The Global Digital Compact: What is it? Why are we concerned? As part of her internship with the RIPE NCC's Public Policy and Internet governance team, Claudia Leopardi discusses the RIPE NCC’s contribution to this important UN process.
The Global Digital Compact (GDC) is a document that, according to the UN Secretary-General’s Our Common Agenda report, aims to “outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all”. It represents the latest step in a long policy journey to toward a shared understanding of key digital principles globally and common rules that will guide the development of our digital future.
The idea of a Global Digital Compact has its roots in the 2019 report The Age of Digital Interdependence and the 2020 Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, both issued by the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation. The latter laid out a roadmap in which “all stakeholders play a role in advancing a safer, more equitable digital world, one which will lead to a brighter and more prosperous future for all”. The GDC should be finalised and agreed on by the Member States at the Summit of the Future in September 2024.
Why are we concerned? And why is multistakeholderism so important?
Multistakeholder governance can be defined as the process of engaging in discussions and agreeing on solutions to issues that multiple stakeholders are concerned about in an open, transparent and inclusive manner. However, there is no single fixed multistakeholder model. Rather, there’s a general multistakeholder approach on which different models are based.
The Internet technical community’s policy making recognises that governance of a global network of networks requires participation and cooperation of the Internet’s many stakeholders; including private operators, governments and regulators, and users. This guiding principle is today manifested in a diverse range of governance models, each of which is tailored to the specific needs and goals of the venue - the RIPE model is one example.
Although not perfect, the multistakeholder approach is one that the Internet community aspires to for good reason. It is extremely well-suited to situations where decisions impact a wide and distributed range of people and interests, where there are overlapping rights and responsibilities across sectors and borders, and where different forms of expertise are needed, such as technical expertise, and legitimacy and acceptance of decisions directly impact implementation.
The points listed reflect the inherent characteristics of the Internet, which is a complex ecosystem where each part can rely on many other cooperating but independent parts. The way these various stakeholders make decisions still mirrors the Internet technical community’s defining principles – openness, end-to-end networking, and effectiveness.
The Global Digital Compact is an opportunity for the RIPE NCC to promote the principles upon which the RIPE community is based, and to strengthen the global commitment to a multistakeholder approach and mechanisms such as the UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF).
How can we contribute?
After affirming that we do indeed have reasons to engage, what can we do? Well, the United Nations prepared a survey to allow stakeholders to contribute to the GDC in a structured way. This includes eight general areas that it is possible to comment on:
- Connect all people to the Internet, including all schools
- Avoid internet fragmentation
- Protect data
- Apply human rights online
- Accountability for discrimination and misleading content
- Regulation of artificial intelligence
- Digital commons as a global public good
- Other areas
For each area, the survey organised the answers along the following two aspects:
- Core principles that all governments, companies, civil society organisations and other stakeholders should adhere to;
- Key commitments, pledges, or actions that in your view should be taken by different stakeholders – governments, private sector, civil society, etc. – in order to realise the above-mentioned principles.
The GDC interim session of the Cooperation Working Group
After drafting a first version of the RIPE NCC’s contribution, the Cooperation Working Group of the RIPE community organised an interim session on 19 April to receive and discuss some feedback that could be implemented in the final survey answers. The main points that were raised in the meeting were:
- The contribution presented appeared somewhat high-level. Therefore, the community suggested to include more specific examples and to place these topics in a more concrete context in order to assist policy makers;
- Several comments were raised to accentuate how the Internet Governance Forum should remain the main venue for Internet governance discussions and processes in the UN;
- Lastly, when referring to the actual Global Digital Compact processes themselves, it was argued that the GDC should include the multistakeholder community not only in its consultation stage, but also in later drafting and negotiation phases.
The RIPE NCC’s contribution
In the weeks following the Cooperation Working Group interim session, our team worked on implementing the feedback of the community into the draft. Of the eight areas mentioned in the UN survey, we prepared responses to four of them: “Connect all people to the Internet”, “Avoid Internet fragmentation”, “Digital commons as a global public good” and the “Other areas” section, where we discussed “Internet governance and participation”.
Below is a brief summary of the main points that we focused on for each area; however, the complete version of the contribution can be found on the dedicated ripe.net page.
Area 1: Connecting all people to the internet, including all schools
- Collaboration, shared responsibility, and inclusion of all relevant stakeholders are core principles in connecting all people to the global Internet.
- The Internet technical community plays a crucial role in meeting this challenge, developing and deploying the common standards and protocols for resilient infrastructure upon which a global and scalable Internet relies, allowing meaningful and sustainable Internet access to everyone.
- To address the different forms of digital divide, we need evidence-based, data-driven policies and sound regulatory frameworks, which are achievable only through cooperation among different stakeholder groups, since no single actor or stakeholder group can pursue it independently.
- The GDC should ensure that all stakeholders, but especially governments, commit to minimising the regulatory hurdles and misalignments that can hinder the equal, open and sustainable access to the global Internet.
- The Internet technical community is committed to providing relevant and timely technical knowledge and expertise to regulators and public policymakers.
Area 2: Avoiding Internet Fragmentation
- The value of the Internet comes from being a unified global network of networks. For this reason, at the technical level, Internet fragmentation constitutes a loss of interoperability between these networks.
- Internet fragmentation is to be avoided by actively sharing information and encouraging better coordination between stakeholders, which should not be affected by political issues.
- RIPE contributes by being engaged in global and local discussions and by providing a range of technical training to operators and decision making bodies. In fact, reducing the risks of Internet fragmentation requires a clear understanding of those negative impacts and an informed approach to both technical coordination and governance.
- Fragmentation can also occur at the governance level through the excessive proliferation of Internet governance institutions and venues can hinder the inclusive, multistakeholder coordination necessary to maintain a global Internet, especially for those stakeholders with limited resources.
- The GDC should look to build on existing institutions, including the IGF, and to ensure effective coordination between the Internet governance fora and processes in order to leverage the expertise and perspectives of all stakeholder groups and ensure equal access to not only the Internet, but to Internet governance as well.
Area 7: Digital commons as digital public goods
- Digital Public Goods (which include open-source software and services) play an essential role in the functioning of the open, global Internet and are beneficial to a resilient and innovative Internet ecosystem. For this reason, governments and institutions should support their development and deployment.
Area 8: Other areas (Internet governance and Participation)
- The technical community recommends cooperation and coordination among different stakeholders, since an open, inclusive, bottom-up and multistakeholder approach is fundamental for the coordinated operation of the global Internet.
- The GDC is an opportunity to reaffirm that governance of the global Internet and associated digital technologies requires an approach that effectively combines government regulation and public policymaking, technical standards, business and economic concerns, and the interests of users and society. With this affirmation as a starting point, we can develop governance models suited to the specific current challenges and those still to emerge.
- A potential call for a multilateral approach to standards-setting and policymaking in Internet governance should be rejected in the GDC. Moreover, the compact should incorporate a strong commitment to, firstly, the multistakeholder approach as enshrined in the Tunis Agenda, and, secondly, the IGF as the primary UN venue for Internet governance processes.
- The GDC should look to integrate with the IGF as the UN’s primary vehicle for multistakeholder Internet governance activities. The IGF can serve as a venue for follow-up and reporting on the commitments made by signatories to the compact and, in this way, the IGF itself would continue to evolve and adapt to the ever-changing Internet governance landscape.
Concluding remarks: Global Digital Compact, between risks and opportunities
To summarise, the GDC process affords both opportunities and risks, not only to the IGF and future UN negotiations, but to the governance of the Internet in general. So how could it pan out?
The GDC will be agreed on before the upcoming 20-year review of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS+20) and it will most likely influence the outcomes of that process. The main opportunity that could come out of this process is the consolidation of support for the multistakeholder approach as the most effective way to approach Internet governance processes. The GDC is a chance to build support and showcase positive examples of the multistakeholder approach that could be reflected in the WSIS+20 revision or the associated Tunis Agenda agreement.
On the other hand, the GDC could negatively impact the Internet if it were to legitimise a top-down, multilateral approach to its future governance. It may call into question the role of organisations managing “digital commons as a global public good”. The creation of new venues of discussion can be a double edged sword: while it might help include a wider variety of voices, it could also disperse and fragment the current discussions, also because of capacity issues. For this reason, we need to strengthen the current venues and processes, including the preparation of the Global Digital Compact itself, making them as open and transparent as possible.
Discussions will continue and decisions will be made whether we are there or not. With the GDC process now underway, it is in our best interests to keep our interest high and our voice present in these times of change.