With the Global Digital Compact, the UN aims to define shared principles for the security of the digital ecosystem. However, as of now, it does not consider traditional Internet Governance. This could be another step towards the ultimate absorption of control over Big Internet into the domain of institutional soft power by Andrea Monti – Adjunct Professor in Digital Law in the Master’s Degree course in Digital Marketing at the University of Chieti-Pescara – Initially published in Italian by Formiche.net
On August 21, 2023, ICANN, APNIC, and ARIN (three of the most important organisations de factomanaging Internet Governance) publicly denounced their marginalisation, if not outright exclusion, from the Global Digital Compact (GDC), UN’s proposal to define “shared principles for an open, free, and secure digital future,” starting from access networks up to the level of services, platforms, content, and individual behaviours.
What the GDC Means
Beyond the abstract nature of the guiding principles, the concrete implementation of the GDC would require a significant shift of control over the entire digital ecosystem into the hands of States (which have already initiated such a path) and a-national organisations like the UN that can iteratively declare the existence of “rights” and then invoke their observance from member states.
In essence, the GDC would act like a kind of super-treaty that harmonises individual national regulatory approaches. However, the reference to the respect for human rights contained in the GDC’s position paper suggests that this should—or could—also function like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It would, therefore, primarily define an ethical rather than legal boundary. Consequently, this would not only guide the regulatory activity of individual states but would primarily serve to assess their behaviour in order to exercise moralsuasion and justify “interventionist” political decisions. This could include, for example, deciding on connection bans with transport networks of “rogue states,” or redefining data traffic routes to avoid certain geopolitical areas.
Why Internet Governance is Protesting
This scenario is of particular concern to Big Internet, which, as the Russo-Ukrainian conflict has shown, has taken on crucial political and strategic significance.
Consequently, this is the veiled concern emerging from the controversy raised by ICANN, perhaps the time has come when States have come to believe that the governance of Big Internet can no longer be managed, as has hitherto been the case. There may not be room anymore for entities that, invoking their technical nature, claim to be fundamentally detached from any public control, while demanding a voice in states’ decisions or even, one could say, to operate beyond their control.
A case in point involves one such entity which independently refused to “disconnect” Russia from the IP number assignment system, thereby isolating it from the rest of the world, as requested by the Ukrainian government. Another example is the protest against the EU’s decision to fund a “DNS resolver” (a “translator” of numerical sequences into easily understandable internet addresses) for the Union.
Political Control of Big Internet is at the Core of the Protest
Faced with such developments, it’s inevitable to question the basis on which an entity lacking political legitimacy, yet claiming a purely technical role, can make decisions that affect the strategies (military or otherwise) of States and coalitions. It’s also worth questioning their role in questionable decisions made within the remit of powers delegated through international treaties, as is the case with the EU.
This issue is not new, but it has never reached the top of the national and international political agenda. This is partly because a less formal management of the regulatory aspects of Internet Governance has made it more flexible compared to the rigidity caused by its full incorporation into an governmental body. In this context, it’s noteworthy that ICANN has established the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), inviting governmental representatives to participate with the aim of acting as a “bridge” to institutions by providing guidance in areas where “there could be an interaction between ICANN’s activities and policies and national laws or treaties”.
The fact remains that times have changed, and countries are increasingly frustrated with a regime that doesn’t allow them full control over their own telecommunications resources. It’s no coincidence that Russia has also legislated in this regard, and that the EU—beyond creating the aforementioned Union-wide resolver—is pursuing a strategy of data transport independence, investing in submarine cables that will allow for the routing of information over networks of non-hostile countries.
Viewed from this perspective, the dispute between ICANN and the UN reveals a much broader outlook. On one hand, it brings back into focus the theme of multipolarity, which no longer just includes States or the organisations representing them but also industries and grassroots entities whose power has grown over the years beyond what short-sighted institutions could foresee. On the other hand, it clearly highlights how soft power is becoming the preferred tool for managing international relations, especially towards those who control the production and functioning of information technologies.
The UN’s entry into Internet governance (whether de facto or de jure, it matters little) means that decisions in this area can no longer be made solely by the “tech community.” Instead, they will have to “take into account” (i.e., “respect”) the guidelines coming from the General Assembly and—in more serious cases—from the Security Council.
If this analysis is correct, the utopian vision of a truly neutral, borderless, and self-governed Internet is definitively consigned to history. It is replaced by the inclusion of Big Internet into potential arenas for geopolitical dialogue (and conflict).