Where next for global governance of the online world?

14th March 2024

The United Nations (UN) is currently reviewing the future governance of the Internet and digital technologies through two international consultations on UN processes. These are the WSIS+20 process and the Global Digital Compact process.  

Back in 2005, the UN held the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). This resulted in a UN process (the WSIS process) involving more than 30 UN Agencies, with the intention of building ‘people-centric, inclusive and development-oriented information and knowledge societies’. The UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was set up to be a key part of that process. WSIS was given a 20-year mandate, and the UN has now started a review of WSIS to inform how or indeed if it will continue beyond 2025. This is the WSIS+20 consultation.  

In 2021, the UN proposed developing a Global Digital Compact (GDC), intending to establish a set of shared principles for an ‘open, free and secure digital future for all’. Developing the GDC process has been ongoing since then and will be officially agreed at the Summit of the Future in September 2024. The GDC will set a new framework for how digital technologies are ‘used responsibly and for the benefit of all, outlining shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future’. All UN member states will negotiate and agree on the final version of the GDC at the Summit.  

Whilst governments will lead negotiations on the GDC, co-facilitators have recently sought feedback from the wider stakeholder community through informal consultations on structural elements, which will guide the ‘Zero’ draft of the Compact.  

Nominet has provided feedback as part of these consultations, submitting a response that is aligned with our counterparts at auDA, CIRA and InternetNZ, which are the country code registries for Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The key points we make in our submission are highlighted below: 

The importance of the multistakeholder model and role of the technical community 

Given that the GDC is about facilitating strengthened digital cooperation, we recommended the addition of a principle on fostering and encouraging a multistakeholder approach wherever possible as an effective means of encouraging greater dialogue and collaboration. We also highlighted the crucial role of key stakeholders in the Internet governance sphere. This includes governments, civil society, academia, the private sector and particularly the technical community who develop the standards that underpin the internet, who should be recognised as a distinct stakeholder group. The technical community’s continued input into decision-making about the global operation of the Internet is crucial in ensuring it remains free, open and interoperable. Greater collaboration between policymakers and the technical community can help ensure workability of policy proposals, identify unintended consequences and ultimately deliver better policy outcomes.  

Emphasising the value of the DNS as an enabler of the digital economy 

Our submission positioned the Domain Name System (DNS) as a strong example of a technology which had encouraged innovation, participation and helped unlock the benefits of the digital economy. In alignment with our colleagues at the association of European country code top-level domain (ccTLD) registries, CENTR, we argued that the GDC should take into consideration the importance of essential digital infrastructure, such as the DNS, for the internet’s stability, resilience and security, as well as the success of the multistakeholder model in iterating its technical components over a 40-year period. This has been crucial in achieving the interoperability and common open standards and protocols which keep the Internet free and open.  

Decentralisation as a key element of a free and open Internet 

The GDC framework defines its vision for the internet to be a universal, free, open, interoperable, safe, reliable, and secure space. We encouraged the co-facilitators to also recognise decentralisation as a key attribute, given that this principle allows for a diversity of actors who compete for solutions, strengthening the network’s resilience and preventing a single point of failure. We also highlighted the importance of policymakers not seeking to harmonise beyond the baseline of open standards which make the internet interoperable.  

Setting out a facilitative role for the UN in fostering digital cooperation 

We see the UN playing a facilitative role in bringing together the diverse stakeholders who can deliver the vision for digital cooperation set out in the GDC. For example, the UN could use the GDC as an opportunity to identify which SDGs have proved hardest to deliver and where digital solutions could help boost progress, or where data-sharing could be a meaningful enabler. We also shared our view that the UN should not look to play an active role in shaping global coordination on responsible AI development, but should instead look to support better cohesion at a global level using a multistakeholder approach. 

Building on existing processes rather than creating new ones 

The draft document made available for comment didn’t refer to the WSIS outcome documents. Those provided the first framework for digital cooperation and mobilised a multistakeholder community to consider how digital technologies can contribute to positive societal and developmental outcomes across a range of areas. We encouraged the co-facilitators to consider how they can build on the WSIS implementation, which identifies themes and priorities, tracks progress, encourages the exchange of information, and enables partnerships. 

Additionally, we referenced the IGF as a structure which has provided a successful platform for analysis, information-sharing and collaborative work on digital policy issues, as well as a focal point for bringing together the diverse internet and technical community. We argued for the IGF to be recognised as a useful resource which could help harness diverse, multistakeholder digital expertise to help address global policy challenges. We believe the GDC is an opportunity to recognise and build on the WSIS and IGF processes.  

Next steps 

Nominet will continue to contribute to developing the GDC as and when opportunities arise. Nominet is also engaging with the UK Department for Science, Innovation and Technology to help inform the UK government’s input into the Global Digital Compact alongside other stakeholders from civil society and the technical community.