The internet is the world’s most important economic and social infrastructure. Yet it is facing a perfect storm of rising authoritarianism, 'digital sovereignty' initiatives + creaking governance that threaten its future. Against this backdrop, three major summits – the UK’s Future Tech Forum, the UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF), and the US Democracy Summit – seek to tilt the debate in a more progressive, open direction.
That three major events are all happening at roughly the same time means either there is hope for a major, coordinated effort to protect and promote the open internet, or that no one is listening to each other and everyone is pulling in different directions. Indeed the US Democracy Summit, a new initiative, being held in the same week as the IGF, now in its 16th edition, directly pits the state-led model of internet governance against the multi-stakeholder model born out of the internet’s origins.
The existing governance model of the internet is indeed creaking, so there is hope to be found in the US, UK and others stepping up to fill the vacuum. But to succeed, these new initiatives must prove themselves to be more than just a ‘talking shop’ – a reputation which has undermined any authority the IGF once had. This means delivering – or at least paving the way for – meaningful commitments on issues like supply chains, platform regulation and global internet infrastructure. Otherwise, instead of halting the spread of fragmentation and authoritarianism, the lack of cohesion risks simply accelerating it.
With 3.7 billion people yet to gain internet access, the future of the open internet can no longer be secured by a single, liberal hegemon in the US. Instead, it requires a more internationalist coalition of states ready to cooperate on a range of internet policy issues and institutional reforms.
To that end, progress has thus far been slow. Earlier this year, following years of transatlantic tensions on tech policy, the US and EU have announced a new Trade and Technology Council (TTC) to cooperate on standards, semiconductor supply chains, regulatory frameworks and China policy. While the first meeting in September was positive, the geopolitical incentives and regulatory philosophies of the EU and US are still far apart in many areas.
Meanwhile, India, China and many other emerging economies continue to take their own paths on tech regulation, highlighting the need to move beyond overreliance on the US’s jurisdictional power.
The first of the 3 major summits, the UK’s Future Tech Forum is a new initiative held as part of its G7 presidency. In a year where the UK has been working out its international role post-Brexit, in many ways it has been diplomatically lucky to be both G7 and COP26 President, and the Future Tech Forum is its attempt to sustain this influence beyond the year. In contrast, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is a long-running convention that is now in its 16th edition – its focus on multi-stakeholder participation has been integral to its strong global representation, but it has also affected its ability to take decisions and build authority. Finally, the US’s Democracy Summit, to be held at the end of President Biden’s first year in office, is a broader summit but one in which technology governance issues are central.
However, there are differences in the state-led and multistakeholder-led approaches:
Table 1: Key details on the summits
Open to all
Mostly states, with some industry & civil society
Civil society, industry and states
Mostly states, some civil society
Tech issues covered
Online Safety and Platform Regulation, Digital Trade, Technical Standards, Infrastructure Security, HealthTech, ClimateTech
Human Rights, Universal Access, Emerging Regulation, Climate Change, Digital Cooperation, Trust & Security
Platform Regulation, Digital Trade, Privacy and Security Standards, Cybersecurity Cooperation
Each of these summits has individual challenges: the Future Tech Forum and Democracy Summit have been organised quickly and are in their first edition, so may struggle to elicit strong commitments from attendees, while the Internet Governance Forum has long been seen as more of a ‘talking shop’ than a decision-making body.
If they work together, however, they can build momentum around a set of key cooperation issues. All three events, for example, point to at least two trends as cause for action:
The rise in alternative, authoritarian internet models
The growing geopolitical impact and power of the global technology industry
These are common concerns across the world and could provide the foundation for a wider cooperation initiative. One challenge to this, as analysis by Carnegie highlights, is the range of attendees at each summit – at the Democracy Summit, for example, while 69% of invitees are rated ‘Free’ by Freedom House, 28% are ‘Partly Free’ and 3% are ‘Not Free’. But if anything this simply underlines the need to move beyond the accept cliché of “cooperation among like-minded democracies” to create space for unconventional actors – who nevertheless share certain interests – to work together.
As set out in TBI’s Model of Internet Internationalism, inviting all states to engage across a wider range of issues, not just a few countries competing over a narrow set, can allow for broader, interest-based coalitions to emerge. In turn, policy levers can be disaggregated into national, regional and international cooperation initiatives – moving beyond simplistic ‘democracies vs authoritarians’ language.
Figure 1 – Illustrative mapping of policy levers, by regional cooperation and impact on the open internet (source: TBI)
Cooperation on supply chains and internet infrastructure rollout, in particular, are issues that can be progressed by a ‘coalition of the willing’ that may contain different values but shares a set of common geopolitical interests. In turn, these initiatives could help shift the competitive terrain for many emerging economies who, at present, are reliant on Chinese supply chains or cheap Chinese infrastructure financing. In effect, guaranteeing security of semiconductor supply, or providing alternative infrastructure solutions, could free up states to vote in standards forums or decision-making bodies according to their own interests, rather than those of a more powerful backer.
Given these issues are firmly in the domain of states, making progress here would demonstrate the value of the Future Tech Forum and Democracy Summit as at least complementary to, if not all-out substitutes for, the Internet Governance Forum. If they can deliver – or at least pave the way – for commitments such as these, then the Open Internet may yet be pulled back from the brink.