20 November, 2020

In defence of the multistakeholder model

By Ross Creelman, Public Policy Officer, ETNO

Seventy-five years of the United Nations, fifteen years of the Internet Governance Forum… plenty of reason to celebrate, but this year, it all had to happen virtually. In the shadow of a global pandemic, we all retreated to our homes, leaving offices, conference centres, airports empty. But perhaps this, bizarrely, is the strongest case for an open internet, powered by global standards and protocols and – crucially – with everyone around the table.

The Internet – the open internet – kept us all going in the depths of the crisis, showing us just how much we rely on it today, and how much further digitalisation is needed to sustain our economies and societies in the long term. This demands the development and roll-out of next generation connectivity, the digitalisation of our public services, and the empowerment of citizens. But it also calls for cooperation across the world, finding common solutions to problems and driving the work of standardisation in a bottom-up, all-inclusive manner.

Challenges to the model

This model cannot, however, be taken for granted. An example of this is the recent discussion on the need to update the current internet protocols. Internet protocols are developed in a number of global standardisation bodies, including the IETF and the IEEE. The internet is undoubtedly changing: today, communications are shifting from people-to-people to machine-to-machine; different networks need different specifications in order to be able to meet the requirements of the traffic they carry (e.g. augmented reality). A proposal was presented last year to the ITU, which, if adopted, would see the ITU take on a more active role in the development of Internet protocols. Its authors claim that a shift to a ‘New IP’ would allow for the network to adapt to support these many ‘types’ of Internet.

They claim that a more top-down, intergovernmental approach would solve these problems. But it won’t: work is already underway in the existing multistakeholder standardisation bodies to ensure that the internet is capable of dealing with new types of use-cases and remains backward compatible with previous IPs. This would represent a duplication of work, at best, and at worst, a dangerous step towards parallel internets, which could turn out to not be interoperable, or which could give governments greater control than ever over what populations see.

Furthermore, the proposed ‘New IP’, or ‘future vertical communication network’ would also pose problems of resilience. A hierarchical structure would see single points of failure and make the internet significantly more vulnerable to cyber-attacks, which are already capable of wreaking havoc on economies and societies today in a distributed model of the internet.

The multistakeholder model must be protected and perfected, so it becomes more and more inclusive and it continues fostering one resilient and global open internet.

The place where the dialogue happens

Just recently, ETNO participated at the Internet Governance Forum, as we have now done for many years. We spoke on panels on the role of ICT in environmental sustainability, on responsible use of data in times of crisis, and on the high-level panel on Global Digital Cooperation.

Developing and implementing solutions to Internet Governance, the bread-and-butter of the IGF, the dialogues and proposals, may seem like a long and slow process. In fact, this apparent inertia may be what prompted the UN Secretary General to start a process of asking, what is the future of Internet Governance? How should Global Digital Cooperation look today, in a world which has vastly changed since the Tunis Agenda, which initiated the IGF in 2005.

That also makes us think, as ETNO: why do we come to the IGF year after year? Why do our members prioritise being here? We come for the rich exchange of views, hearing from experts on the most pressing topics in the field of Internet Governance. We come because it is important for us to have a strong European voice, bringing European values to the overall worldwide discussion. But above all, we come to the IGF because of who is here: everyone.

The power and influence of the IGF lies in the multi-stakeholder model, which is bottom-up and all-inclusive. It is not only for big tech corporations or a handful of powerful political actors. At the table are governments, the United Nations, the European Commission, the technical community, NGOs, telecoms operators and all manner of internet companies, and these from all over the world. We come because of who is in the room, at the table, or as is the case this year, on the virtual conference.

Nobody needs convincing of the immense potential of an open and resilient Internet, and certainly not now that we’ve been relying on it this year more than ever before. We come together as a global community to ensure a robust, open, secure, resilient and accessible internet for everyone.  

© ETNO 2020
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