Open, free, unfragmented: How the UN wants to safeguard our digital infrastructure | #mediadev | DW | 25.03.2024
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Open, free, unfragmented: How the UN wants to safeguard our digital infrastructure

Internet fragmentation debates persists: Last year’s Internet Governance Forum in Kyoto sent a clear message: An unfragmented and open internet is critical for global progress.

Digital governance is critical for economic, social and environmental development, and is a crucial enabler for sustainable development. Preserving “an open, free, globally connected, interoperable, unfragmented, and stable internet” is a prerequisite. This was one key message from the Internet Governance Forum (IGF)in October 2023 in Kyoto, Japan, documented in the “Internet we want”-paper that was released by the IGF leadership panel.

The IGF is a global multi-stakeholder forum for dialogue on internet governance issues, established by the United Nations Secretary General. The IGF 2023 was one important milestone towards reaching the UN’s ambitious goal, a new international framework for digital societies: the Global Digital Compact (GDC). The GDC is expected to outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all. It should ensure that digital technologies are used for the benefit of all, while addressing the digital divide and fostering a safe and inclusive digital environment without fragmentation. The international community is on a journey to reach that goal. It is part of the so-called Pact for the Future, a multilaterally negotiated document to be adopted at the Summit of the Future, a UN conference taking place in New York in September this year. This will be the starting point for a post SDG process. The results from the IGF will feed into the summit.

The 2023 IGF focused on the overarching theme of “The Internet We Want – Empowering All People, „and a vision paperwith the same name was released by the IGF Leadership Panel Chair, Vint Cerf and Vice-Chair Maria Ressa. The paper reiterated the importance of free data flow and a non-fragmented internet. "Avoiding Internet Fragmentation" was also one of eight sub themes at the IGF.

Struggling to find a definition

The Policy Network on Internet Fragmentation (PNIF)was an important actor at the IGF. It released a discussion paper which was debated in a panel. Although all IGF panelists agreed that further fragmentation could mean the end of the open and interoperable internet, it still remains unclear what exactly is meant by this. “Fragmentation is not a clearly defined term and trying to arrive at a definition that can be operationalized is a topic that needs further exploration the PNIF discussion paper states.

This discussion has been going on for years – in fact, there have been warnings of a splinternet or the balkanization of the internet since the very beginning. During the 2015 World Economic Forum (WEF), internet fragmentation was noted as one of the primary concerns facing the future of the internet, due to trends in technological developments, government policies, and commercial practices. A groundbreaking paper by WEF was co-authored by Vint Cerf, one of the inventors of the internet.

In Kyoto, one thing became evidently clear in the discussions: The digital space of the internet and the applications based on it have long since become a political space. It reflects real-world conflicts, and the regulation of the digital space is based on political interests. “Either a government, that for some reason wants to exert sovereignty and modify the experience for their own citizens only, or it's a company - usually the global platforms - that wants to build this kind of ecosystem or Walled Gardens,” said Vittorio Bertola, one of the authors of the PNIF discussion paper.

Defining a framework for the discussion on fragmentation

That is also the reason why this discussion is so difficult to manage. Stakeholders will not easily give up their political and economic goals for a common digital space as long as conflicts persist, and interests differ. For this reason, the PNIF chooses a pragmatic approach. It argues that we should not try to squeeze all aspects into one definition but should treat different types of fragmentation separately in order to come to an agreement.

The PNIF therefore proposes a framework with three parallel lines:

  • fragmentation of the user experience,
  • fragmentation of the internet’s technical layer,
  • fragmentation of internet governance and coordination.

According to the paper, “these work streams work in an open and bottom-up manner to further unpack fragmentation and take a deep dive into identifying, prioritizing, and prevention and addressing identification of which types of fragmentation and related actions pose the highest risks and should be addressed or avoided.” Every chapter also includes a set of concrete recommendations.

Marielza Oliveira from UNESCO emphasized that freedom of expression, access to information and privacy are the rights that are most directly impacted by fragmentation. “Fragmentation imposes barriers that isolate or trap users into an information environment from which they can't really escape,” she said. This could result in polarization which then “spews beyond the internet and into the real world and actually affects even non-internet users.”

Fragmentation from the technical point of view

On another panel, net neutrality was discussed because oftentimes, proposed remedies to social problems involve interventions in the technical infrastructure of the internet. An increasingly common example is content regulation that inadvertently or purposefully targets internet infrastructure providers such as website hosts, cloud services, or domain name registrars. Therefore, the discourse within the technical community revolves around the question of its own neutrality. One IGF participant pointed out: “Despite my unwavering belief in an open, trustworthy, and equitable internet for everyone, safeguarding these principles has inevitably taken on a political aspect. Consequently, avoiding advocacy for the fundamental principles of an open internet seems implausible.” The idea of maintaining apolitical stances of the technical sector appears unrealistic, “given that we lost that footing long ago. Instead, it is crucial for us to actively engage in advocacy to uphold the baseline values of the open internet that we collectively believe in,” the participant concluded.

IGF Message

The message of the IGF 2023 to the Summit for the Future in 2024 is: “The single global internet is widely considered the bedrock of activity that is undertaken on it. The risks and potential impact of a fragmented internet are, however, understood in different ways by different stakeholders in countries that have diverse internet environments. Governments should avoid recourse to internet shutdowns, which impede the free flow of information and threaten human rights and democratic processes, particularly during election periods.” The IGF also highlighted in its messages that “more work needs to be done to strengthen independent journalism, particularly in countries with a high incidence of disinformation. High quality journalism is an effective medium against the impact of disinformation but faces an uncertain future.”