopia from 28 November to 2 December 2022. IGP was present at the creation of the IGF in 2005 and has participated in all 17 of them. But we think it is time to call attention to a change in its status. The change has been gradual and may not be evident to people who have not been in it from the beginning.

The IGF has been fully absorbed by the UN system, and has been largely subordinated to its agenda. The IGF Secretariat is no longer a neutral venue where the global Internet community meets and interacts on an equal footing with people from national governments, international institutions, multinational business and transnational civil society. Instead, it is increasingly steered by agendas set by the UN Secretary-General and its priority is to demonstrate the relevance (and maintain the budget) of the UN bureaucracy. This is not a terrible thing, and it may even have been inevitable, but it is happening and it is time to face that fact, openly and explicitly.

How it happened

Until about 2015, the IGF Secretariat was a poorly funded, slightly neglected entity in the UN system. This had some advantages: it meant more autonomy for the Internet governance community, as there was very little hierarchy and greater reliance on the community itself to fund and organize its own activities. This started to change after IGF’s 10-year renewal, which came when the rising importance of Internet, social media, and the digital economy had become obvious.

In July 2018, the UN Secretary-General created a High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation. Melinda Gates and Jack Ma co-chaired it. High-level panels (HLP) of this sort have become routine in the UN; there was the ITU Broadband Commission, a HLP on Access to Medicines, a HLP on Water, etc. A HLP assembles some big name politicians and business leaders to ruminate and issue a report (written by staff). In 2019, the Digital Cooperation HLP submitted its final report “The Age of Digital Interdependence,” and in June 2020, the United Nations Secretary-General used this to issue a Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. The Roadmap promised everyone in the world good things: universal, affordable, connectivity by 2030; digital inclusion for all; digital capacity building; the protection of human rights online; Artificial Intelligence that is trustworthy, human rights based, safe, sustainable peaceful; digital trust and security.

The Roadmap also made digital governance a priority, aiming for “a more effective architecture for digital cooperation.” As a result, the change in the status of the IGF accelerated; it came to be seen as a useful tool in the UN’s plans to play a bigger role in digital governance. Soon there was a “High-Level Track” in the IGF, which was not programmed by the IGF’s own Multistakeholder Advisory Group, but by the Secretariat and the host country. Equal footing was not so equal any more. The office of the “Tech Envoy” was created, and given a bigger role in setting the agenda of the IGF. An IGF Leadership Panel, which included the Tech Envoy, was selected by the UN-based Secretariat. So a big part of the IGF is no longer community self-governance and bottom up norm development, but a UN-directed consultation exercise, similar to its “high-level panels.”

In September 2021 the UNSG released a report Our Common Agenda, which proposes a “Global Digital Compact.” The Compact picks up on the digital cooperation agenda; it proposes to:

  • Connect all people to the Internet, including all schools
  • Avoid Internet fragmentation
  • Protect data
  • Apply human rights online
  • Introduce accountability criteria for discrimination and misleading content
  • Promote regulation of artificial intelligence
  • Digital commons as a global public good

The Compact is supposed to be ratified at a UN Summit with a “multi-stakeholder technology track” called “The Summit of the Future” in September 2023. (Consultations on the GDC are still underway, you can provide your input here.) The IGF, which for several years has been forcing IGF session proposers to link their ideas to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, is now being used to promote the Digital Compact. The themes of the 2022 IGF, its website says, are “aligned with the Secretary-General’s envisioned Global Digital Compact.”

So what?

Substantively, the Digital Compact and all the other bullet-point outpourings of the UN are an attempt to get in front of the digital transformation parade. Indeed, its norms and principles are either intentionally anodyne, or transparent attempts to paper over contradictory goals with fine phrases (e.g., “protect data” but promote “digital commons”).

Our problem with all this is the huge gap between vision and reality. The fine-sounding pronouncements of the UN seem to be designed to maintain the fiction that nation-states can cooperate in the governance of cyberspace when all around us governments are fracturing into competing power blocs and drawing the digital political economy ever deeper into those conflicts.

The UN is an intergovernmental institution – a multilateral governance body entirely beholden to member states and their geopolitics. Nation-states and geopolitics are currently the chief obstacle to digital cooperation and cyber peace. They are the main cause of human rights violations online, and their antics are most likely to cause “Internet fragmentation.” They are as likely to shut down internet access as to extend it to everyone. When it comes to the Global Digital Compact, it is nice that the world’s nation-states can use the UN to create such a lovely façade around their actions in the digital world, but let’s not have any illusions about what is going on.

These problem are not caused by the UN, of course. Hence, we do not see any great harms from the UN’s larger role in IGF. But we do think people should be made aware of the important change in its status. The real (but never officially stated) task of IGF these days is to make the UN and its SG look like they are doing something relevant for the digital world.

The IGF, however, is still a valuable thing. The opportunity for dialogue and discussion still exists at the IGF, and if it goes away, there is no better place for it to go. Participants should go into the IGF aware of the agenda-pushing of the UN system, taking it with a grain of salt while they make use of its platform for networking, learning, and real bottom-up collaboration.