Not only in developing countries but also in the US and EU, calls for stronger regulation of Big Tech are rising. At the precise point when we should be shaping global norms to regulate Big Tech, plans have emerged for an ‘empowered’ global digital governance body that will evidently be dominated by Big Tech. Adding vastly to its already overweening power, this new Body would help Big Tech resist effective regulation, globally and at national levels. Indeed, we face the unbelievable prospect of ‘a Big Tech led body for Global Governance of Big Tech’.
The open letter below can be endorsed by writing an email to email@example.com filling this form before midnight PST (GMT-8) of the 7th of March
The Secretary General, United Nations, New York
Your ‘Roadmap for Digital Cooperation’ rightly recognises that “the world is at a critical inflection point for technology governance, made more urgent by the ongoing pandemic”. We are however concerned that the proposal for a new “strategic and empowered” High Level Multistakeholder Body with substantial digital policies related roles runs directly counter to the outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society(WSIS) and its official follow-up process. It is in any case unacceptable that such an apex policy body will have corporation and government nominees sitting as equals. Worse, the proposed Body will rely largely on private (i.e., corporate) funding, and the main proposal currently on the table for this Body suggests linking gaining a seat on it with providing funding support. This is a new low for the UN, and an unthinkably dangerous direction for the future of global governance.
The WSIS mandated a process of ‘Enhanced Cooperation’ for developing “international public policies pertaining to the Internet” (or global digital policies), and a multistakeholder policy dialogue space, the Internet Governance Forum. While a multistakeholder UN Internet Governance Forum has been functioningsince 2006, the multilateral element of actual policy development, the ‘Enhanced Cooperation’ framework, is yet to come to fruition. However, it remains firmly on the agenda of WSIS follow-up, with the UN General Assembly in December, 2020, noting “the need for continued dialogue and work on the implementation of enhanced cooperation” as envisioned by the WSIS.
The delay in setting up a governments-led UN body/mechanism/framework for digital policies, as mandated by the WSIS, leaves a temporary vacuum into which this proposed High Level Multistakeholder Body seeks to insinuate itself. Yet the mandate is not at all clear for how the official, formal, process for ‘Enhanced Cooperation’ can be superseding (and subverted) by an informal process led by Secretary General’s office (albeit with a slightly changed name of ‘Digital Cooperation’). (See Annex 1 to this document on how this expressly violates mandates from the WSIS and UN GA).
With the IGF working well as a policy dialogue forum, the various functions laid out for the proposed High Level Multistakeholder Body – although often stated in rather roundabout ways – seem designed to make it ‘the’ prime norms setting body for global digital governance, while providing it a private funding base. (See Annex 2 on the obvious policy role of this proposed Body, and its problematic funding model.)
Not just in developing countries but also in the US and EU, calls for stronger regulation of Big Tech are rising.At the precise point when we should be shaping global norms to regulate Big Tech, it is a sheer paradox to see plans emerge for an ‘empowered’ global digital governance body that will clearly be dominated by Big Tech. Adding vastly to its already overweening power, this new Body would help Big Tech resist effective regulation, globally and at national levels. We indeed face the unbelievable prospect of ‘a Big Tech led body for Global Governance of Big Tech’.
A Readers Guide (University of Massachusetts-Boston) describes how the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Redesign Initiative believed that “‘multistakeholder consultations’ on global matters should evolve into ‘multi-stakeholder governance’ arrangements”. “This transformation means that non-state actors would no longer just provide input to decision-makers … but would actually be responsible for making global policy decisions.” The Global Redesign Initiative’s report sought a focus first on “designing multistakeholder structures for the institutions that deal with global problems with an online dimension.” And then: “… as ever more problems come to acquire an online dimension, the multistakeholder institution would become the default in international cooperation.”
The sense of déjà vu in what is now unfolding in front of us is rather eerie. The first step of turning a body for ‘multistakeholder consultations’ (IGF) into one for ‘multi-stakeholder governance’ (the IGF plus, High Level Multistakeholder Body) for the ‘online’ or digital’ dimension, is evidently under way. To be noted also is how the term ‘cooperation’ is deployed in the above WEF ‘plan’ to mean actual policy making, similar to its use in the ‘Digital Cooperation’ initiative and architecture.
We urge the office of the UN Secretary General to immediately withdraw the proposal for a High level Multistakeholder Body for ‘Digital Cooperation’, since it would become the de facto body for ‘global digital governance’. If this proposal is adopted, it will sound the death knell of democratic and multilateral global governance, replacing it with corporate-led governance systems, that (as envisaged by the WEF) will extend more widely with increasing digitalisation of all sectors.
Indeed, such capture of policy forums is already happening across several dimensions of the UN multilateral system. It already exerts a direct impact on people’s lives – as we see now clearly in the pandemic in the case of governance of health, but also in the governance of food, education and environment. Recent developments such as COVAX and Food Systems Summit are examples of movement in this direction, following the model further advanced in the WEF’s latest ‘The Great Re-Set’. The rapidly growing role of big data, AI and digital platforms in all sectors fits well with the move towards, in effect, global self-regulation of Big Tech, and would have the effect of a further lock-in of this approach across all sectors.
As it has been mandated by the WSIS, we further urge the office of the UN Secretary General to dedicate itself to exploring how best a democratic system for global digital governance can be developed, following the WSIS guidelines.
Our specific requests from the office of the Secretary General:
1.The proposal for an ‘empowered and strategic’ High Level Multistakeholder Body for Digital Cooperation should be shelved. We do not see any role or need for it.
2.A clear distinction should be made between what could be Digital Cooperation for assisting UN agencies in deploying digital technologies in programmatic terms, on the one hand, and UN’s core digital policy functions, on the other. With regard to the former, some steps have been proposed inthe Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. We may have varying levels of concerns in relation to some of these steps. However, what we are most concerned about here is the completely unacceptable over-reach of the Digital Cooperation agenda towards substantive policy functions, even if somewhat hidden under various vague terms and descriptions. The Digital Cooperation agenda should be re-worked to be confined, if at all, to programmatic and policy dialogue functions. Any framework or forum set up under it should not in the slightest exceed such functions. This should be fully clarified in all relevant documents and mandates. All the vague and confusing language in this regard should be replaced with clear description of roles and functions, fully excluding any substantive policy roles. We are happy to offer our further suggestions and assistance in this regard.
3.Efforts should be renewed in full earnest to develop a genuinely democratic system for global digital governance, keeping vested corporate interests at bay. The office of the Secretary General should start a new, formal, process of consultation on this issue as per WSIS guidelines. This is especially pertinent now given the dramatically changed public and political opinion on the need for close regulation of Big Tech, and the fact that Big Tech is global and therefore requires a certain level of effective global governance, with appropriate global norms and polices.
Signed1.Just Net Coalition
2.Transnational Institute (TNI)
3.Society for International Development (SID)
4.Tricontinental Centre (CETRI)
6.Focus on the Global South
8.Global Campaign for Education
9.Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN)
11.Association for Proper Internet Governance
12.Agencia Latinoamericana de Información (ALAI)
13.Nexus Research Cooperative
15.Observatory of Linguistic and Cultural Diversity on the Internet16.IT for Change
Annex 1A brief institutional history of WSIS and its follow up in relation to the proposal for a High Level Multistakeholder Body for Digital Cooperation The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), held in two phases in 2013 and 2015, mandated two complementary but distinct policy processes; a multilateral process of ‘Enhanced Cooperation’ for actual policy making, and a multistakeholder Internet Governance Forum (IGF) as a policy dialogue forum.
UN IGF was formed in 2006, and it meets annually. In 2010, the UN General Assembly (GA) set up a Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) Working Group on Improvements to the IGF. Its report was adopted by the UN GA and has been implemented. Significantly, many design elements of the now proposed High Level Multistakeholder Body – involving new kinds of more substantive policy roles for the IGF or IGF associated bodies – were expressly considered by this Working Group and rejected. It is concerning, and unacceptable, how these elements of an ‘empowered IGF plus’, having been rejected by a formal process pursuant to extensive consultations, are re-emerging through the back-door of an informal process driven by the Secretary General’s office.
The other WSIS-mandated ‘complementary’ process of ‘Enhanced Cooperation’, for actual policy making, remained a contested issue. From 2014 to 2018, two successive CSTD Working Groups considered various ways to implement this key WSIS recommendation, but an agreement could not be reached. However, this process of exploring the appropriate architecture for Enhanced Cooperation on global digital policies is not closed. The WSIS + 10 meeting in 2015 called for “continued dialogue and work on the implementation of enhanced cooperation”. This call was repeated by a UN General Assembly resolution in 2020.
As with the Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) of the IGF – and quite likely an extension of it – the new High Level Multistakeholder Body would have corporation and government nominees, in addition to some technical community and civil society members, sit as equals. This is acceptable for the MAG whose role is basically to develop the program for the annual IGF. On the other hand, the proposed new High Level Multistakeholder Body has a clear and central policy role. There is no evident reason otherwise to go beyond the current IGF and MAG structure, which has been performing well as a policy dialogue system, as mandated by the WSIS.
The current proposal appears to be a clear effort to creep from the IGF side to the Enhanced Cooperation side of the WSIS mandate, because it was the Enhanced Cooperation process which was supposed to undertake the policy development role. It is precisely to pre-empt any such mission creep from the ‘policy dialogue’ multistakeholder IGF side to substantive policy space that the UN GA has clearly stated in its post WSIS resolutions that the IGF and Enhanced Cooperation are to be ‘distinct’ i.e. separate processes. There istherefore no scope for an ‘Internet Governance Forum plus model’ or to ‘enhance the Forum’ (both terms from the SG’s Roadmap document), as some kind of a hybrid between the policy dialogue function of the IGF and substantive policy function of the WSIS mandated ‘Enhanced Cooperation’ (which is supposed to be multilateral, but with multistakeholder consultations). The new High Level Multistakeholder Body is evidently trying to become such a hybrid. This is a clear subversion of the architecture laid out by the WSIS and subsequent guidelines from the UN GA.
The High Level Multistakeholder Body for Digital Cooperation is evidently ‘Enhanced Cooperation’ in camouflage, seeking to take over the latter’s digital policy development role. Only that it does not at all qualify for such a role from a WSIS mandate point of view, which laid out directions of what and how of such an Internet/digital policy body in its Tunis Agenda.
Once such a High Level Multistakeholder Body dabbling in substantive policy issues is formed, it will slowly but surely seek to fill up the vacuum left by non-creation of a democratic and multi-lateral body for development of global Internet and digital policies. It will thus come to be at the apex of global digital governance and policy system.