Strong voices needed for the protection of a free and open internet | DW AKADEMIE | DW | 25.03.2024
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Strong voices needed for the protection of a free and open internet

A free and open internet faces risks from political and economic interests. An urgent call for the global, accessible communication network to counter fragmentation.

At the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) 2023 in Kyoto, the issue of fragmentation was one of eight subtopics and thus prominently featured. What became clear in the discussions is that we must come to terms with the fact that the internet is no longer a neutral technical infrastructure — it never was from the beginning, given its origins in the military domain.

Nowadays, political and economic interests of states and corporations, along with ongoing conflicts, are causative factors for a progressive fragmentation on various levels. It is often not about technically disconnecting entire parts of the network but rather shaping the user experience according to one's political and economic goals. This leads to a splintering of user experience, constraints on freedom of expression, and subsequently, further polarization and new conflicts in the real world.

Artificial intelligence is now a new factor and could, in the worst case, lead to the complete dissolution of a shared user experience through hyper-personalization and synthetic content. Hyper-personalization creates fine-tuned, customized, and targeted experiences through data, analytics, artificial intelligence, and automation. This strategy goes beyond the typical personalization strategies of the recent past.

Therefore, it is more crucial than ever to advocate for a global, open, and freely accessible communication network so that spaces for dialogue remain open, and information can flow freely. This ensures that as humanity, we can continue to have a shared understanding of the world. At this year’s meeting in Kyoto, the Internet Governance Forum, a global multi-stakeholder forum for dialogue on internet governance issues established by the UN Secretary General, demonstrated how challenging this is: After years of discussion, a suitable definition is still being debated, and almost every panel on this topic began with this question.

The proposal presented by the Policy Network Internet Fragmentation is the only viable way forward. The various types of fragmentation must be separately considered to engage in discussions with all stakeholders and then arrive at a solution.

It is important for civil society, especially media representatives and journalists, particularly from the Global South, to participate more actively in this discussion. It was noticeable at the IGF that representatives of major platforms, especially Meta and Google, were almost omnipresent on every important panel. They were thus significantly overrepresented compared to other stakeholders, while representatives of a free press were not visibly present besides Maria Ressa. However, for the media, an unfragmented internet is crucial for survival; restricted information flows due to technical or regulatory fragmentation are tantamount to censorship.

The process towards the Summit for the Future and the Global Digital Compact is promising; the UN has recognized the issue and advocates for an open and freely accessible internet, as emphasized in this year's IGF motto and vision paper "The internet we want." The paper underscored that digital governance is critical for economic, social, and environmental development and is a crucial enabler of sustainable development. It further elaborated on what it means for the internet to be whole and open, universal and inclusive, free-flowing and trustworthy, safe and secure, and rights-respecting. However, it is disheartening that the IGF 2024 is scheduled to take place in Riyadh, the capital of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a country that is at the very bottom of the Freedom House ranking of internet freedom and marked as “not free”. Similarly, it ranks 170th out of 180 countries in Reporters without Borders’ press freedom ranking.

But the process towards the Summit for the Future offers additional opportunities for participation. Civil society and all stakeholders in favor of a free and open internet should seize this opportunity.