These are the thoughts I had after participating in the UN Internet Governance Forum last week.

The 2022 IGF’s big themes turned out to be “fragmentation” and “digital sovereignty.” This was encouraging, because it shows the IGF is focusing on real problems and not inoffensive, forgettable slogans like “Resilient Internet for a Shared Sustainable and Common Future,” its official theme.

As I argued on one of the three panels I was on, the Internet Governance community is finally beginning to realize that fragmentation is a political phenomenon, not a technical or economic one. Concerns about “fragmentation” are not about incompatible technical standards controlled by the Chinese, nor is it about “corporate power” that will make Microsoft, Apple, and Alphabet monopolies or their software ecosystems stop interoperating. The “fragmentation” threat is really about the linkage of digital industries and capabilities to national security and national sovereignty. The big risk is the militarization of the digital ecosystem. Digital sovereignty, we are now beginning to realize, is essentially the same thing as fragmentation. It is about the de-coupling of the digital political economy due to a reassertion of power exclusivities by nation-states.

If nation-states are the problem, then is the UN the solution? Not by itself, unfortunately. No “Digital Compact” emanating from the UN bureaucracy is going to overcome a problem as fundamental as the clash between the global Internet and territorial sovereignty. But the UN does have immediate value as a place for neutral public discourse. As long as states support it, we can use its institutional husk to build a (straw) house for joint negotiations of norms. The UN is the only political institution that is multinational. The rest are clubs and alliances. It is just about the only inclusive and relatively neutral ground where the contending forces around the digital political economy — business, government and civil society — can communicate as equals. The fact that it includes authoritarian states is a feature, not a bug, as long as they are not allowed to warp the agenda, because these states exist and no truly global governance dialogue can avoid facing up to their presence. The operation of the IGF by the UN system tilts its playing field towards governments, of course, but governments have learned to play relatively nicely within the confines of DESA and the IGF. It’s flawed, but it is the best thing we have.

In our workshop on The Declaration for the Future of the Internet (DFI),  we were pleased with the quality of the interactions between governmental supporters of the DFI and its critics from civil society and the BRICS countries. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Alan Davidson was quite articulate about the need for a rallying point for states to take a stand for the liberal principles which gave rise to the Internet and made it a transformative social force. Through the other panelists, he was exposed to the dilemmas posed by the initiative, such as the problem of asking states to sign on to a declaration they were not initially involved in drafting, or the problem of an agreement confined to states that promotes multistakeholder principle, or the fact that countries that violate many of the principles in the DFI have signed it, such as Hungary. The German Cyber Ambassador, Ms Grienberger, was also frank and honest about the strengths and limitations of the DFI. Dhruva Jaishankar, a spokesperson for India’s Observer Research Foundation, revealed that India did not support some of the substantive principles of the DFI, while Brazil and South Africa, according to Louise Hurel and Anriette Estherhuysen, held back primarily because they were not included in the initial negotiations.

IGP will cooperate with ORF America in the publication of an edited transcript of the session.