IGF 2019: The Fall of the Digital Wall?

Posted on 9th December 2019

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Ivan Ivanov
Senior Marketing Manager
ivan.ivanov@accesspartneship.com

The United Nations Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which has taken place every year since 2006, was hosted in Berlin from 25 to 29 November, under the theme of “One World. One Net. One Vision.” Access Partnership were in attendance alongside UN Secretary General António Guterres and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. For the second year in a row, head of the host nation and the UN Secretary General delivered speeches at the IGF, signalling a strong desire to overcome the key challenges surrounding the Internet governance.

Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin wall, Chancellor Merkel used this analogy to highlight her concerns regarding divides in technological ecosystems, as well as emerging fragmentations over the Internet, on both social and political levels. Merkel called for the protection of the Internet as a global public benefit, which should demonstrate the values of freedom and inclusivity. She also addressed the concept of digital sovereignty “which does not equal protectionism,” but supports citizens in determining their own digital development. UN Secretary General António Guterres echoed Chancellor Merkel’s concerns, emphasising that the virtual world is as ununified as the physical, citing mounting digital, social and political divides. A lack of policy development in line with technological innovations was also emphasised. Despite the challenges, both leaders agreed on a common goal of universally accessible, free and secure Internet, and that a multistakeholder approach is key to realising this.

Contract for the Web

To address the aforementioned challenges, World Wide Web founder, Sir Tim Berners Lee, launched the Contract for the Web, a global plan for action to safeguard the Internet. Supported by over 80 major organisations, it sets out commitments to guide digital policy based on nine principles, three each for governments, businesses and citizens, respectively. The principles call for governments to ensure that everyone can connect to the Internet at any given time and to ensure protection of fundamental online privacy and data rights for users. Businesses must make the Internet affordable and accessible to everyone, respect people’s privacy and personal data, and develop technologies that support society. Finally, citizens must collaborate on the Web to foster constructive and relevant content, while building cohesive communities with respect for civil discourse and maintaining the Web as a global open resource.

The Contract for the Web initiative somewhat resembled last year’s, “Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace”, launched by Macron at IGF 2018, which was also built upon nine core principles. However, a year later, there is a greater divide in the online world, international norms and human rights are frequently disregarded, there has been an increase in cyber threats, while pursuit for domination of the online space continues. There is a general consensus regarding the need for cooperation and information sharing; Russian, Chinese, American and EU delegations have repeatedly reaffirmed their commitment to the multistakeholder approach, although the complexities of the issues at hand and differing national viewpoints make it difficult to reach consensus. At a multilateral level, these discussions are shaped by complex negotiations, focused on balancing national security concerns, citizens’ rights and technological innovations. Speaking on the EU panel for conflict prevention and cooperation, Access Partnership’s Chief Business Development Officer, Matthew McDermott emphasised that “addressing all of these issues won’t be a quick process. We need to avoid outcomes that create internet fragmentation and ensure that norms are effectively operationalised.”

Meaningful Connectivity

Despite the aspirational nature of the IGF, its evolution from a discussion on Internet governance to a leading platform on digital policies, that impact citizens, emerging technologies and industries, was significant. IGF 2019 focused on technological and policy innovation in connecting the unconnected, the realisation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and supporting SMEs.  In line with the key theme of “meaningful connectivity”, consideration was given not only to whether Internet is accessible, but also the quality of Internet connections. Moreover, emphasis was placed on the relevance, affordability, safety and user empowerment of meaningful connectivity.

By the end of the IGF, it was clear that the benefits of a global interoperable Internet are far greater than the risks. The Internet should not be used as a political weapon but should remain open for all citizens and nations to reduce poverty, encourage education, improve healthcare, protect the environment, foster tolerance and a peaceful co-existence. German Minister of Economic Affairs and Energy, Peter Altmaier, summarised this noting that “the ones who try to build walls will ultimately fail because Internet access is a fundamental human right, and openness and diversity are more powerful.”

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