The French Impact on the Internet Governance Forum

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is an annual event that has enabled participants from many different sectors to mobilize or at least maintain a modicum of a global consensus for a free global Internet ever since its inception in 2006. To me, the IGF serves as an excellent example of the kind of multi-stakeholder engagement that I believe needs to be promoted across the “globalizing” world. Although the IGF has gone through a number of “ups” and “downs” over the years, the 13th IGF, which met in Paris from 12 to 14 November 2018, is definitely one of the “ups”.  In fact, the French sponsorship of this latest IGF has stimulated a revived hope for the IGF and its commitment to a globally open and free Internet.

The IGF has been mostly a talk shop to facilitate an exchange of information, with the very useful function of bringing the many different stakeholder groups together in a common setting. It has also been a setting facilitating global support for an open and free Internet without governmental controls, whether national or international. There have been phases when a more policy-oriented role was debated, at least in terms of producing consensus agreements among the stakeholder groups or organizing ongoing multi-stakeholder coalitions – but without actually setting policy per se. It has never been intended to replace the intergovernmental role of actual policy-making, which is of course left to the UN. And that has also meant that the IGF has thrived as a forum FREE of intergovernmental controls.

Background on Multi-stakeholderism in Internet Governance

My interest, both personally and professionally, has always been to encourage multi-stakeholder engagement and collaboration at the global level. It has been my impression that this has lost a certain amount of momentum at the IGF in recent years, with more and more concern about the continuing low or even declining turnout from governments but also from the private sector. One can argue that the belated decision by the French Government to host the 2018 IGF and then spur the IGF in new directions has the potential to reverse this trend. So the phenomenon of a keynote address at this IGF by President Emmanuel Macron with proposals for a major reform of the IGF going forward is my leading observation of why this IGF in Paris was so significant. (Note: I continue to be optimistic about this even as President Macron and his République en Marche are currently facing a domestic political crisis in the hands of the “Gilets Jaunes”.)

The IGF has also been a setting for constructive dialogue and information exchange on evolving Internet issues. The ones that have attracted me in the past are the issues of cybersecurity and privacy. In both respects the dramatic changes in the growth and range of Internet use and services  have been reflected in recent IGF sessions. They are certainly altering my own appreciation of how to enable multistakeholder engagement. Although I still  agree with the basic IGF mission and personally endorse the concept of a globally open Internet, I have also evolved in my own thinking about what needs to be done to protect diverse interests but also individual rights in these areas.

These are issues that can no longer be left to an unregulated global Internet environment. So there is a certain wryness in suggesting that both governmental and intergovernmental policy making are needed to regulate how an open Internet can ensure protection to ensure cybersecurity and individual privacy rights, whether by foreign governments or by business or other non-governmental advocacy groups. And it would seem that the issues of how to develop regulatory regimes for both cybersecurity and privacy are underpinning the momentum that is supporting a transformation in the multi-stakeholder nature of the IGF.

Transforming the Multi-Stakeholder Nature of the Internet Governance Forum

Significantly, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered both an opening plenary speech at the 13th IGF and linked the IGF to a broadened Paris Peace Forum and Paris Data Week. In so doing, he sought to stimulate a new kind of activism to the multi-stakeholder character of the IGF. Proposed changes put forward by President Macron to the output and multi-stakeholder structure of the IGF are striking.

To put this into perspective, the French proposals come at a time when the IGF seemed to be running out of steam. It was clear that last year the IGF met in Geneva because no one else but the Swiss, who had been supporting (and even financing) the IGF from its inception had come through to host it following the annual rotation around the world – Athens, Rio, Bali, Hyderabad, Sharm El Sheikh, Vilnius, Nairobi, Baku, Bali, to less well known sites in Brazil and Mexico before coming for the first time, by default, to Geneva in 2017. The Swiss also did try to orchestrate a more activist outcome for the IGF, proudly issuing a series of “Geneva Messages“. But then, no country was on hand to announce the NEXT IGF following the Geneva Forum last December. It was only in April that France came forward to extend the invitation. This in itself had to be a sign of the limping condition of the IGF.

France, however, really came through. In retrospect, it seems that the French Government made a deliberate decision to escalate the Internet issues as a priority for French leadership globally, to use the IGF as a vehicle for this and then to link it to the broader French strategy for convening the first “Paris Peace Forum” as part of the “post-Armistice 100” celebration and a far-reaching “Digital Week” in Paris.  Skeptics may see this Macron strategy as self-serving and limited in its potential impact, but I personally liked it. Obviously, the Trump disaster in the US might not have a permanent effect on US disengagement from global leadership, but the Macron strategy has the potential to do more than merely filling a void in global leadership. It is, I believe, far more supportive of multi-stakeholder engagement than one might expect even from a progressive American leadership.

President Macron was joined by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in the opening plenary. Both speeches are commendable for their setting a new tone for the IGF.  S-G Guterres spoke about the importance of broadening the multi-sectoral scope of participation to include philosophers, anthropologists and others. He also endorsed the idea of integrating the IGF secretariat into the UN secretariat in New York (rather than where it has been all these past years in Geneva’s Palais des Nations).  President Macron’s message was even more aggressive in stating emphatically that “we need to invent a new multilateralism”. And, he continued, “The Internet Governance Forum needs to reform, to become a body producing tangible proposals.” So both in structure and outcomes, the Macron vision challenged the IGF to do more.

Linking this support to the momentum led by Switzerland in 2017 and to be followed by the conveniently confirmed next host of the 2019 Forum, Germany, Macron expressed his strong support for “all initiatives in this direction”. France under Macron’s leadership and with the assistance of the host country that preceded it – Switzerland – and the host country of the next Forum (Germany) that will meet in Berlin in 2019, “would precisely like to promote this movement of reform”. In the reactions to these alignments among participants at the Paris IGF, one definitely had the idea that this event was a turning point for the future of the IGF.

Risks are still there that broadened governmental engagement in the IGF and in Internet policy generally could lead to more governmental abuse of human rights in and through the Internet, as well as more meddlesome restrictions on the free Internet by an intergovernmental co-opting of global Internet governance. One certainly hears these arguments from progressive technology companies in the private sector who would prefer an oversight function for their evolving codes of social responsibility by malleable NGOs rather than by governmental or intergovernmental policy.

Some private sector representatives are even suggesting that NGOs are in a better position than governments to monitor business compliance with human rights on the Internet. This actually came up in a session at the most recent Business and Human Rights Forum in Geneva on disruptive technologies and due diligence on human rights. (See the programme here.) The session featured big tech companies describing their efforts to develop ethical codes in the design, implementation and monitoring of artificial intelligence and NGOs with a focus on human rights describing how they were critiquing these codes and practices.

My own view is that the potential for conflicts of interest is there for both he private sector and NGOs, and it is only through responsible and participatory public policy that we can ensure compliance with human rights. NGOs can play a useful third-party oversight role for both governments and the private sector, but one should not rely on NGOs for the responsibility of the public sector for upholding human rights. Although one can expect the private sector inputs into the IGF to continue to be against public regulation of the Internet, one can at least hope that they will be inspired rather than further discouraged to express their views in the IGF context.

To return to the French message, President Macron did start his speech by contrasting the “Chinese and Californian” models of closed and open systems and then highlighted the French/European approach to be a rules-based system that protects net neutrality and basic freedoms. He urged the IGF to help articulate this rule-based system. But he also said that this rules-based system needs to be a participatory one, his key point being that:

What we need to do is learn to regulate together, on the basis that all Internet players, including civil societies, private actors, NGOs, intellectuals, journalists and governments, are co-guarantors of this common interest that should drive us precisely to work in cooperation. And it is no coincidence that the notion of “commons” has seen such success in the digital era.

See his full speech here. There is also a “chair’s summary” of IGF13 that highlights the points about French prodding for a more activist IGF and the many Internet issues that are covered each year, including the ones on cybersecurity and privacy that I have been personally following. I do note in passing that the 2018 IGF Key Messages lack the brevity and succinctness of the 2017 batch, but then that may be the price one pays for broadening multi-stakeholder engagement.

I would also add here that my encounter at the Paris IGF with a long-standing friend from AT&T days and IGF activist Marilyn Cade reinforced my appreciation for how such a high-energy cultivator of multi-stakeholder networks is integral to the future survival of the IGF – and other multi-stakeholder settings like it. So it was a combination of fresh inspiration from French leadership and  the ongoing passion for an open Internet from friends like Marilyn that stood out at this particular IGF to give me renewed optimism for the future of the IGF:

Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace

At least one past IGF, the one held in Bali in 2013, was preoccupied by the scandal of revelations about secretive electronic surveillance by governments of officials in other governmental jurisdictions. The concern about cybersecurity gained visibility then and has continued to be a major concern at subsequent IGFs. While the early focus was on finding ways to challenge governmental abuses of surveillance of its own citizens or residents, the issue has taken on far more than the listening in by US snoopers on Angela Merkel’s conversations as Germany’s Chancellor. There is both the growing phenomenon of cyber hacking by criminals but also of the political and commercial manipulation of cyberspace by foreign governments. The Paris IGF, as a reflection of this growing concern, had as its main theme “The Internet of Trust”.

Thus, it is no surprise that the French orchestrated the adoption of the “Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace”.  This appeared to be the main official outcome of the Paris Digital Week, if not the centrepiece of French strategy for the IGF, with an active campaign to recruit signatories to this document. And even though it has absolutely no binding characteristics, it should come as no surprise that the US government did not sign up. Some 70 States did sign up, along with hundreds of companies, NGOs, academics and Internet specialists. Here are the “commitments” in the Paris Call:

  • increase prevention against and resilience to malicious online activity;
  • protect the accessibility and integrity of the Internet;
  • cooperate in order to prevent interference in electoral processes;
  • work together to combat intellectual property violations via the Internet;
  • prevent the proliferation of malicious online programmes and techniques;
  • improve the security of digital products and services as well as everybody’s “cyber hygiene”;
  • clamp down on online mercenary activities and offensive action by non-state actors;
  • work together to strengthen the relevant international standards.

Fair enough. This is a notable accomplishment, and it is likely to be a prod for the UN to reconvene its own efforts on cyber security. The specifically intergovernmental process in this respect, known as the United Nations Group of Government Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security (GGE)., actually hit an impasse some  year and a half ago. This Paris Call might help to revive a renewed effort. But there is also the separate campaign spearheaded by Microsoft for a “Digital Geneva Convention towards an Inclusive Public Private Agreement on Cyberspace”. See more on this proposed convention here.

Whether either the Microsoft initiative or a revived GGE will move things forward for enhanced collaboration on cybersecurity, there is a new High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation convened by the UN Secretary-General to explore enhancement of digital cooperation. Another friend and this time a colleague from Geneva, Jovan Kurbalija, has been seconded from his leadership of the Geneva Internet Platform and as the Founding Director of DiploFoundation to serve as the executive director for this Panel. The Panel has been mandated to report back to the S-G next April, and one can expect a rather busy flurry of events after that, at the UN itself and elsewhere, leading to the German hosting of IGF14 in late November.

As symbolized by this Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, the French message from IGF13 is essentially that the open Internet needs a regulatory framework. The “false dichotomy between freedom and liberty versus regulation” should be set aside. “The real dichotomy,” so goes this argument, “is that the absence of the rule of law is the rule of tyranny”. Moving this impetus for a regulatory framework to protect the open Internet is an inspiration for new multi-stakeholder collaboration “to regulate together”.  Jovan was a bit more cautious, of course, about the mandate of the UN Task Force, with ifs focus on strengthening “international cooperation in the digital space” but without proposing any new structure for this purpose.  But this matter of “regulating together” might well facilitate innovative ways of strengthening what “international cooperation” actually means.

Privacy, Human Rights and Artificial Intelligence

The privacy-related word of choice for me at the Paris IGF was “artificial intelligence”. Last year, at the “IGF12”, it was “big data”. In my reflections on last year’s IGF, the debate on the pros and cons of “big data” had quite an impact on my understanding of the complexity of the issue. Large technology companies like Facebook and Google were engaging in targeting strategies that stimulated many participants to question the reliability of information flows drawn from applications of “big data” and to document threats to privacy and freedom of expression from the application of big data.

This went beyond my initial belief in the tremendous strides for more effective health delivery through the accumulation of information for better health-related data sets and data platforms. In the year since then, the policy debates in global forums like the IGF (but not only at the IGF) are taking on the implications for privacy and human rights of the rapidly expanding application of artificial intelligence to multiple public and private initiatives and products. And it seems that big data is the underlying culprit, both the “fuel” and the “product” of artificial intelligence.

No wonder, then, that artificial intelligence was the focus of the theme at the annual gathering of the Professional Women’s Network that I attended in Lyon earlier in November 2018.  The commentary I wrote (available on this same website under the title “Gender and Digital Literacy”) on that meeting focused on the gender implications of this phenomenon, but there was an underlying anxiety level about how AI was applying questionable algorithms to the building of systems to reinforce biases and discriminatory practices rather than to correct them. And a couple of weeks later, at the annual Business and Human Rights Forum (in this case, the seventh such annual event) the focus on “building on what works” had a session on the disruptive technology of artificial intelligence and its impact on human rights. At this session, the panel debated how the integration of human rights into the design, implementation and monitoring of AI systems meant far more than merely an ethical framework.

It is the progression of the issue of privacy and its interplay with human rights, driven by the complexity, speed and uncertainty of AI as the most significant element of these disruptive technologies that is stirring our awareness of what an “open Internet” means for individual privacy and human rights. These are just personal anecdotes of what seems to be a growing and widespread interest in both the ethical and human rights dimensions of AI. But the concern is legitimate, especially with the speed with which the concentration of economic power has produced near monopolies in so many high-tech areas, each with the integration of AI into its business plan.

Of course, commercial marketing has always included targeting, and the AI platforms can be justified, perhaps, as more sophisticated marketing tools. But the potential for targeted manipulation, heightened distortions of bias and collaboration with authoritarian governments are just some of the ways that this is just different. Facebook, for example did not even exist when the World Summit for the Information Society agreed to establish the IGF back in 2005, and here it is embroiled in unregulated bursts of misuse of personal data, whether intended or unintended. So the pace of transformation has been very, very rapid!

At IGF 13 in Paris, the French leadership was very pronounced on this issue of AI, as it was on cyber security. In this instance, the emphasis among participants at the IGF itself seemed to be on the need to broaden the multi-lateral nature of participation to include philosophers and anthropologists. At the Business and Human Rights Forum, the emphasis was on the participatory role of advocacy groups with a human rights mission in an open dialogue with the tech sector companies. It is certainly a matter of both ethics and human rights. For the French, however, there is an even more concrete initiative under way.

Passing reference was made to this initiative at the IGF, and it set me off on an Internet search (algorithms and all) to learn more about the “Technology for Good” initiative launched by the French in May 2018. Coincidentally, this was also approximately the time of the G7 Summit hosted in Canada, when a separate “Canada-France Statement on Artificial Intelligence” was officially signed by President Macron and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Further investigation reveals that France is carrying forward with hosting the G7 in Biarritz in August 2019, including further work on the proposal shared with the Canadians at the 2018 G7 to establish an “international study group” on AI, modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Well, well, this is certainly a sign of really moving forward on AI!

At the IGF, I was interviewed by an enthusiastic team of journalism students from Elon University asking me what I thought was the most important technology issue facing the Internet. It was serendipitous to meet these journalism students from North Carolina since I had started by own professional career in the same North Carolina town where Elon University is now located. My response to these budding journalists was that all tech issues, including AI, are facing the challenge of applying existing human rights standards to their digital systems and practices. I reaffirmed my belief that there is no need to develop new standards, just apply the existing ones to these new settings.

I may, however, need to modify this position after listening to so many experts from the private sector talking about their new codes for integrating human rights and ethics into their AI work on design, implementation and oversight and how the NGOs are performing a helpful monitoring function. They were not as persuasive as they might have been in years past. An interesting comparison was made, even by one of these advocates of keeping it free and open, that there were no rules of the road when cars first started to replace horse-drawn carriages and bicycles. Obviously, rules were eventually needed, and, even if the rules were adaptations of existing standards for road traffic, it wasn’t the auto manufacturers who adapted them.  (By the way, I recently learned the origin of the French signage “Roulez au pas” which instructs drivers to go slow, as derived from the use of this phrase for people riding horses.  New rules, it seems, can often be based on applications from the past.)

In the same vein, the Council of Europe, for one, has argued that “Issues related to algorithmic governance or regulation are public policy prerogatives and should not be left to private actors alone”. I have also read through an insightful report on Artificial Intelligence, Human Rights and the Freedom of Expression by Professor David Kaye, the Special Rapporteur for the UN Human Rights Council on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The basic message there is that the standards are well established, but the question of HOW to apply them to AI is unfinished work that must be conducted  in the public policy setting even as it also needs to draw on the expertise and voluntary search for solutions in the tech sector. And, of course, in the IGF context of evolving multi-stakeholder engagement, this really needs to be done with an inclusive consultative process at whatever level this takes, whether global or national – or regional, as in the EU.

In conclusion, I look forward to monitoring the IGF next year in Berlin, even as I have responded here to my impressions of French impact on the IGF this year. The Berlin gathering will, to be sure, include responses to the report from the UN Task Force on Digital Cooperation, as well as review of the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyperspace and the French G7 Summit ambition of a digital version of the IPCC.  But the key will always be the people like Jovan Kurbalija and Marilyn Cade and those journalism students from Elon University. I thank them for their activism in support of a multi-stakeholder world.


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